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Finland introduces university tuition fees for non-EU students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Finnish Parliament has passed new regulations to introduce tuition fees for non-European Union students
  • The new fee policy came into force on 1 January 2016 but under the regulations non-EU fees are not mandatory until 1 August 2017
  • Institutions will have discretion in setting tuition levels but the government has established a minimum fee of €1,500 per year

It has been a running “will they or won’t they” question for some time, but the Finnish Parliament has now imposed tuition fees for non-European Union students studying at higher education institutions in Finland.

In the end, the tuition proposals received the unanimous backing of all three parties in the country’s coalition government. The new legislation came into force on 1 January 2016, meaning that Finnish universities are effectively permitted to charge non-EU tuition fees as of now. However, under the new regulations such fees are not mandatory until 1 August 2017, and it remains an open question as to whether any institutions will introduce fees in advance of that date.

Finnish institutions will now have discretion in setting fees “in such a way that the payments support the school’s internationalisation strategy.” However, the government has established a minimum fee of €1,500 per year (US$1,634) for non-EU students.

Some institutions may of course move to introduce fees before August 2017, but leaving that possibility aside for the moment, here are what we understand to be the practical effects of the new legislation.

  • Non-EU students beginning undergraduate or master’s studies in Finland after 1 August 2017, can expect to pay tuition fees of at least €1,500 per year. Actual tuition rates will vary by institution.
  • Study in Finland has indicated that students who begin their studies before 1 August 2017 will be exempt from fees, but this point may be subject to further clarification (if, for example, any institutions move to introduce fees earlier).
  • Fees will not apply to non-EU students enrolled in doctoral programmes.
  • Nor will non-EU fees apply to students of degree programmes taught in either Finnish or Swedish.
  • Any new fees for non-EU students will have to be accommodated on top of the comparatively high costs of living for foreign students in Finland. Current Eurostat analysis ranks Finland as the fifth most expensive member state in the European Union, on par with the UK but less expensive than its Scandinavian neighbours of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

“The goal of the government proposal is to both advance these institutions’ opportunities for education export and also expand their funding base,” adds an official statement from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture. “The introduction of tuition fees puts greater emphasis on educational quality as a competitive factor.”

Official government statistics indicate that there were a total of 19,880 foreign students enrolled in degree programmes at Finnish universities and polytechnics in 2014, accounting for just under 7% of all enrolment in Finnish higher education that year. Nearly eight in ten of those students (77% or 15,330 in total) were from outside the EU.

“Foreign students studying in polytechnics are primarily engaged in polytechnic degree programmes taught in a language other than Finnish with a target duration of 3.5 to four years,” says the Ministry of Education and Culture. “Foreign students studying in universities are mostly studying in master’s programmes with a target duration of two years.”

Look away to Sweden

The Finnish government certainly appears to see the introduction of fees as a trigger for further competitiveness and export development in the country’s higher education sector. Education and Culture Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen recently told the Finland Times that lack of tuition fees has so far been the biggest obstacle to promoting education export.

In a further nod to competitiveness, the new regulations also require that Finnish universities establish a scholarship system through which the studies of non-EU students can be partially supported. The Finnish government has also indicated its intention to introduce additional (as yet unspecified) incentives to encourage fee-paying students to remain in Finland.

In both of these respects, the government may again be considering the close-to-hand example of Sweden. Indeed, the Swedish experience – Sweden introduced fees for non-EU students in 2011 and promptly saw its foreign student numbers fall off a cliff – has figured prominently in the debate over non-EU fees within Finland.

However, a combination of strengthened marketing and recruitment activities, expanded scholarship programmes, and increased work rights for foreign students has led to a rebuilding of foreign enrolment in Sweden over the last four years. In fact, the fall 2014 intake saw the first increase in total incoming students to Sweden since the introduction of foreign student fees in 2011.

The austerity budget

Sweden’s recovery reflects in part the willingness of both government and institutions to invest in internationalisation. The prospects for comparable investments in Finland, however, may be dampened by some severe budget cuts planned for the country’s higher education institutions.

Despite fierce opposition from the higher education sector and student groups, the government is proceeding with plans to cut €500 million (US$545 million) in post-secondary funding during its current term (that is, through 2019). This follows earlier cuts of €200 million imposed by the previous government.

In addition, the current administration has also moved to freeze the university index for its entire term, a mechanism that otherwise guarantees year-over-year growth in funding based on inflation. This effectively reduces university funding in relation to inflationary increases in ongoing operating costs through 2019.

The Ministry of Education and Culture has indicated that the introduction of tuition fees for non-EU students will have no effect on the amount of government funding allocated to higher education institutions. Rather, “The earnings accruing from the fees would remain with the schools as additional funding for the development of educational quality and support services.”

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