Studying abroad, a mission for peace and prosperity? If you consider that far-fetched, just have a look at the UK. For decades, Britain has been Europe’s undisputed #1 when it comes to recruiting international students. But British students have been notoriously lazy to seek out international experiences themselves.
Who knows, perhaps if previous UK governments had done a better job at motivating them to go abroad, instilling in more people the value of free movement, the Brexit referendum might have gone another way. Of course, some may argue that student exchange programs don't reach those masses that believe any bold claim they see written on the side of a bus. But the value of studying abroad is undisputed.
Looking at the big picture, around 1.6 million students enrolled at EU universities study in another country than their home country. That number is even larger when you look at Greater Europe and include Russia, Turkey and others.
The most popular destinations are, not surprisingly, the UK, France and Germany, each with hundreds of thousands of international students. Finland is small in comparison, with around 30,000 students from abroad -a third via exchange programs, and the rest enrolled in full degrees at Finnish universities.
The University of Helsinki. Image: public domain.
Quality of life and safety
Students that want to go abroad are confronted with an overwhelming and confusing variety of options; among those, Finland has a lot of things going for itself: the high quality of research and teaching, for one. Especially students from OECD nations have high expectations for it -and, oddly, this is because of Finland’s remarkable performance in the PISA study, which was carried out in secondary schools, not universities.
A high quality of life, and a high level of personal safety are other reasons -the latter much valued in particular by students from outside Europe, because feeling unsafe is not a worry you want to have when you’re 10,000 kilometers away from home.
There are sillier reasons, too -or so they may seem at first. The Moomin, heavy metal bands like Nightwish or Lordi, the Angry Birds games and even the Iron Sky movies. Granted, no one ultimately chooses their host country because of a jolly band of pudgy, pale trolls. But they do their share to raise awareness and curiosity about Finland and the Finns among young, prospective students around the globe.
The Finnish heavy metal band Lordi, Eurovision Song Contest winners in 2006. Video by: Eurovision Song Contest.
Educators across Europe are closely following developments in Finland. That’s because, in 2017, Finland introduced tuition fees for international, non-European students -more precisely those who are not EU/EEA citizens or who do not already have a Finnish residence permit.
With fees ranging roughly from around 8,000 to around 20,000 euros per year, Finnish universities are on par with the UK, but still a bargain compared to money-hungry American institutions. At those amounts, though, students expect to be wooed and convinced.
To be in the spotlight and having to market themselves and their qualities may be an unusual role for Finnish universities, as it is for the humble Finns in general.
There is a well known phrase in the Finnish language that says Suomi mainittu, torilla tavataan! -roughly it translates to: “Finland was mentioned, let’s meet in the town square!”. There’s a truth to it; Finnish educators know the convincing quality of what they offer, but actively communicating that message to students in a semi-capitalistic market environment is a different game.
A good job explaining their value
Regarding the tuition fees, there are many reasons for and many reasons against them. For now, they are a reality that non-European students -and universities- have to deal with. The initial impact was surprisingly negligible: in 2017, the number of degree-seeking foreign students dropped by less than 4%, says the Finnish National Agency for Education.
Compare that to when Sweden introduced fees for non-Europeans back in 2011: according to the Swedish higher education authority (UKA), the total number of foreign degree-seeking students dropped by around 30% in the first year and still hasn’t recovered to its 2010 record high.
Back then, however, students scared off by Sweden’s new fees still had many other tuition-free options to consider, a situation that has changed over the past years. But the difference also goes to show that Finnish universities have done a good job explaining their value to prospective students.
Thus, the outlook for Finland’s role in international education is promising. When we look at the user's behaviour on Study.eu, we see continued, even growing interest in Finland as a study destination. And who knows - another Lordi-esque success at the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest in a few weeks might even trigger a new record number of applicants. Torilla tavataan!