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Unions object to ‘contradictory’ non-EU student fee hike




Finland’s four-party coalition government is investigating ways to tighten immigration policies and introduce full-cost tuition fees for non-European international students in a set of moves perceived by critics to contradict earlier commitments to growing the number of international students in order to attract high-level skills in service of the national workforce.

The proposals form part of the 245-page government programme titled A Strong and Committed Finland developed by the coalition government of Prime Minister Petteri Orpo formed following elections in April. After securing 20.5% of the votes in parliament, seven out of 19 ministers in the government represent right-wing populist party The Finns.

Working group

The introduction of full-cost tuition fees and application fees, which will require new legislation and detailed regulations, is the focus of a working group appointed by the Ministry of Education and Culture (OKM) on 22 August.

The working group is also expected to look into proposed legislation to prevent the “circumvention of tuition fees” through the acquisition by students of a residence permit for employment after the start of their studies. Currently, people residing in Finland with permanent residence permits, other than students’ residence permits, do not have to pay tuition fees.

To offset the potentially negative impacts of raising fees for foreign students, the working group is tasked to consider the creation of a national scholarship system aimed at creating “more incentives” to increase the number of international higher education students and encourage them to join the workforce after graduation.

Tuition fees for non-European Union (EU)-European Economic Area (EEA) international students were implemented in 2017. The latest proposal that they pay full-cost fees will result in a significant increase in the cost of study.

Expert group findings

The government’s plan and the mandate of the working group has been bolstered by the findings of a 15-member expert group of stakeholders in Finnish higher education led by Birgitta Vuorinen at the OKM which found in 2022 that the introduction of tuition fees in Finland from 2017 to 2021 had not had a significant halting impact upon internationalisation.

In a press release the ministry said the expert group found that in 2020 the number and ratio of foreign students from among EU and EEA citizens had increased but non-EU students were still a majority.

“Nevertheless, non-EU [and] EEA citizens still constitute a clear majority among new foreign students in Finnish higher education institutions. In 2020, 36% of all foreign students were students liable to pay tuition fees. Since 2017, the provision of foreign-language degrees has increased in higher education institutions, international student recruitment and marketing have become systematic, and application and admissions systems have evolved to cater to international needs,” the statement noted.

What the working group also found, however, was that the implementation of the tuition fee demanded time and effort from academic staff and administrators, particularly because of the number of tuition fee waving grants, and that net profit for universities was limited.

“The tuition fee sums charged by higher education institutions varied between €4,000 [US$4,300] and €18,000. The most common single fees were €6,000 and €8,000 for universities of applied sciences and €8,000, €10,000 and €12,000 for universities. Higher education institutions use a broad range of grant and scholarship systems.

“Different categories and types of grants and scholarships are also used within the higher education institutions. Typically, the grants and scholarships consist of exemptions of different amounts from tuition fees,” the statement notes.

It goes on to say that with an increase in the number of students liable for payment, the financial return on tuition fees that higher education institutions received also grew.

“The higher education institutions reported that they had collected some €42 million in tuition fees in 2019-2020. However, the higher education institutions use a significant proportion of the potential return from tuition fees for student grants and scholarships. After subtracting the grants and scholarships, higher education institutions received approximately €14 million in revenue from tuition fees,” the statement says.

Resistance to full-cost fees

When the rumours that the government proposed to introduce full-cost tuition fees broke in early June, nine academic-related unions issued a joint statement opposing it.

They included the National Union of University Students in Finland (SYL – 140,000 members), National Union of Students in Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences (SAMOK – 150,000 members), the Finnish Confederation of Professionals (STTK – 430,000 members), Social Science Professionals (YKA – 13,000 members), Trade Union Pro (120,000 members), Students of Business and Technology (14,000 members), Akava students and Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT – 7,000 members) and The Union of Professionals in Natural, Environmental and Forestry Sciences (Loimu).

In the statement, they took issue with the OKM’s own estimation that the proposal would result in a drop of 43% in the number of students from outside the EU and EEA.

“We are very disappointed with the Ministry’s proposal and consider it a disaster in terms of Finland’s long-term plans to make higher education in the country more international,” read the statement.

The unions described the ministry’s proposal as being “in stark contrast” with the policy for sustainable growth in higher education and the Roadmap for Education-based and Work-based Immigration 2035.

“The Ministry of Education and Culture’s proposal is based on no longer providing any government funding for those who must pay tuition fees; this would result in €83.072 million being made available for the education of Finnish students.

“The grounds for the proposal basically pit the funding of Finnish students’ starting places against making Finland’s higher education more international. This is a short-sighted policy in terms of both raising the education level and improving government finances,” the statement notes.

“It is strange that the Ministry of Education and Culture stresses that no longer funding foreign students should lead to a larger workforce, although it also stresses in its sustainable programme for higher education that without net immigration, Finland’s population will decrease by 150,000 by 2030.”

Immigration policy

Other unions have also noted the impact of changes to immigration requirements on the ability of the country to attract high-level skills from outside Europe.

The current government proposal devotes 10 pages to addressing immigration and residence permit issues that also will affect international academic staff and students. In terms of the new proposals a residence permit will be rescinded if an individual does not find work after three months of unemployment and those with a student-based residence permit will not be allowed to rely on Finnish income support.

Obtaining a permanent residence will require a minimum of eight years of residence, a language proficiency test, a two-year work history without long-term unemployment and an impeccable behaviour record while in Finland, along with an income requirement and mandatory civics and language tests.

Aaro Riitakorpi, public affairs manager of Loimu, a multidisciplinary union of professionals in natural, environmental and forestry science, said in a statement the government’s tight policy on immigration sends a message that “foreigners are not welcome” in Finland.

“This is a totally wrong message, especially when the population is getting older and labour shortage is increasing. The number of international professionals has grown steadily among Loimu’s members and in the fields of natural, environmental and forestry sciences. Now the future looks very worrying. Finland should open up to the world and not close its doors!” he said.

“The move towards implementing full-cost tuition fees for non-EU and non-EEA students, that is, substantially increasing them, is in stark contrast with the objective [of having more international experts coming to Finland], even though the government says it is considering the creation of a national scholarship system.”

Miika Sahamies, senior specialist at Akava, the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland, told University World News that incentives to stay in Finland should be created for those who come to study.

“The government is clearly tightening its immigration policy by increasing immigrants’ own responsibility for integration and by introducing obligations into the system. The conditions for obtaining a work-based residence permit will be tightened and additional requirements will be imposed for obtaining a permanent residence permit and citizenship. Humanitarian migration will also be subject to significantly stricter conditions,” said Sahamies.

Sahamies added that the overarching goal seemed to be to have “different social security and benefit systems for immigrants and those residing permanently in Finland”, taking into account the constraints of the constitution.

“It remains to be seen what the government’s so-called ‘backstop’ for all these immigration policy objectives means in practice. According to the government programme, in migration policy, Finland will comply with human rights and other international treaties, its obligations under EU legislation and the rule of law”, Sahamies said.

Sahamies emphasised that Akava supports a significant increase in immigration with equal treatment and non-discrimination of all people.

Broader goals at stake

Adel Rizvi, is board member of SAMOK, the organisation for students at the universities of applied sciences in Finland and their spokesman on international issues, told University World News the impact of the OMK policy change went beyond educational institutions to touch on “the broader goals of internationalisation, population demographics, and economic development” in Finland.

“This proposed 43% reduction in the number of international students directly contradicts not only OKM’s own goals but also the broader demographic needs of Finnish society. Students are valuable assets, and countries are already competing for their skills. Finland requires these talents to address skill shortages, rectify sustainability deficits, and strengthen public finances,” said Rizvi.

Antti Palola, CEO of the Finnish Confederation of Professionals (STTK), said his union considers the Finnish government’s decision to raise tuition fees for non-European students will cause a significant fall in the number of students coming from countries outside Europe.

“We fear that rising tuition fees will weaken Finland’s attractiveness and interest among international students. This, in turn, could affect negatively the availability of a skilled workforce in the future,” he said.

He noted that raising the tuition fees for students outside Europe was a “short-sighted decision” aimed at improving government finances but which overlooked Finland’s interest in the long run.

“It should also be noted that the labour market organisations (not trade union confederations nor employer’s organisations) are not members in the working group [looking into how to] raise the tuition fees and are not participating in the work of the working group,” he said.

Paradigm shift

Higher education stakeholders have expressed concern about a paradigm shift in Finnish politics and society.

The Council of Rectors of Finnish Universities (UNIFI) chair Professor Jukka Kola said: ”Tightening policies on immigration, and work and residence permits, would lead Finnish society in a direction that undermines our efforts – and the efforts of many other actors such as Finnish businesses – to attract and bring more international students, researchers and skilled people to Finland.

The [proposed] policies of the government will make Finland less attractive for international businesses and investments to Finland and therefore hinder the objective of raising Finland’s R&D activities to 4% of gross domestic product by 2030.”

In a similar vein, director of administration at the University of Helsinki Esa Hämäläinen referred to a “change of paradigm underway” that he said was evident in a shift away from a strong earlier commitment to tuition-free education for all.

“Finnish universities are worried about the government’s plans to raise tuition fees for non-EU students”. He said the minimum fee of 1.500 is expected to rise considerably.

“At the University of Helsinki, we may only need to do slight modifications to our pricing policy. As an internationally renowned research-intensive university, our fees have been set to reflect the international market from the very beginning,” he said.

Hämäläinen also noted a contradiction in the government’s proposal.

“The government recognises the need for a skilled workforce. Yet the politicians plan to tighten the national immigration policy. This is quite contradictory, and we have expressed our wish that students and researchers are excluded from any new restriction. We are an international and inclusive community, and these national plans are deeply troubling. Overall, we would want to see a much more positive immigration policy,” he said.

André Bryntesson, research coordinator and research assistant based at the Swedish Centre for Studies of the Internationalisation of Higher Education at Uppsala University, said given that Finland has actively worked on making it attractive and easy to stay in Finland after graduation, as well as the existing and potentially increased scholarships offered, “the approach seems to be rather balanced and gradual”.

However, he said he hoped that “proper measures are put in place to enable low-income individuals from non-EU/EEA-countries to study in Finland too, such as moderate or adjusted application fees and some scholarships that cover both tuition fees and living costs.

“The latter would be good also in the competition for top-performing students, who may already have been offered generous scholarships from competing countries/institutions.”

Minna-Maaria Hiekkataipale, vice-rector for education of the JAMK University of Applied Sciences told University World News that while the institution was not involved in the Supporting Immigrants in Higher Education in Finland (SIMHE) programme, which, with support from government, facilitates migrants’ access to higher education, completion of degrees and employment in the Finnish labour market, it did have “activities in the area, and we cooperate with SIMHE universities”.

She said the university aims to sustain its current student mobility levels (around 300 per year).

“We are quite well prepared for changes in the higher education funding system, yet it is still slightly unclear what will happen in the full-cost coverage issue. This change may mean rising tuition fees and fewer scholarships, but this remains to be seen. Universities of applied sciences will most likely have some discussion about the tuition fee levels together,” she said.

Accusations of racism

Resistance to proposals around non-European students is compounded by perceptions in some quarters that racism is becoming normalised in Finland. News outlets in Finland have reported that since Orpo’s government came into office on 20 June, it has been beset by a series of racism and far-right scandals.

The controversies have mostly revolved around the past activities and writings of Finns Party MPs, all of whom have taken on ministerial positions within the Orpo administration.

On Sunday, 2 September, Yle reported that 10,000 people took to the streets of Helsinki protesting against increased racism in Finland.

Universities Finland (UNIFI) issued a press release in which it rejected discrimination and racism.

“Universities do not accept discrimination or racism in any form,” it said.

“Universities openly recognise that they are part of structural racism. According to a recent study, it is more difficult for ethnic minorities in Finnish higher education institutions to advance their career than for the majority population. Additionally, members of teaching and research staff belonging to ethnic minorities experience discrimination and non-inclusiveness in the work culture.

“Universities must work more decisively to ensure that all students and staff feel welcome in the university community and that it is easy to come and study or work in Finland,” it said.

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