Ossi Lindqvist, Emeritus Rector of the University of Kuopio, which was a predecessor of UEF, actively follows international higher education policy and kindly sends us current Rectors topical articles with an endnote saying “just so you know, Ossi L.”. A couple of weeks ago, he mailed us Manolo Abella’s article Global Competition for Brains and Talent (Journal of International Affairs 2015), which looks into the development of the international higher education market. According to the article, there were a total of 5.2 million international students in the world in 2014, which is close to that of Finland’s entire population. By 2025, the number of international students is estimated to grow to 8 million globally. In other words, the international higher education market is big and growing fast. The attitudes towards international students are positive in most OECD countries, as manifested by student-friendly immigration and post-graduation work permit policies. A driving force behind this is the countries’ desire to attract young, talented and skilled workforce to promote welfare and to take care of the ageing population, among other things.
So, how are the Finnish universities doing in the international higher education market? According to the statistics of University Admissions Finland, 20,000 foreign students are enrolled in the universities’ international Master’s degree programmes. This means that Finland’s share of the international degree-seeking student population is less than 0.4%.
Moreover, it’s good to note that the largest group applying for admission to Master’s degree programmes taught in English here in Finland are Finns. The next largest groups are Pakistani, Nigerian, Chinese and Ghanaian students. The number of international students is quite modest, but even more modest is our ability to offer opportunities for employment after graduation.
But what’s the situation with international student numbers here at UEF? Currently, we offer 32 Master’s degree programmes taught in English with approximately 1,150 international students enrolled in them. Around 130 of these students are Russian and 76 come from China. When looking at the EU countries, the majority of students hail from Germany. To sum up: UEF’s share of international degree students is less than 6% and, considering our size, we are below the average among Finnish universities.
In many countries, international students constitute an established and significant source of income for universities. Paying tuition fees is something I, too, am familiar with, as my own daughters ended up studying abroad – one in Australia and the other in the UK. Admittedly, this was felt in the wallet, but the fact that Anna and Noora were pleased with their universities considerably eased my pain.
So far, studying in Finland has been free of charge for everyone. In the near future, however, tuition fees will be imposed on non-EU and non-EEA students, and this has sparked a lively debate with arguments for and against. Most of the comparisons have focused on experiences from the other Nordic Countries – and for a good reason, as tuition fees were adopted in the other Nordic Countries a couple of years ago, and this makes for example Sweden a good point of comparison.
Sweden imposed tuition fees on non-EU and non-EEA students in 2011. There, too, the decision to adopt tuition fees is linked to cuts in the universities’ basic funding from the government. According to University World News, Sweden experienced a drop of 80% in student numbers, and this is something that is often brought up here in Finland as well. In the academic year 2014-2015, however, the student numbers took a significant turn for the better. When looking at the situation in Sweden, it’s good to note that half of students who pay tuition fees study in four universities (Lund, KTH, Chalmers and Uppsala), and the other half in the remaining 25 universities and other tertiary institutions. The range of tuition fees in Sweden is between 8,000 and 15,000 euros per year. Maintaining the diversity of the student body is seen as one of the biggest challenges, as studying will no longer be financially possible for everyone.
UEF’s vision of the future is to be an internationally attractive university. Keeping this in mind, we need to step up in attracting international experts, including international students. However, increasing the number of international students while adopting tuition fees is challenging, and wise decisions are needed.
The point of departure is that all Master’s degree programmes taught in English are of a high standard and provide students with specific skills needed in working life. This brings back a lively memory from when I was teaching in the US. There, lectures used to continue with a discussion that went on for as long as it took for things to be understood. Usually the initiative came from students, but it was equally inspiring for the teacher as well. Their reasoning was: “I need this knowledge in exchange for my tuition fee.”
UEF’s international Master’s degree programmes are currently under review. The objective is to ensure that they are sufficiently large and unique. In Finland, there is no point in creating programmes that compete with one another. In addition, our programmes need to support our strategy. I have a feeling that UEF will have 15-20 strong programmes that are appealing to international students. In today’s economic reality, there is no point in thinking about these programmes as separate entities; instead they should rather be seen as a supplementary intake to the university’s Master’s level education. This is how programmes at our Faculty of Science and Forestry, for example, are working already.
And finally, I get to the issue that sparks many emotions: tuition fees. In fact, I’m returning to what I started this post with. First of all, the global market for international students is growing rapidly. Second, we need young and talented people here in Finland to ensure our competitiveness and support our ageing population. Third, Finnish academic education is of a high level and internationally competitive. These are the points that should be taken into consideration when thinking about tuition fees to be imposed on non-EU/EEA students – a profitability aspect. A scholarship scheme may be in place in specific cases, and the logic will be the same as for Finnish students: After graduation, the skills obtained are put to use for the benefit of the country and society. In the name of safeguarding equal opportunities for studying, could for example development cooperation funds be used to financially support students selected from developing countries? When it comes to development cooperation that is rooted in education, Finland has been a source of many success stories ever since the 1980s.