Racism? In Finnish universities?

Earlier this year, the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle reported on students’ experiences of racism in Finnish universities. For many in the academic community, this came as a surprise. For some, unfortunately, this was just stating the obvious. A good example illustrating the situation is Students of Colour, SOCO, a newly established student club at the University of Helsinki. SOCO seeks to serve as an empowering community for students who represent an ethnic or visible minority.

Marina Cafaro and I interviewed students who have moved to Finland a long time ago and are now studying in the University of Eastern Finland’s Finnish-language degree programmes. We learned that their experiences are similar to those of students in Helsinki. When it comes to experiences of outsiderness, othering or racism, our interview material shows that the university is “a lesser evil” than for example comprehensive school and especially lower secondary school which, according to recent studies, are environments where racism most frequently occurs in Finland.

Many of our interviewees believed that once they start studying at the university, they would no longer have to deal with looks reminding them that they stand out,  never-ending questions about where they are from, let alone questions about how someone like them can study at the university or have a Finnish name. In the light of these wishes, actions that are sometimes well-intended, such as starting a conversation in English or assuming that someone is an exchange student, remind these students of them being different, not being Finnish, and being in the “wrong place” – especially when this happens over and over again. These experiences also seem to be linked to the fact that many of our interviewees are considering moving abroad after they graduate.

The need to move abroad and difficulties in finding a job in Finland have also been highlighted by international students. These are also challenges that have been identified in the strategies of higher education institutions operating in eastern Finland.  In the spirit of the Anti-Racism Week this week, I hope that all members of our academic community who have experienced othering or racism, would be seen and heard in this work. Diversity, both cultural and other, will increase within Finnish universities in the future.

Anne-Mari SoutoAnne-Mari Souto

Senior Lecturer, career counselling and guidance