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Foreign graduates struggle in Finnish labour market

As Finnish policy-makers grapple with the thorny issue of tuition fees for non-EEA students, one study has taken a look at how foreign graduates fare in the Finnish labour market. It found some big obstacles preventing them gaining a foothold.

Opiskelija kirjoittaa muistiinpanoja Turun yliopistossa.
Image: Yle

When Andrew Hallott finished his Tourism Management Masters degree at Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, he started to look around for work. Despite his wealth of experience and quality degree there wasn’t much on offer in Finland. So along with his supervisor Jarmo Ritalahti he started planning a project to examine the issue of graduate employment.

They found that the problem is often overlooked. Just under half of all international students are employed in Finland within a year of graduation. The other half leave with their degrees or remain unemployed—a ‘brain drain’ Finland can ill-afford, if the reported need for 400,000 new immigrants by 2030 are to be believed.

Student organisations say there are currently around 20,000 international students enrolled in degree programmes at Finnish universities, contributing about 170 million euros to the Finnish economy each year. The Ministry of Education wants to increase this to 60,000.

Finding a way to utilise these human resources after graduation is, in Hallott’s view, common sense.

“It’s about using their professional, cultural and academic knowledge to allow Finnish companies to gain competitive advantage in the global economy,” said Hallott at a seminar held on Monday to reveal his main findings.

Companies 'scared of change'

Those findings painted a bleak picture for foreign graduates. Companies interviewed for the project did employ foreigners roughly in proportion to their representation of the capital city region (about ten percent), but there were only a handful of management-level foreigners at any of the firms. Most companies also expected foreigners to start their careers at lower levels than similarly-qualified Finns.

Many of the foreigners were employed in the hospitality and cleaning industries—not the sectors most Masters-level graduates target. None of the companies asked had a strategy for employing international graduates, most advertised only in Finnish and required strong Finnish language skills.

Some firms were worried about having to change the office language to English, or about seeming less Finnish to customers, or about older members of staff feeling ‘scared’ of English-speaking newcomers. Hallott says that these fears could be counter-productive for businesses that are looking to export.

“It’s about Finnish companies understanding that although the language skills of international graduates might not be at the same level as a native Finn, they bring additional skills that might only be found outside of Finland and they can be an important component in the management and running of Finnish businesses with aspirations to expand and export abroad,” suggests Hallott.

Careers services lacking

He also uncovered weaknesses in higher education institutions compared to their international peers. In one case study he looked at Sheffield Hallam University's Business School, a UK institution with a large intake of foreign students.

He found that the careers service there was much more active than at similar Finnish institutions, offering students networking events, careers counselling, tutorials and work placements and employing 20 careers advisors. This is one area Hallott feels Finnish institutions need to improve, particularly when it comes to building professional networks.

“International students arrive in Finland with large professional networks in their home countries but here they have to start again,” says Hallott.

Networking key

At the seminar on Monday there was some exasperation from the assembled graduates as they gathered around the sandwiches, cakes and mulled wine.

“I went to the Employment office when I lost my job,” says Anastasia Manner, a Russian who moved to Finland for love but now has a tourism degree from Espoo's Laurea University of Applied Sciences, fluent Finnish skills and experience in two jobs.

“They showed me the online job search portal, told me I had great qualifications and was sure to find a job, and that was it,” she says.

Networking is the key, and Finland—as a small country on the edge of Europe—is not at the centre of global networks. As the country considers introducing tuition fees for students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), it’s worth asking how many students will still come here when they have to pay.

Rashid Mohammad, a Bangladeshi business student, is fairly sure he wouldn’t.

“I would have thought about other countries, especially Australia,” says Rashid.

If tuition fees do reduce the number of foreign students, then keeping them in Finland will be even more important. Andrew Hallott's full report, 'Employability of International masters students in Finland', will be published in January.

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