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Finland’s international students stumble over residence permit roadblocks

Some students say they have not even been interviewed for permits, but Migri says most get residency in time.

Cameroonian Alma* was looking forward to starting her nursing studies in Kuopio this academic year, but says she is still awaiting a residence permit. File photo. Image: YLE

Twenty-six-year-old Cameroonian Alma* was elated when she got word that she’d been accepted into a bachelor’s degree programme in nursing at the Savonia University of Applied Sciences in Kuopio. Alma had been working as a nurse in Cameroon since she graduated in 2015 and was looking forward to beginning her studies from August this year.

After receiving her acceptance letter in May, she paid her fees in June, purchased the required health insurance and moved quickly to start the process of getting a residence permit to study in Finland.

Yle News followed up Alma's story with her sister Emilia who lives in Helsinki. According to Emilia, after what seemed like a promising start, the process of getting Alma's residence permit has hit a wall. In early June, the family contacted the Finnish embassy in Abuja, the closest Finnish overseas mission serving Cameroon and much of West Africa.

The embassy said it was no longer responsible for collecting visa application documents and other material. That process had been outsourced to VFS Global, a Dubai-based, private multinational firm that manages the administrative tasks related to visa and passport applications as well as identity management for many governments.

When the family reached out to VFS Global in June, it was told that there were no appointment slots available until the end of August. After explaining that Alma needed to be in school by the end of August, they asked for an earlier appointment. This time VFS responded offering an appointment at a later date, at the end of September.

"We sent about three different emails and realised that this is not working. Because each time we sent an email they kept pushing the date forward," Emilia told Yle News.

Emilia then decided to contact the Finnish Foreign Ministry in Helsinki and was directed to call the embassy in Abuja - something she had already done. She then decided to email the Finnish Immigration service, Migri.

"We sent an email to Migri explaining that Alma needed to be in school by the end of September after which she would lose her study place and would not be able to begin her studies this year."

Other students from Africa still on hold

Emilia said that Migri promised to forward the case to the person in charge of the process at VFS Global. After three days, Alma was given a new appointment date, in early July. "It was like a miracle because other students we know of, in Nigeria, Ghana and some in Cameroon are yet to get an appointment slot as we speak."

According to Emilia, on 6 July Alma visited VFS Global in Abuja -- a distance of nearly 900 kilometres from her location in Cameroon -- where she submitted her documentation and fingerprints and received an appointment at the Finnish Embassy in Abuja for 9 July. She attended the interview and returned to Cameroon where she is still awaiting a decision on her residence permit application from Migri.

"The most disturbing thing is that the school has decided that students must arrive at the latest by the end of September. If you’re not in school by the end of September, you can’t take up your studies this year," Emilia pointed out.

"You waste one year of your life. Getting to Nigeria across the border is really risky so the trip to Nigeria was a big stress for us. Putting all the documents together was a big stress and she already bought her health insurance for this year. So if she’s not given a residence permit before the end of this month, all those expenses will be wasted," she added.

She estimated that the family had already forked out around 10,000 euros including the cost of Alma’s first year of tuition -- which included a first-year scholarship covering 75 percent of the cost -- insurance, travel and accommodation in Nigeria, processing fees and fees paid to VFS Global as well as 6,500 euros required as proof of means to sustain herself during the academic year.

Migri: Most student residence permits granted

The Finnish Immigration Service Migri told Yle News that it cannot comment on individual cases, however, it noted that most students do get their residence permits in time to begin their studies.

According to Migri’s website, a total of 4,317 students applied for residence permits between January and the end of July this year. Some 2,406 permits were granted. The vast majority of applicants came from China, Russia, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea, Bangladesh, the USA, India, Nepal, Singapore and Mexico.

Just 21 residence permit applications came from Cameroon between January and the end of July; five were granted, while 16 applicants were denied permits to study in Finland.

Back in March, Yle reported that Finnish universities claimed that foreign students wishing to pursue studies in Finland were being stymied by a slow residence permit process. At the time, Yle interviewed representatives from 18 universities of applied sciences or polytechnics and 8 universities, who felt that it’s hard to attract foreign students with the delays that some students currently experience.

Following a 2015 decision by the Juha Sipilä government to introduce a minimum tuition fee of at least 1,500 euros for non-European students, many universities moved quickly to impose fees and market their study programmes abroad. In 2017 Yle reported that fees ranged from 4,000 to 13,000 euros per term. However generous cash-back and scholarship programmes helped offset the pain of the cost of education for many.

Non-EU international students have become an important money spinner for Finnish tertiary education institutions, since tertiary education for Finnish and EU citizens is free and especially following draconian cuts to education funding by the previous government. A number of Finnish universities and universities of applied sciences have also partnered with private sector Finnish education promotion firm Edunation to attract foreign students to study in Finland. The aim of the collaboration is to enrol 150,000 international students in participating institutions by the year 2020.

*Real name withheld at family’s request

Yle News will discuss what international students can expect when they come to study in Finland on the All Points North podcast on Thursday, 5 September. Guests are Heidi Rättyä of the National Union of University Students in Finland and Leena Turku, a senior officer from the Finnish Immigration Service, Migri.