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Tuition fees not dampening foreign students' enthusiasm for Finland

Tuition fees at Finnish universities led to a temporary dip in foreign applicants in 2017, reports Statistics Finland.

Students at Helsinki University library. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

More prospective foreign students applied for university in Finland in 2018 than during the last year higher education in the country was free. Since 2016, Finnish universities have been able to charge tuition fees from students arriving from outside the EU or European Economic Area.

In 2017, Finland was home to some 20,000 foreign students, a drop of around 1,000 over the previous year.

“The dip was, however, not as drastic as we had anticipated,” Birgitta Vuorinen, director of the Education Ministry’s Division for Higher Education Policy, told Finnish News Agency STT.

The number of people aspiring to earn a degree in Finland is growing, according to the Finnish Immigration Service Migri and the Department of Education. The universities of Helsinki and Eastern Finland said they have both seen more applicants for their fee-based programmes than they did during the last year they offered free tuition.

Paying for top programmes

Finnish universities have found that foreign students are willing to pay for the programmes of their dreams. At the University of Eastern Finland, foreign students make up 40 percent of Master’s graduates in the field of natural sciences.

Susanna Niinistö-Sivuranta, development director at the University of Helsinki, said instituting tuition fees has led to the school drawing a more globally diverse pool of applicants.

“We are now seeing more applicants from the United States,” she added.

Vuorinen said she believed Finland’s quality of education and Finnish society in general are attractive for foreign students. “Finnish education is of high quality, tuition fees are modest and scholarships are available.”

Annual tuition fees in Finland range from 8,000-15,000 euros at the University of Eastern Finland to 13,000-18,000 euros at Helsinki University.

“In reality, grants cover a part of these costs. Only a small number of students pay full tuition fees,” Harri Siiskonen, academic rector of the University of Eastern Finland, said. “But we’re heading in a direction of rising fees and fewer scholarships.”

Worklife roadblock

Some 5,000 foreign graduates leave Finnish universities every year.

“This is quite large pool of specialists looking to join the labour force. One reason they come here is because they want to work in Finland,” Vuorinen explained.

Helsinki University said it’s well aware that many of its graduating foreigners encounter obstacles when trying to land a job in Finland.

“Things like a lack of networks, little experience interviewing for jobs in Finland as well as limited language skills are problematic,” Niinistö-Sivuranta explained.

At the ministry, Vuorinen said she agreed that foreign students face a slow and challenging journey when it comes to integrating into the Finnish job market. To that end, she pointed out that government agencies have launched Talent Boost (siirryt toiseen palveluun), a cross-administrative programme designed to attract and retain international talent in Finland.

Siiskonen said universities should also do more to help their foreign graduates.

"We have to work with municipalities, public and private employers to help our Master’s students make the right connections,” he said.