Disrupted classes, a dire shortage of jobs and an uncertain future — students in Finland are grappling with the debilitating effects of the pandemic on their lives.
Some of the worst-hit are international students struggling to sustain themselves on a tight budget. Summer and part-time jobs are often crucial to help cover expenses, but such opportunities have largely disappeared this year.
"I have been laid off from my cleaning job in March. I couldn’t afford to pay my rent for the month, fortunately, the student housing board said I can delay payments by a month or two. Most jobs I applied for expect me to know Finnish," Mohammad Hasan from Bangladesh, a student in the Master´s Degree Programme in Education and Learning at the University of Turku.
Left with no other option, Hasan said he has applied for a pea-picking job at a farm, 16 kilometres from Turku. Seasonal farm workers often end up making long commutes and doing hours of back-breaking work for low wages.
According to the Finnish National Agency for Education, as of 2017, there were over 20,000 foreign students studying a complete degree course in Finland, 75 percent of them from non-EU/EEA countries.
While Finnish students get grants, housing allowance and government-backed loans, these so-called "third country" students have to fund their living costs and shell out hefty tuition fees.
"It is going to be a tough summer"
The uncertain situation is taking a toll on all students, according to a Helsinki University student union (HYY) survey which found 28 percent of students said they feared their subsistence— study grant and general housing allowance and loans — will be in danger. Around 16 percent said their finances have already been threatened.
"This is a serious situation for a lot of students. Financial support from Kela is not always enough and many count on the summer jobs which are not available anymore. While some students have moved back to their parents’ homes, many cannot as they still have to pay rents. It is surely going to be a tough summer for students," HYY specialist Tiia Niemi said.
Niemi admitted that the situation could be particularly harsh on international students.
"Unfortunately, since international students don’t receive any benefits or aid from Kela and have to pay tuition here, they have to rely on their savings."
Byzantine benefit system
Foreign students approaching the byzantine Finnish benefit system may be entitled to help, but accessing it is not easy. There are three main unemployment benefits in Finland: labour market subsidy, income-linked unemployment benefit, and basic unemployment benefit.
To get labour market subsidy or earnings-related unemployment benefits (siirryt toiseen palveluun), you need to be permanently resident in Finland for work. Most students fail this test, but they may be entitled to basic unemployment benefits after Kela announced a temporary relief measure in May that allows students who have been laid off to receive unemployment benefits.
But there's a catch: they have to have worked at least 18 hours a week for six months. (siirryt toiseen palveluun)
"I probably worked 15-16 hours a week," said Hasan, who moved to Finland in September 2019.
There is one last resort in the form of income support payments or 'basic social assistance (siirryt toiseen palveluun)', which could be available to students who don't get housing benefits or unemployment benefits, but the criteria to access those payments are unclear.
A group of students even reached out to Kela hoping to apply for the social assistance but to no avail.
"The Kela officers weren’t sure if we were eligible for financial aid. Many of us have lost summer job offers due to the pandemic and cannot travel to big cities where there are possibly more jobs for English speakers," Niharika Anand, a student of Information Technology at South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences XAMK said.
Kela authorities said they take factors like the nature and length of the applicant’s stay and possible family ties into account before making a decision on granting aid.
"Students are at least entitled to necessary emergency social assistance (e.g. food and necessary medicines). There isn't any record of foreign students applying for social assistance during this coronavirus period," Kela benefits manager Marja-Leena Valkonen said.
No changes to tuition fees
There is one significant line item in many foreign students' budgets that universities could reduce substantially: tuition fees. Finnish and EU students don't pay them, but those from other countries can shell out up to 20,000 euros for a course that has for months been mostly taught online.
As a last resort, a group of international students from XAMK signed a petition urging university authorities to provide some kind of relief from tuition fees, said Phong Tran, an information technology student from Vietnam.
"A lot of us have either lost jobs or opportunities. Since the lockdown, we don’t have access to the school building and facilities like labs and equipment which is a disadvantage," Tran said.
However, according to XAMK President Heikki Saastamoinen, though the transition to remote teaching has been a considerable change, efforts are being made to ensure studies don’t get disrupted.
"We have processed student appeals and conclude that XAMK has been able to arrange teaching in these exceptional circumstances. We also note that students’ studies have progressed. Therefore, there are no grounds for reducing the tuition fee," Saastamoinen said.
Left with little choice, many students like Tran have travelled back to their home countries after losing summer jobs or opportunities early in the lockdown.
"Those who are still in Finland are resorting to applying for berry-picking jobs. But they are remotely located, not easy to get through with thousands of people applying simultaneously, and they don’t start until late June," Tran said.
Even students who moved to Helsinki in the hope of greener pastures are struggling to find anything worthwhile.
"I moved here from Kokkola hoping to find a summer job, but nothing seems to be working out. I am living off my savings. My school waived 1,000 euros from my next tuition fee, but I don’t know how long I will be able to sustain this," said Hang Thuy, a student of Centria University of Applied Sciences.