Finland importing students to prevent rural high schools from closing

The number of secondary school students in Finland is expected to continue to significantly decrease over the coming years.

Elyorbek Rayimov and Javohir Zokirov with their local support provider, Mirva Kajova-Pukkinen (in middle). Image: Kalle Purhonen / Yle

About a month ago, 16- and 15-year-old Elyorbek Rayimov and Javohir Zokirov moved from Uzbekistan to Finland to attend Rautjärvi High School, located in the rural region of South Karelia.

Their curriculum is the same as their local counterparts, with all lessons in Finnish.

"Learning Finnish is easier for us than English. We studied Finnish for half a year and English for three years, but we know Finnish better," Rayimov explained.

The boy's arrival to the small, rural high school was not a fluke — they are participants in an effort to prevent small Finnish high schools from shutting down.

The number of secondary school students in Finland is expected to continue to significantly decrease over the coming years. For example, just three locally-based students enrolled at Rautjärvi High last year — an historic low that frightened local decision makers.

Municipality leaders want to keep the school open, but to remain financially viable, at least 10 students need to be enrolled in each class. If the school doesn't attract more students, the institution's future is at stake.

With the arrival of 11 new students, the school just barely managed to meet enrollment requirements, and it would not have succeeded without the arrival of the Uzbek youths.

Their arrival was facilitated by the Finnish and Vietnamese-based consulting group Finest Future, co-founded and chaired by business leader Peter Vesterbacka, who's likely best known for his job as chief marketer of the Angry Birds game at mobile gaming company Rovio.

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Peter Vesterbacka Image: Annu Passoja / Yle

According to its website, Finest Future aims to prevent the closure of rural schools prompted by Finland's dwindling population by annually attracting thousands of young people from abroad to attend high school in the country.

"The number of students has halved over the years. We have 20,000 vacancies in high schools every year. But maintaining facilities and teachers [at under-used schools] is a poor use of resources. We're practically running the school system at half-power," Vesterbacka said.

As high school student numbers continue to decline, Finland is also faced with a labour shortage. The consultancy group's aim is to alleviate the latter problem by bringing students to Finland from abroad, in hopes they will stay in Finland after graduation.

According to Vesterbacka, you need to reach international students when they're young in order to attract them to Finnish universities. Students in China and India, for example, make plans to study abroad much earlier than when they're ready to start university.

In its first efforts, Finest Future helped to bring 15 high school students to Finland this year, seven from Vietnam and eight from Uzbekistan. The firm has agreements with seven municipalities for this academic year and plans to bring about a hundred foreign students to Finnish schools next year.

However, the firm's efforts have not been problem-free. In January, the municipality of Virolahti rejected the idea of bringing in 20 Uzbek students to its high school — where 49 local students are currently enrolled — this autumn. The number of students at the institution has continued to dwindle over the past two decades, from a time when there were still 90 students enrolled.

Tuition for the Uzbek students in Rautjärvi is free, and they received permission to live in a municipal rental apartment, where other high school students also reside.

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Image: Kalle Purhonen / Yle

The teens pay for other expenses, like meals and hobbies.

Rayimov enjoys chess and Zokirov works out at the gym. They said they would like to get jobs for more pocket money, adding that everyday life has gotten off to a good start.

Families were sought to host the teens, but none were found. Instead, local tutor Mirva Kajova-Pukkinen acts as their support person.

"I help them with everyday things in my free time. In the first few days we practiced shopping and how to seek health care services, like making an appointment for a toothache," she explained.

The boys said they liked living in the area right away.

"Finnish education is different from Uzbekistan. There's more free time here and everyone is happy," Rayimov said, with Zokirov adding that he likes his classmates.

"I'm glad to be able to study here because [the education] is better quality than in Uzbekistan," he said.

The school's principal, Janne Hirvonen, said he was also pleased with the way things have gone for the boys.

"They've been really well received. Their classmates have taken good care of them," he said, adding that nothing unexpected has happened.

The boys' arrival to the school has gone so well that the municipality aims to do it again next year.

After graduation, Rayimov said he plans to study maths or economics at a Finnish university, while Zokirov is considering going to college in Finland or perhaps abroad, in the UK or US, to study marketing or business.