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Finland to double foreign student visas, shorten citizenship road

The proposed reforms aim to make life a bit easier and flexible for Finland's students from abroad.

Students fill a Helsinki University library's study area. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Finnish MPs are to vote on proposals to double the length of time foreign students have to find a job after graduation and make it easier for them to return to Finland after they leave.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment confirmed it is proposing a string of amendments that would, most significantly, allow students from abroad to stay for two years rather than one after graduation.

They would also get a single visa for the duration of their study period.

Currently students are required to regularly cut through red tape at the Finnish Immigration Service in order to renew study-based visas every year or two.

The proposed reform also includes plans to change the status of foreign student visas from the current "B" (temporary) to "A" (continuous), effectively shortening the duration of residency needed to apply for Finnish citizenship, compared to the current arrangement.

The ministry noted that if the reforms are approved, students will still need to meet the same requirements for permanent residency as other immigrants.

Parliament still needs to review and vote on the proposed reforms but, if approved, they would go into force on 1 April, according to Jarmo Tiukkanen, a senior ministry official.

Edit note added to article on 1 April: Yle asked the ministry to confirm if the changes would come into effect from Friday 1 April, as had been proposed, but the ministry replied that details are still being finalised and the changes will be effective from 15 April 2022 instead.

Students would be able to work more

The proposed reforms also call for extending limits on the number of hours foreign students are allowed to work from 25 to 30 hours per week.

The ministry pointed out that limits on weekly working hours were annually cumulative, meaning that students could work more than 30 hours on some weeks and fewer hours on others, as long as the total amount hours are within the allowable limit.

Hours spent on study-related work or training would not count against the working limit and effectively be unrestricted, according to the proposal.

Another change the reforms would bring is increased flexibility for foreign student graduates who leave the country after finishing their studies, and later decide they'd like to return to Finland.

The changes would also enable foreign graduates to apply for job search-based residence permits within five years of their student visas' expiry. In other words, graduates could go work abroad after their studies, and then return to Finland to look for jobs, if they so wish.

Previous grads miss the proverbial boat

Sofia Meleshkova, who came from Russia to study in Finland in 2015, wishes she had delayed graduating from Hanken School of Economics last summer, as she just missed the opportunity to take advantage of the looming reforms.

She managed to get a one year residence permit for foreign job seekers but landed a job just two months after graduation, which allowed her to get an employment-based residence permit. However, her job as a project coordinator for Karelia University of Applied Sciences will only last one year and will have to leave the country unless she lands a new job.

Meleshkova said she is annoyed by the situation, adding that if she had postponed finishing her studies, she would be eligible to apply for a two-year job search permit, after the reforms are approved as expected.

The proposed rules stipulate that foreign students who graduated before 1 April 2022 and secured jobseeker residence permits were ineligible to take advantage of the reforms.

Unis positive

A few universities told Yle Novosti they were aware of, and welcomed, the anticipated rollout of the reforms.

Esko Koponen, an international education specialist at the University of Helsinki, said the institution is closely following the development of the reforms.

"They will facilitate the permit process and remove uncertainty about continuing studies and living in Finland until graduation. Additionally, [the reforms] would improve opportunities for foreign students to find work in Finland after finishing their degrees, which is the goal of many international students," Koponen said, adding that a two-year job seeking-based residence permit was a significant period of time, even by international comparison.

Maija Kuiri, the director for study and international affairs at Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT), said, if approved, the reforms would send a positive signal to prospective students who were still deciding about which country to study in.

"Things would be simplified and easier from the student's point of view, which is positive," she said, adding that the changes could also help to remove obstacles in their job search efforts.

The reaction of Aalto University was also positive, with the institution saying the reforms would be a welcome relief from challenges that both universities and employers face in efforts to recruit and integrate international students and experts — especially foreign master's degree students who have a relatively short time available to get engaged in working life in Finland.

This article is condensed and translated from an original story by Yle Novosti, the national broadcaster's Russian-language news department.