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Union slams MPs' tuition fee plan

A group of MPs wants to start charging fees to students from outside the European Union. They believe that such a move would help improve national finances and expand the education sector, but student representatives are not convinced.

Image: Yle

Some higher education institutions already charge tuition fees on a trial basis, but that could be expanded if a new legislative proposal is passed. A cross-party initiative supported by 119 MPs, the proposal would bring in fees for all students from outside the European Union or European Economic area.

Arto Satonen, a National Coalition MP who initiated the move, claims he does not want price to be a barrier for foreign students. He proposes, among other things, using development aid to pay tuition fees for some students from poorer countries.

”Of course I know that for some of those students who are here, these payments are actually quite high,” said Satonen, who has taught at the Tampere and Häme Universities of Applied Sciences. ”But the idea in this whole proposal is that when we are starting these fees, the level can be lower than the actual price of the education, we can find a level that is suitable for most students.”

'Building a better society' or enlarging education sector?

That stance is rejected by Marina Lampinen, President of the National Union of University Students.

”I feel that it’s a really bad idea because in Finland we really need the international students, both as students and for the labour market,” Lampinen told Yle News. ”It’s been proven that the number of international students is not getting any better but will get worse with tuition fees."

The union held a national day to campaign for tuition-free education last November, and claims that the trial period of tuition fees at some institutions has been a failure with no rise in foreign students paying tuition fees. The union regards free higher education as a competitive advantage for Finland in attracting international talent.

The MPs, however, believe that fees would help claw back some of the outlay the Finnish state makes on higher education. They claim that at present, a majority of students go on to work outside the country. Satonen says that marketing can convince foreigners to pay fees for access to Finnish education.

”The problem is that some institutions are thinking that if we are very active in marketing, and we cannot take any money from them then we will have less Finnish students in the university,” argues the Pirkanmaa MP. ”I see it as a great opportunity to make our education sector larger. We could also work like Britain or the USA, to make education a business — nowadays we are not doing that.”

Lampinen, on the other hand, is not keen on a market approach to education. She also cites the risk that such an approach might eventually extend beyond international students.

”Of course if we take a step towards thinking of education as a market, there is always a possibility that the atmosphere will also be taken to the Finnish and European students’ level, and I really disagree with that kind of thinking.”

Growing demographic challenges

Both Lampinen and Satonen agree that Finland needs new workers to meet growing demographic challenges. Both are also aware that more needs to be done to help foreigners take their first steps in Finnish working life.

”We really need to help students to integrate, to help them to learn the language, to help them to work in Finland even if you don’t speak perfect Finnish or Swedish,” says Lampinen. ”There is definitely room for improvement in the thinking of employers and the Finnish society to make people able to work and live in Finland.”

Satonen echoes the need for better provision of Finnish language teaching, but emphasises that many students do go abroad after an education paid for by the Finnish state.

”If you look at the numbers, then people come from Asia or Russia or Ukraine, and when they get their degree they are going to work in the UK, USA, Australia and so on,” argues the parliamentarian. "So with Finnish taxpayers’ money we are actually educating workers for the Anglo-Saxon countries’ economies.”

”The main point is that in the majority of countries you have to pay for education. So the question is how can Finland give free education to foreigners if many of those countries can’t give it themselves?”

Lampinen takes a different view. Her union wants instead to work to ensure more foreign students stay in Finland, and argues that tuition fees will hinder this long-term goal.

”We should not take tuition fees, but we should help the foreign students integrate here and help us build a better society for us all together with the Finnish students.”