With the Minister of Education recently stating that Finland needs the number of foreign students here to increase in future, just how will an already difficult job market cater to this influx of international resources?

Regularly appearing at the top of various polls, the Finnish education system has acquired an international reputation for its high level of quality. Thus, among the higher education student body today, currently there are some 15,700 foreign students enrolled here in Finland, divided almost equally between university and polytechnic institutions.

However, this number makes up a mere 4 per cent of the student body nationwide – far behind such countries as the UK, which sees more than 20 per cent of their students coming from abroad. More startlingly, according to recent figures, 70 per cent of all non-Finnish graduates are leaving the country upon the completion of their degree, which begs the question: is Finland merely preparing students – for free – in order for them to benefit other countries and economies?

Study plan

The Minister of Education Jukka Gustafsson recently declared that Finland needs more foreign students in future in order to ensure that the high quality of education here is sustained. Seeking an increase to 20,000 international students by 2015, the overwhelming fact still remains that the majority of students will inevitably take their skills elsewhere upon graduation unless steps are taken to stem the flow.

“I very much want to stay in Finland,” explains Chris Pape-Mustonen, a PhD post-graduate, originally from the United Kingdom. “I have a wife and family, I enjoy the culture and have developed a life for myself here. I am, however, conscious of the possibility of leaving, and this is based almost solely on the difficulty of finding work. If I am unable to find meaningful employment here, I will be forced to consider leaving.”

What is abundantly clear for foreign students here is that networking is a very important tool for obtaining employment in their chosen fields. Although companies regularly plunder both undergraduate and postgraduate students even before they graduate, international students can still find it difficult to establish contacts in their particular industry.

“A lack of networks can be a barrier to finding entry level work,” offers Pape-Mustonen. “[When studying] there was one short course on job seeking, which dealt with many general issues about looking for work, and in which the larger scale problems related to foreigners were raised but, understandably, not tackled in any meaningful way.  The issue of networking is certainly something you are warned about, and indeed it seems like an issue that a foreign student can effectively tackle.  However, those foreign students who do have problems establishing a network can be at a serious disadvantage to Finns who are born with such an advantage.”

“The main challenge
for international
students to find
is the lack of

Help is not necessarily at hand

Though, according to American-born professor at the University of Helsinki, Paul Ilsley, the major problem preceding the fact that international students are leaving is that many of them do not graduate in the first place. A much higher percentage of international students drop out of their courses than native students, and this is in part due to the poor care and attention they receive – or rather don’t – from their faculty.

Indeed, some students have been known to wait up to two years before seeing an adviser, something that shocks Ilsley. “Moral indignation does not even begin to sum up this situation,” he says. “I have known colleagues joke about this situation and they do nothing to help the international students; it is systematic social inequality and accentuates the spectre of Finnishness for the sake of Finnishness.”

According to Ilsley, Finland needs foreigners, as they can benefit the country as a whole and more should be done to keep them here. If they are given the opportunities – firstly in networking and then in gainful employment – then they in turn will be able to provide networking assistance to the next generation, and so the situation improves.

However, Ilsley believes that this again links back to the attitude of the academic staff, who adopt the stance of “How will this benefit me?” The simple answer in this case would seem to be that they can benefit from having more people graduate, which in turns allows them more funding and further enhances their reputation both here and abroad.

With recent talk concerning the introduction of tuition fees that would apply to foreigners, but not to Finnish students, it remains to be seen how this will affect the internationalisation of education in future. It must be pointed out that the individual departments cannot simply charge fees as they wish, but they can apply to the central administration of their university to charge only international students – there is no course of action for charging Finnish students: it simply cannot be done. This fills Ilsley with dismay. “Not only is this crazy, it is discriminatory. This is an anti-pedagogical practice – the students are being targeted, and they know it.”

Graduation by numbers

• 4% of the student body here in Finland is international, or
some 15,700 students, about half of whom are in universities,
and half at polytechnics.
• 1,200 of 29,100 university degrees in 2010 were awarded to
foreign citizens.
• Foreign students here are made up of over 100 nationalities,
with the largest single group being from China.
• 70% of international students in Finland move abroad after

Opportunities in language

Furthermore, perhaps the most pressing issue that is responsible for driving students abroad upon graduation is a very obvious and contentious one: puhutko suomea?

“The complaint is that international students do not learn Finnish, but the reality is that the chances of them doing so are remote,” explains Ilsley. “In my experience, there is only one class available. This is very poor. Furthermore, it is a vicious circle: the belief amongst the academic staff is that if they can’t help themselves then why should we help them? Only if they learn Finnish can they then help themselves, but there is no desire to offer them that chance.”

“There were Finnish lessons at my university, which students should work hard at, however your Finnish is unlikely to be job-ready upon graduation,” Pape-Mustonen recalls.

While the difficulty of learning the local language has been previously well documented, there are still examples of foreigners successfully working here who have been able to learn to speak Finnish during their studies.

“I put a big effort into learning the language,” explains former student Érico Melo, originally from Portugal. “My girlfriend’s family always encouraged me to learn Finnish, emphasising that the language is really important, and that you have to learn Finnish to be successful in working life.

Now fluent in Finnish, Melo graduated from his studies in Gerontology three years ago and currently works as a supervisor in a supported residential facility for the elderly. Although he himself is now comfortably placed within the work force here, he acknowledges that a change of attitude is needed for employers here to truly embrace foreign workers, even when they possess adequate Finnish skills.

“It is always in the news that we need people to take care of our old people, this area needs more educated people and so on. It’s ridiculous, as I know that there are people living here who don’t have a job and have studied in this area, but can’t get work because they are foreigners.”

Adding to his bewilderment is the fact that Melo’s current foreign work colleagues are regularly praised for the different approach that they have towards their work.

“People have some misconceptions, thinking that foreigners will not show up for work on time and so on. And then they start realising that these people are actually responsible, and that people from Africa, for example, show more respect for the elderly people, honouring them; they see the older people as still being very important people. On the other hand perhaps the youngsters here don’t respect old people as much. Many of my Finnish colleagues actually feel that it’s really good to have foreigners working here; they really care for the clients.”

Melo believes, however, that Finland is just beginning to wake up to the possibilities of foreign workers, and the fact that these culturally different approaches to work can have very positive consequences.
“What I have seen in working life is that people are becoming more international here,” he observes. “Of course you see Timo Soini and that not everywhere are people so accepting of foreigners, but in general people’s attitudes are changing and they are becoming more accepting.”

Leading light

Along with the recent announcement of the intended internationalisation of higher education here, there is increasingly more work being done creating a smoother road towards employment for foreign graduates. Commencing in 2009, VALOA is a national project co-ordinated by the University of Helsinki’s Career Services, which is collaborating with 16 universities and universities of applied sciences to enhance the employability of international students. Working with both university staff and employers, the project seeks to illuminate this growing problem of graduates leaving the country by assisting educational facilities with readying students for working life here, while also trying to provide employers with information about how to employ international students and raise the awareness of the international student body in Finland.

“Employers are so unaware that we have such a huge academic talent here in Finland,” explains Heidi Layne, Specialist in Career Guidance and Training at VALOA. “The main challenge for international students to find employment is the lack of networks. They don’t have enough understanding as to where to look for jobs, and the opportunities available to them. Of course the language does play a role, but the employers we have talked with have started to think about the language requirements by position – there are a lot of places where you don’t actually need to know much Finnish. There is this turning point right now.”

So, as attitudes swing gradually more in the favour of the international graduate-cum-jobseeker here in future, will the forecasted saturation of the job market cope, and how will the local culture change in time to accommodate this growing demand?

“Currently the internationalisation here has been that Finnish people go abroad, so a lot of people think, ‘we are so international because all these Finnish people have been here, there and everywhere’, but actually we still cannot see the cultural capital of those people that move here from somewhere else. We should stop and see how we can utilise these young people who graduate. It’s not only the international students but it is all over Finland with recent graduates and internships.”

Layne believes that one significant factor lacking in Finland that would aid the plight of the foreign graduate is collaboration between the different ministries, educational institutions and the Chamber of Commerce, along with the City of Helsinki and non-profit organisations. “There are a lot of people who have a lot of resources, knowledge and the willingness to work on this. The first thing is to collaborate. Big companies, the small and medium sized companies, if they would see the benefits and resources of international graduates it would boost their own economies. What is very positive now is that there is a true interest. The discussion is moving from just talking and writing about it to actually thinking what would be the model that could be created here.”

Furthermore, being married to a foreigner herself has allowed Layne a first-hand look at the difficulties in obtaining employment for foreigners here, informing the decision that she and her family made recently to act as a “friend family” for a German exchange student, a programme that seeks to create a warmer and more inviting environment for international students while studying here.

In fact, having just completed an interview with MTV3 earlier in the day regarding the friend family initiative, it appears as though the issue of creating a more welcoming environment for international students is beginning to gather prominence in the public’s awareness.

“All of these things support integration during their studies, and support whether the student wishes to stay in Finland. “If I were to think how I would like Finnish society to be I would love it to be more mixed. The more we have people, the more we have ideas and innovations.”

Text Craig Houston and James O’Sullivan.
Illustrations Hans Eiskonen