Finntegrate – A Mountain-Climbing Story

Metropolia UAS Student Christina Linza, christinalinza[a]

Finland has two personalities. It invites foreigners with tall tales of a high quality of life, national happiness quotients, globalization, a population with a sense of humour – then it shuns foreigners with public contempt from politicians, uneven treatment by government organizations, and it ships out undesirables en masse. It brags of high quality, free education at the university level, internationalization, corporations with global aims – then students arrive and are greeted by the lack of housing, threats of tuition fees, student unions who aren’t accustomed to doing business in three languages, and sometimes professors who speak pitifully little English. As a second-year student and a tutor of international students, I have heard tales of harassment by passers-by. It is true that some students are slow to learn the Finnish language, and some are even resistant to trying; but those who do try, those who do put forth the maximum possible effort, are no more well-received than those who do not. What is more troubling, it may just be Helsinki. International students studying in the same field as myself, but in other AMKs in other cities, do not report the same discrimination or troubles. There is some sort of attitude in Helsinki which pits the regular citizen against students in general, and the occasional hatred of foreigners does nothing to help.

Finland wants to be an international force for good, to advise the world. I recently read an article stating that, in a few years, Finland should be telling the world how to be. This is not wrong; the world has much to learn from Finland, and Finland has much to learn from the world. This has always been true. Discouraging foreigners from attending university in Finland, or even coming here at all, is not the way to accomplish that goal. The contempt foreign students face from groups outside the university environment seems to stem from a common, erroneous assumption: we are all getting a free education on the back of the taxpayer.

This is wildly incorrect. In other countries, students receive scholarships, grants, and stipends which cover not only tuition but also housing, the cost of supplies, food, transportation, and so forth. In Finland, foreign students pay for all of these things from their own resources, most of which are earned overseas. A foreign student from outside of the EU is required to have at least €6000 in a bank account bearing only their own name, or they are not granted a residence permit. There are many ways around this, but living in Finland – Helsinki in particular – costs at least that much per year anyway. Therefore, for a dedicated student eligible for scholarships through hard work, attending university in Helsinki costs about as much as attending university in the United States of America, where tuition fees are legendary. That is all money which is spent inside Finland, most of which originated outside Finland. Macroeconomically, foreign students are bringing liquid assets to Finland and leaving with intellectual improvement. This is the best of all possible systems, theoretically speaking. But that does nothing to stop the average Finn from hating foreign students. If we do not have jobs, we are leaching from the social welfare system (which, by the way, we cannot receive unemployment funds) but if we do have jobs, we are taking a job from a Finnish citizen.

So it is easy to see why international students, particularly those from outside of the EU, feel they’ve been caught in a bait-and-switch. We have established that everyone is in some varying stage of discontent, whether they be students, professors, government officials, or simply taxpayers. What is somewhat trickier is how to fix it.

I am no expert in pedagogy, I have only taught English language outside of university for a few years, and was never formally trained in education and I am unfamiliar with the administrative workings of higher education. I have only my observations and experiences to guide me. From that, I say, raise your standards boldly. Professors teaching in English language programs do not always understand much English. Students learning in English language programs do not always speak much English, either. Additionally, students are often reluctant to learn Finnish. They need one of those two languages to succeed in studies here, therefore require fluency in one of them. Written tests tell almost nothing about a student’s ability to study in a language. Spoken interviews should be mandatory for foreign students, either by Skype or in person. Raise the standards also for professors teaching in English; some of my professors either cannot understand me, or have trouble concentrating on spoken English. On a few occasions, students who speak English quickly are able to hoodwink professors into believing they understand the course material, or to get out of doing an assignment entirely, simply because the professor is not confident enough to argue with them. Raise your standards for source citation. Some cultures have absolutely no respect for intellectual property; if you expect your students to write articles or do research in any field, they need to understand the importance of source citation and respect for the work of others. Raise your standards for behaviour. Students should not be permitted to speak with each other in any language during exams. Students should not be permitted to copy work from one another. In most universities in the developed world, this kind of behaviour results in expulsion or at least academic suspension. Raise your standards. Education in Finland is a glorious opportunity, a wonderful gift; do not allow anyone to spoil that.

Control your advertisement. Marketing is a powerful tool for targeting the kind of student Finland deserves. The most popular reasons I have heard from international students who come to Finland specifically to study, aside from the wishes of a Finnish boyfriend or girlfriend, is that tuition is free and Finland has good metal music. That’s great and all, but that does not exactly bring a crop of top-of-the-class world leaders. Stop advertising that everyone is rich and happy in Finland and start advertising the competitive quality of the degree programmes and the opportunities inherent in working with international companies based here. Include prominently in programme descriptions that Finnish language education is mandatory as part of the coursework. Emphasize Finland’s strengths in industry and business administration, culture and design.

When the quality of the program and the academic demands of international programmes rise, so will the dedication and spirit of the students. When the quality of the student improves, perhaps then attitudes towards foreign students in general will also change. For me personally, travelling here and working towards my second degree is congruent to ascending the proverbial mountain to meet the wizened old master. A small voice tells me that I have ascended the mountain, and there is no master; but perhaps that is the way of all mountains. All of us who climb become the master, and our challenges are the mountain; make Finland a worthy mountain for the climbing.