Building on a position paper published last year, the three-party coalition government has stipulated that international students must pay a minimum of €1,500 per year to study on any undergraduate or master’s course taught in a language other than Finnish or Swedish.
Universities can choose to implement fees from this month, but charging international students will be mandatory as of August next year. They are free to set their own tuition rates, provided they meet the minimum €1,500 fee.
“The goal of the proposal is to both advance these institutions’ opportunities for education export and also expand their funding base”
Institutions will also be required to have a scholarship programme in place to support fee-paying students, the Ministry of Education and Culture said in a statement.
“The goal of the government proposal is to both advance these institutions’ opportunities for education export and also expand their funding base,” it said. “The introduction of tuition fees puts greater emphasis on educational quality as a competitive factor.”
Doctoral students and researchers will not be subject to fees, and neither will students who are already studying in the country.
Until now, undergraduate education has been free for both domestic and international students. According to the ministry, 77% of the 19,880 foreign students in Finnish higher education in 2014 were from non-EU/EEA countries.
The introduction of tuition fees has been a contentious issue in recent years but has gained support from a growing number of universities, some of which believe it will lead to a higher calibre of incoming international students.
The government nevertheless dropped a proposal last year to introduce minimum annual tuition of €4,000 for non-Finnish or Swedish taught programmes, partly as a result of lobbying from student unions, which saw the move as a precursor to extending fees to domestic students.
In a joint statement released after the most recent policy was announced late last year, the Union of Students in Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences (SAMOK) and National Union of University Students in Finland (SYK) said they are “concerned for the future of the internationalisation of higher education in Finland”.
They warned of the impact to universities, especially after deep cuts in government funding and a sharp drop in non-EU students seen in Sweden immediately after it introduced fees.
“Mandatory fees will be the end of many of the international programmes at our higher education institutions,” SYL president Jari Järvenpää predicted.
In contrast, advocates for fees have denied they will have a long-term negative impact on student numbers.
“I am expecting an initial decrease in student/applicant numbers,” acknowledged Markus Laitinen, head of international affairs at the University of Helsinki. “But I am confident that we can bounce back, like some universities in Sweden already have.”
“The idea and ideology of no-fees is so engrained in all of us that we need to step out of our comfort zone to change things”
However he pointed out that limited resources present a challenge to universities as they prepare to introduce fees, he said.
“We are currently facing serious cuts from government and finding the willingness to make the necessary investments into fees-dominated landscape is by no means easy,” he warned.
Universities may have to rethink their admissions processes, as well as their approach to accommodation provision and other services, he said.
“And then there are things like scholarships in the form of fee-waivers; something we simply have not needed in the past.”
Overall, Laitinen explained that putting fees in place requires a “cultural adjustment” on the part of academic institutions.
“The idea and ideology of no-fees is so engrained in all of us that we need to step out of our comfort zone to change things, which are needed in a fees-based environment,” he said.
Fees also raise the potential for students to see themselves more as consumers than in the past, he said, but cautioned: “I think we want to avoid a situation where fees would be the basis of service level.”
“I do not expect fee-paying students getting much more in terms of services than our other students,” he added. “But I certainly expect students with a more consumer-like attitude to reveal issues, which have previously gone unnoticed. This could result in improving things for all students.”