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How Finland is convincing international students to stay and work

Finland is keen to cement its position as a science superpower, but the small country will need international talent to boost its workforce. How is the country adapting to welcome and retain more international students?
August 7 2023
5 Min Read

At the physics department of Finland’s Aalto university, Sorin Paraoanu, a senior university lecturer, shows off the institution’s low temperature laboratory. 

The research facility has produced some of the lowest temperatures on record and is an important part of Finland’s science and technology ecosystem. 

As refrigerators hum around the laboratory, a PhD student from New Zealand discusses his ongoing research into mechanical vibrations and quantum technology. 

“Finland is a nice place to study, definitely,” he says. “It’s not so popular just because it seems far away to some people.” 

While it may be a small and distant country to some, Finland has big ambitions when it comes to growing research hubs, like the one at Aalto, and cementing the country’s position as a science superpower. So much so that the government recently committed to spending 4% of GDP on research and development. 

But with a population of 5.5 million, realising these aspirations will rely on its ability to attract global talent, including students. Now, Finland’s universities are gearing up to play their part in supporting the country’s ambitious technology goals via international education. 

Finland is far from the only country hunting for talent. OECD countries are experiencing tight labour markets and low unemployment rates. In this context, countries are competing to attract skilled workers from abroad. 

Finland’s roadmap for education and work-based immigration was released in 2021 and set out how the country will attract skilled workers, students and graduates. 

Under former prime minister Sanna Marin, the country introduced an ambitious plan to triple the number of international students in Finland and for 75% of those students to remain in the country. 

“Now we are talking about attraction and retention”

“Before we were talking only about attraction, but now we are talking about attraction and retention,” says Hanna Isoranta, chief specialist at Study in Finland. 

Finland’s 25 universities are currently home to approximately 20,000 international students. Historically, encouraging these students to stay once they graduate has been a challenge, in part due to complex visa requirements.

This changed when, in 2022, the country simplified its residence permit program and extended its post-graduation jobseeker’s permit, allowing students who have completed a degree in Finland to stay in the country for two years. 

“It’s really attractive in the eyes of prospective students,” Isoranta says. This is reflected in the figures: the move immediately led to an increase in the number of students applying to study in the Scandinavian country from 32,000 in 2022 to 61,000 in 2023. 

But the language still poses a major barrier for graduates wanting to work in Finland. While larger companies may operate in English, the majority of the population communicate in Finnish, a notoriously tricky language to learn.  

“It’s not the easiest country to integrate into because of the language,” says Yuri Birjulin, international affairs and EU advocacy advisor at student union SYL. “To actually go into the job market, you need to learn domestic languages, mostly Finnish but also Swedish.” 

“It’s been a little bit bureaucratic to stay and get a job and I think it’s been a little bit not easy to get a job in local companies,” says Hannu Seristö, associate vice president of external relations at Aalto University. 

But things are changing, albeit slowly. 

“Language regulations relaxed and the overall attitude of the labour market sort of seems to be gearing towards… more positivity for internationals to be here,” says Markus Laitinen, head of international affairs at the University of Helsinki. 

While language barriers may be lessening, the cost of studying in Finland is becoming more of a hurdle for some potential international students. 

Under policies announced when the new coalition government formed in June, non-EU students will soon have to pay higher tuition fees. 

At the time, Universities Finland warned the decision will have a “negative impact” on opportunities to attract and teach international students. Those in the sector hope that generous post-work rights will balance the rising costs of studying in Finland. 

The country’s new government and its anti-immigration rhetoric has also raised concerns about how welcome international students will feel in the country. 

Laitinen predicts it could give Finland a reputation “for being anti-immigration that gets into the ears and eyes of the highly-skilled potential people”. 

Birjulin agrees: “That kind of anti-immigration attitude also reflects upon the general attitude of the society towards immigrants, and that also makes it harder for skilled labour to integrate and find a job and so forth.”

Whatever its rhetoric, the government has confirmed its intention to continue recruiting skilled workers, focusing on four priority countries: India, Philippines, Brazil and Vietnam.

For some markets, such as Vietnam, there is already a diaspora community in Finland, making recruitment easier. 

But others, such as Brazil, are “totally new”, says Isoranta. For these regions, marketing starts with establishing the basics – like where Finland is. Campaigns also focus on study-life balance, quality of life and post-study work options. 

This, they hope, will be enough to attract talent to support the country’s blossoming technology sectors. 

But those working in Finland’s universities are keen to emphasise the importance of international students beyond their contributions to the labour market.

“We don’t want to see students only as a tool for improving our demographic problem,” says Birjulin. “We see students as value in itself and they need to be supported in general, no matter whether there’s a skilled labour shortage or not.” 

Laitinen adds, “Those who leave, we should make sure we are in touch with them through alumni activities and others so that we don’t lose their potential, but only considering them valuable if they stay is a bit misleading.”

“I don’t think that we would consider international students as cash cows”

He is also adamant that, unlike in destinations such as Australia and the UK, international students will not be used to plug financial gaps. 

“I don’t think that we would consider international students as cash cows,” says Laitinen. 

“We see international students more as a quality aspect in increasing diversity in our classrooms.”

“The money is not the issue really, but diversity and providing different views in the classroom,” agrees Seristö. 

“It’s highly unlikely that you would get the best students or faculty from among five million people of Finland.”

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