Last spring in a mass demonstration in Helsinki thousands of students from all across Finland marched from the Senate Square to the Parliament House against tuition fee education. Despite the unpopularity of the introduction of tuition fees among students, the bill was passed in the parliament. Nine Finnish universities are already participating in a tuition-fee trial period, where fees are charged to citizens outside the European Union and European Economic Area in master`s degree programmes taught in English.
From the 116 master`s degree programmes across Finland that expressed interest to participate in the tuition fee experiment (3 Erasmus Mundus programmes in Helsinki University), in reality very few have actually started collecting fees. Aalto University, which has had a total of 48 programmes eager to take part in the tuition fee trial, only 11 programmes (plus 4 Erasmus Mundus ones) will charge tuition fees up to 8 000 € for students outside EU/EEA countries. Helsinki University starts collecting fees only next autumn.
Lynn Lee from China is a master`s degree student in Sibelius Academy. She decided to study in Finland because of the good quality of the master`s programme and due to the lack of tuition fees.
“If I would have to pay tuition fees in Finland, my choice to study here would depend on how much they would charge me. If tuition fees would be as expensive as in USA or Canada, I would consider other countries as well”, says Lee.
Ami Ganguli, a Canadian studying computer science in the University of Helsinki originally came to Finland to work.
“Honestly, it would never have occurred to me to study in Finland, for free or otherwise – Finland isn`t a country that people think of as a destination for studies”, he says.
The tuition fee trial period is currently in force. Most Finnish student unions are skeptical about the implementation of the fee experiment. Since Finland hasn`t yet accomplished the status of the prestigious universities of the USA and UK, student unions fear that tuition fees will halt diversity and internationalism in the university.
Ganguli fears that in the near future tuition fees will eventually be asked from all students as it already happens in Canada, USA and UK.
“It would be very sad. The highly educated population is one of the reasons Finland has been so successful”, he explains.
On the other hand, Martti Raevaara, Vice President of Academic Affairs of Aalto University, claims that,
“The tuition fee experiment (2010-2014) for non-EU students is a very small-scale pilot, which does not mean a test of tuition fees for all students in future. Personally, I don`t see tuition fees as a taboo.”
Currently, students from outside EU/EEA countries taking part in master`s programmes in English amount for only 1/3 of the total student base. Supporters of the tuition fee experiment claim that the tuition fees will be used in the development of a scholarship scheme for the underprivileged. However, even Raevaara agrees that collecting tuition fees from a small percentage of the students will never amount to the creation of such a complex endeavor. The cost of educating a foreign student is higher than the tuition fees.
“The fee experiment acts more as a €˜mental step` in the improvement of attitudes and services in universities. In practice, fees will now not contribute any significant extra to the resources.”
Foreign students with a principal purpose to study in Finland are not eligible for financial aid neither study grant (opintoraha), nor housing allowance (asumislisä).
Ganguli makes an interesting point on the topic by arguing that,
“International students are a cheap and easy way to produce taxpayers. Finland invests over 160 000 € in getting a Finnish-born student through primary school and university before they start paying taxes, while an international student costs at most 60 000 €. An international student can turn into a taxpayer in 2 to 5 years, whereas producing a Finnish taxpayer takes about 24 years.” Therefore, the tuition fee experiment is used as €˜carrot on a stick` method to motivate the students to finish their studies within the nominated time of the programme, get into the job market and start making money.
It remains to be seen what the results of the trial period will be and whether the implementation of the new funding model will improve the quality and competitiveness of Finnish higher education or kill its competitive advantage.
Possible impacts of the tuition fee experiment
€¢ Greater autonomy of universities
€¢ Financial accountability with public funding
€¢ Increase of competitiveness in seeking alternative sources of funding
€¢ Commodification of higher education
€¢ Decrease in public financial support
€¢ Discrimination between students and paying customers
€¢ Decrease in diversity and internationality
€¢ Possible indebtedness of students
€¢ Endangerment of the objectivity of research