The Great Discussion: Should Non-EU Students Pay for Master’s Education in Finland

There is a little bit of a hoo ha at the moment over university tuition fees in Finland. I got to be part of a questionnaire and a feedback session about this particularly in our university.

Let me set the scene for you: When I arrived in Finland in January 2012 no one had to pay any tuition fees for university. Just take a moment to imagine that. No student debt, no “I couldn’t get in because of money constraints”, no crazy competition for scholarships. Imagine all that stress was gone because it never existed. When I came back for my second semester here in September 2012, that had all changed. Well, not all changed. The University of Oulu had chosen to be part of a tuition trial period. And so, a part of the student population would have to pay tuition fees. Which part? The smallest part of the student body with the least amount of representation in student “political” organisation: the non-European Master’s students. The conditions of the trial were that participating universities would assign price tags to courses and offer scholarships (or rather, tuition waivers) to every accepted non-European student. So while the one hand gives, the other one takes away. In effect, the non-European students would still get “free” education or rather tuition-free education at the cost of the Finnish government because they have a scholarship from the Finnish government.

The reasoning for the trial is, as I understand it, because research from around the world has shown that tuition-free education is regarded as low quality education. The powers that be do not want Finnish education to be regarded as such, and so they want it to have all the bells and whistles of quality education. Secondly (and I am not sure if this is the official stance or not) I have heard from some people that they support for the need of tuitions for non-Europeans because they question why people who have never paid taxes to Finland, should benefit from Finnish taxes.

The online questionnaire aimed to take the pulse of the non-EU students. It was not aimed to be a highly scientific study and cannot be used as such. I’m guessing that the people who responded where the people who felt strongly about the issues (as I do).

Overview of findings

Basically the study found that non-EU students felt like it was a bad idea for the university to even be part of the study and that it would be a big issue if they did start charging tuition fees to non-EU students (not a surprising find there). They also felt that while in some contexts, often in their home countries, the cost of the education indicated the quality of the education in Finland this was not so. In fact, it was felt that by introducing tuition fees, Finnish universities would lower the quality of the education.

Some interesting points

There were a few common issues that came up in the responses that I felt were interesting. The opinions presented below do not constitute an argument but rather a discussion around the topic:

The undermining of the nature of Finnish education

Tuition-free education is one of the hallmarks of Finnish education. You can’t read or hear or watch anything about Finnish education before this point is brought up. Tuition-free education speaks louder though than just the inputs and outputs of the economics of education. It speaks to the whole ethos and purpose of tertiary education. When education is tuition based it can perpetuate socio-economic inequalities as the rich can afford better quality education and therefore access to better paid jobs while the poor receive the low quality free or cheaper education if they get any tertiary education at all. In the latter case, schooling does not lead to quality education in the sense that it does not “achieve decent learning outcomes and acquire values and skills that help learners play a positive role in their societies” (what defines “quality” education is also highly debatable. I am working off a simplified UNESCO definition of quality education). For the non-EU students, this will probably result in only the wealthy coming to study in Finland which may perpetuate global inequalities.

I can’t provide you with a thousand tables and graphs and complicated equations saying that there is a direct correlation between having to pay tuition fees for tertiary education and the experience of tertiary education. But think of it like this: if education is becoming a product that can be bought, lecturers are then service providers and students are clients. Already we have terms in educational literature like “knowledge economy” and “education market”  that make it seem that the only point of a quality education is to enter the workforce in a higher salary bracket. Think of who are the powerful players in this scenario. Think of how maybe definitions of what is deemed to be useful or worthwhile knowledge change. Studying in Finland, I really get the sense that my purpose in education is to discover, to change and to grow myself. I don’t think that philosophy would exist in a fee paying university… it certainly did not in the fee paying university I went to in South Africa.

Well, if it’s going to be a scholarship, then it should really be a proper scholarship with living costs included

Respondents offered this opinion and I was quite shocked by it. I mean, really, talk about being offered an inch and taking a mile. But I am told that many international Master’s programmes offer payment for living expenses and such. Hmmm. Ok. Well, yes, why stop at tuition fees then. Why this is particularly pertinent for the Finnish situation is that each Finnish student gets about 400 euros a month in their bank account (I could be wrong with that amount) from the government while they are studying. This can be to be spent on whatever they please.

Cash Cows

It came to my attention during this presentation that for every international Masters student that graduates, the university gets 37 000 euros. For every Finnish student, they get about half that amount – but obviously there are more Finnish graduates than internationals and there is a limit on how many international Master’s graduates the system can pay for. My class is basically all international students. We are like a little herd of cash cows for the university. This has been done by the government to encourage internationalisation and international relation between and within Finnish universities

Where does it all go?

Some respondents questioned the purpose of a tuition fee when the same government was going to give scholarships. They argued that it was essentially a bureaucratic shuffling of papers and a moving of numbers between budgets. The staff who responded to the questionnaire were particularly incensed by this. They felt that the concept of charging fees to non-EU students would not materialise into any real changes for courses with a more international focus because essentially, no more or less money was coming in to the university.

And so…

The discussion will carry on and I will be interested to see what becomes of the non-EU Master’s students tertiary tuition fees in Finland and the ramifications these discussions have on Finnish education (or not). A Finnish contributor in the feedback session said that asking for tuition fees was like prostituting education. For me, that showed that she saw education in Finland not as a product, or a service or as anything that can really be bought.

Personally, I hope that Finland reflects on the message that they are sending to non-EU people and does not hide behind arguments about economies or “international research” which say one thing today and another thing tomorrow.  I did not come to study in Finland because it was tuition-free. There are other options within my own country that would have been a lot cheaper to me. I came here because I like the way that I am educated in Finland. I came here exactly because of the quality of education that I would receive. Secondly, the logic fails me: if you are going to create tuition fees for people who come to study in Finland but have never paid Finnish taxes, shouldn’t that include the European and European affiliated citizens too?

Perhaps most telling is that already my university saw a drop in the number of non-EU applicants to the Master’s programmes compared to last year. According to research in Sweden who introduced tuitions a while ago, this will be a downward trend, even with the scholarships.

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