The University of Helsinki has only 18 students who pay tuition fees. If the University of Helsinki – the most important multidisciplinary university in Finland – cannot attract paying students, how can tuition fees be expected to increase the appeal of Finnish education?

Tuition fees for students from outside the EU and the EEA were taken into use in Finnish higher education institutions in 2017. Higher education institutions are required by law to collect a tuition fee of €1,500 at a minimum for their foreign-language degrees, but students may be exempted from the fee based on a continuous or permanent resident permit, for instance. Higher education institutions must also have a grant system to support students liable for payment.

At the University of Helsinki, tuition fees for foreign-language Master’s programmes vary between €13,000 and €18,000 – as much as at Oxford. The University of Helsinki also had a total of 26 different types of grants available last year within its grant system, with the best one covering both the tuition fee and some living costs. There were also grants available that covered either tuition fees or living costs as well as a grant covering half of the tuition fee. Out of the 26 people who were awarded a grant, only six accepted their study place and started their studies. This is a thought-provoking number: even the grants were not a sufficient attraction for many.

Implementing the tuition fees led to a significant decrease in the number of applicants for the international Master’s programmes at the University of Helsinki in 2017. As expected, the number of applicants from outside the EU and the EEA decreased: before tuition fees, they amounted to around three quarters of the applicants, whereas in 2017–2018 they only made up just over half of the applicants.

This drop in the number of applicants was significant. The number of applicants increased this year, but this in itself is not decisive. The relevant figures here are how many applicants are eligible, how many of those accepted to study actually accept their place and how many arrive in Helsinki and begin their studies in the end.

As can be seen in the table above, many of those accepted to study did not accept their place, and not all of those who accepted their place started their studies in the end. An especially notable decrease occurred with students from outside the EU and the EEA: in 2016, 132 such students began their studies compared to only 56 last year. We will see how these figures develop this year.

The number of applicants in different years is not directly comparable, as the University of Helsinki reformed all of its Master’s programmes starting in autumn 2017. In addition to this, an application fee of €100 was in use for applicants from outside the EU and the EEA in 2016, which led to a decreased number of applications. In 2017 and 2015, applicants may have applied to several places at the same time without necessarily committing to their application.

Tuition fees are not a significant source of income for higher education institutions, and there are also costs involved. Running the bureaucracy and administration related to tuition fees and the grant system as well as marketing the degree programmes take up a lot of resources.

The University community’s view on the fees has been clear from the start. Without tuition fees, it would be possible to attract the best possible experts to Finland, regardless of the income level of the origin country. Many of the students who have arrived from elsewhere want to stay in Finland after graduation and get employed. International students bring valuable skills and international networks with them, and after they get employed, they also fund the higher education system as a whole as tax payers. According to a report by the Research Foundation for Studies and Education Otus, young, skilled international students are beneficial to Finland’s economy after getting employed (source: Otus’ report, only in Finnish).

Attracting international students to Finland is of prime important for the dependency ratio and competitiveness of the country. Tuition fees, however, are not a functional solution to promote this – whereas free high-quality education would be.

Hannele Kirveskoski
Specialist, subsistence, international affairs