A-type student residence permit - could Finland do better?
Have we made progress towards equality? Let’s compare permits.
The A-type residence permit (A-permit) has been, until now, granted for four years, following one year on an initial B-type residence permit (B-permit). It has granted any migrant four years of the same access to government services and financial benefits that permanent residents enjoy. So how does this work in practice?
“Jack,” a Vietnamese national, marries a Finn and moves to Finland. They initially get a B-permit, which means they are in Finland at their own expense for the first year. After this, Jack applies for an A-permit, and with that, they can access the integration programme, which is essentially 1-2 years of Finnish classes that Jack is also paid to attend. Jack can also access KELA benefits if they have children, are unemployed, or they become disabled. They can also study at an international programme at the university for free! These benefits continue for the whole 4-year-period whether or not Jack remains married to their Finnish partner. In this time, Jack can learn Finnish, complete a Master’s degree, and receive government subsidies until they find a job (given that it takes a year or less). That’s a pretty good deal, both for Jack, and for Finland. After four years living in Finland on an A-permit, and with Finnish skills, Jack can now apply for citizenship should they so choose. Finland has a highly qualified tax-payer after just four years of investment.
The new student residence permit (student permit) and the new job-seeker residence permit for Finnish degree holders (job-seeker permit) are two new A-permit types. They are the first A-permits that do not grant holders access to services such as free public healthcare, financial support, and the integration programme. It also requires holders to prove they have money to support their stay in Finland. These permits both allow migrants to stay in the country at no cost to the Finnish government while studying or looking for a job. Essentially, both are like B-permits with a slightly longer life expectancy.
So how does this play out? “Kim” has come to Finland from Brazil to do their master’s degree, and is granted an A-permit tied to the duration of their studies. After Kim has completed the programme, they apply for the job-seeking visa right away, and spend two years doing odd jobs where Finnish is not required, while trying to build their own business. However, Kim’s business is not yet successful enough for them to apply for a residence permit based on employment. After four years in Finland, Kim has a choice to make - if they can find a salaried job, they can probably apply for permanent residency. However, without Finnish skills, finding a job in Finland is extremely difficult. The other option is to marry a Finn and/or to have a child with a Finn, but in Kim’s case, this is not a viable option. Perhaps Kim will move back to Brazil, and after a while, maybe their Finnish partner will follow them there.
How easy is it, in practice, to get permanent residence after four years on a student permit, a job-seeker permit or a combination of the two? This is yet to be seen.
If Finland needs qualified migrants, why is that particular path still so full of obstacles? Why are international students denied full access to Finnish society for such a long time?
What do AYY’s former board members have to say about this?
Most board members start their terms convinced that they will make a huge difference - and they do! But usually not the way they imagined they would. We had lunch with former AYY boardies and asked them about the advocacy work they did on residence permits. As the old adage goes, the fight for justice is a relay race, not a 100-metre sprint. The baton is passed from one board to the next. When the baton was passed to Tapio Hautamäki, chair of the AYY board for 2018, the mission was clear.
“In 2018, I remember asking the SYL (National Union of University Students in Finland) general assembly why we wouldn’t automatically give a permanent permit to students who graduate from Finnish universities,” said Tapio. “This idea got hold of many.”
Tapio spent his student representative years, figurative megaphone in hand, blasting the issue at full-volume to anyone who would listen. He effectively became the international student permit guy, and the issue became an official part of SYL’s advocacy plan.
When the baton passed to Taneli Myllykangas, board member in charge of international affairs in 2019, he focused on fleshing out arguments around the idea: Why should the red tape be removed? This question revealed how the student permit is inextricable from many other international student concerns.
“At the beginning of 2019, Aalto shared with us the results of a survey done on students who were either studying on scholarships or paying tuition fees”, said Taneli. “The results were really alarming - lots of mental health issues and feelings of helplessness. Also, international students felt really unequal with Finns and EU citizens who don’t have to face the same issues of running out of study time or their whole degree being ruined by failing a single course.
“Students who pay tuition fees put pressure on the faculty to make each degree into more of a straight pipeline which can be completed in three (Bachelor's) or two (Master's) years”, continued Taneli. “Academic freedom suffers as a result. In addition to this there's the fact that the government has put more emphasis on completed degrees in exchange for funding from the Ministry of Education and Culture. It's slowly turning universities into degree factories.”
“So that explains my burnout,” chuckled Imran Shamsul, board member in charge of international affairs in 2020. Imran, unlike most international students, volunteered extensively in student associations on top of his studies. He is well connected and well-regarded by his peers at Aalto University. However, the price he paid for participation was high: “Yeah, I cooked myself by October 2019, about 14 months into studies, and,” continued Imran drily, “good luck getting international students to volunteer for guild/association things, let alone AYY things.”
“A degree certificate on its own is only part of the equation leading to success on the job market”, added Rebecca Adrianzen, board member in charge of international affairs in 2021, “Students come to university to build networks. A strong network helps with job seeking and succeeding in the job. Not having equal opportunity to participate in social networks within the student community means that eventually, these same individuals will lack the connections needed in the job market. Many work life skills like project management and communication are learnt from interacting in student activities and not from books.”
“Imran is a bit of an outlier in terms of participation for sure,” interjected Marianna Malkamäki, this year’s board member in charge of international affairs. “Usually, though, international students lack the opportunities to participate, and that not only means that students don’t network with peers - simply not attending events means that international students learn less about services that are there to support them, how the social system works and how to navigate it. This is the kind of information that is exchanged casually through anecdotes and interactions at social events.”
“Yeah,” said Imran, “I spent a lot of time during my term trying to help out international students who got entangled in the system or didn’t understand practicalities or processes surrounding services in Finland. What came up time and time again is that without the support of peers, international students have an impossible time navigating a complex system, which leads to less willingness to remain in the country after graduation.”
“Sometimes I wonder if this country actually wants international students to stay,” mused Marianna.
The issue is not a small one - multiple academic studies done on international students at Aalto and at other universities show that international students have trouble participating in social networks. Lack of language skills, training in inclusion and intercultural communication, and lack of access to services supporting well-being have all been cited as reasons international students have problems integrating into life in Finland.
If the government is serious about retaining international talent, the focus should be on integration of students at an early stage of their studies, supporting the employment of the recently graduated, and in sending a clear message that foreign nationals are wanted.
AYY’s stance is that tuition fees result in many structural inequalities, and as such, should be done away with entirely. Without tuition fees, institutions can focus on quality education instead of marketing and tuition-fee price wars, and students can focus on studies and networking.
Could Finland do better? How about doing away with tuition fees plus a regular A-type residence permit, with access to all the benefits society has to offer, upon graduation, if not earlier? That would certainly encourage international talent such as Kim and Jack to stay in Finland, learn Finnish and get employed. Chances are they will have been able to fully participate in student life, which means they’ve built networks and their chances of getting a job are also higher. The Finnish government spends a little bit on Kim and Jack getting a Finnish degree, resulting in a young tax-payer who comes with language skills and international networks. We don’t see a down-side here.
Policy Specialist: International Affairs