Finland not committed to students at all – good and bad of the Government Programme
Outcome of the negotiations on the Government Programme was published on 16 June. According to new Prime Minister Petteri Orpo, education was under special protection. Unfortunately, a large part of the measures to balance the economy will undermine the position, opportunities and livelihood of students.
Livelihood at stake
The Government Programme talks beautifully about investing in young people, but the measures speak a different language. Students’ ill-being has continued to increase since the COVID-19 pandemic and does not appear to subside. In addition to words, investing in well-being requires action – and money.
According to studies, livelihood and performance stress caused by society have a major impact on the well-being of students. Nevertheless, the Government Programme includes cuts in the general housing allowance and incentives for strict, fast-track degrees.
Cuts in the general housing allowance will badly affect students living in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. For years, the maximum eligible expenditure for the general housing allowance has been lower than the actual housing costs in the metropolitan area. Lowering the housing allowance to 70 per cent of the maximum rent will further impair the livelihood of students living at the poverty line.
It is also problematic for the development of student housing if grounds for the housing allowance are constantly changed. Many shared flats have been renovated into studios as a result of changes in the housing allowance in 2017. We also have a shortage of student housing. A thousand of new flats are planned for Otaniemi campus alone to meet the increasing number of students. There is simply not enough of affordable housing for all students in the metropolitan area and the planned cuts in affordable housing production will not help.
The comprehensive reform of student financial aid is a hoped-for entry. However, it is disappointing that the reform is prepared separately from the comprehensive reform of social security. Student financial aid should enable full-time studies without the current focus on the student loan.
Instead of simplifying a jungle of financial support, the Government Programme is planning to develop a new ”financially attractive option that will favour shared student housing”. In the big picture, developing new kinds of parallel and/or overlapping forms of support is questionable, even if the intentions are good.
It is positive that the Government Programme invests in free psychotherapist training and maximum waiting time for access to therapy for children and young people although the inclusion of students in this group is unclear. We hope that the “development” of provider supplement to the study grant will genuinely improve the livelihood of student families with many children.
International students in distress
For international students, the Government Programme does not look very positive. The Government Programme states that the Government invests in international recruitment and strives to make Finland an attractive country to work in. But who wants to come here to work or study with the immigration policy promoted by the Government? Getting residence permits and entry into Finland will be made much more difficult. International students, especially those from non-EU/EEA countries, live under great pressure to graduate quickly and the continuity of residence permits is stressful. The immigration policy planned by the Government will only increase their stress and drive potential incoming students to other countries.
Restrictions on residence permits and citizenship send the message that Finland does not welcome international students. In addition, restrictions on family reunification unreasonably complicate the situation for students with children, which is inhumane and unequal. Students come from very different situations in life, but this is not recognized and appreciated by the Government Programme.
The Government Programme states that “the Government will ensure that education-based immigration is controlled”, which allows misconduct in student admission. Resorting to social security automatically leads to the cancellation of a student-based residence permit, which is an extremely inhumane policy. Situations in life can change suddenly and radically. Social security ensures the student’s opportunity to study, get a degree and find employment in Finland.
To our delight, the Government Programme includes a couple of entries that may benefit international students. The Government intends to look into the establishment of a compensation plan similar to student loan compensation for students who arrive from a non-EU/EEA country if they have worked in Finland for a specific period. The Government would like to simplify the recognition of foreign qualifications, which is good news and hopefully will happen.
Education funded by students
The Government is committed to taking measures to increase the number of people with higher education degrees to “as close as possible” to the previously set level of 50 per cent among people aged 25–34. As for many other objectives, an implementation plan will be prepared later, and there is no mention of the funding of student places. However, available student places are targeted to some areas, such as healthcare and social welfare, the education sector as well as the regions with export businesses and industries.
Targeting available student places at those completing their first degree is likely to be implemented with tuition fees of another higher education degree of the same level although this is not mentioned in the Government Programme either. However, this issue has recently been under discussion. It is obvious that such a measure would clearly narrow down students' opportunities in the future and would be a very drastic step on the road to tuition fees. The programme already mentions that an increasing share of higher education funding will be collected from non-EU and non-EEA students as well as students in open higher education – reducing core funding in the same proportion.
Implementing full costing of tuition fees for current non-EU and non-EEA students is not only unequal but also significantly reduces the internationalisation of the arts sector in particular. University degrees in arts and culture cost three times more than business degrees (Finnish National Agency for Education 2022). At the same time, the labour market in the cultural sector seems increasingly uncertain due to the policies of the Government Programme.
Before the elections, the capitalisation of higher education was also discussed, but this increase in funding is not mentioned in the Government Programme. “Core funding is ensured” within the framework of the Act on Research and Development Funding. It is great that the Government complies with a long-term policy on R&D funding, but as the only core funding entry, this mention is also inadequate.
It is also a good idea that the Government Programme promises to focus new available student places where the initial intake relative to the number of young people is low. Currently, there are not enough available student places for young people in Uusimaa region near their home. On the other hand, housing allowance cuts and changes in ARA construction make it increasingly difficult to find student housing, especially in Helsinki and elsewhere in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area.
The programme also pays attention to science and teaching in Finnish and Swedish. The "special features” of Swedish-speaking education “are taken into account" and “legislation is used to encourage” higher education institutions to provide more teaching of the languages of Finland. We look forward to the more specific implementation of these issues while Aalto University is working on new teaching and degree language policies and a response to the ruling of Chancellor of Justice on overusing English in teaching. Will the Government provide concrete support for this work?
The Government Programme includes many obvious issues that undermine the position of students and at least as many promises, the implementation of which will be investigated and for which no funding is promised.
Pushing students to graduate within the normative period by undermining livelihood? No thanks. Increasing available student places without additional resources to the already crowded campuses and overloaded fresher groups? No thanks. Expelling international students when they face problems in life? No thanks.
We are hoping that the Government Programme will be implemented by listening to students and the wider academic community.