In my work I constantly come across foreigners who have obtained a degree in Finland and would like to find work here. The most common challenges they mention in regard to finding work are the lack of networks and language skills. They struggle with the same problems as those who have degrees from other countries and who have only recently moved to Finland.
In this blog post, I would like to discuss how Finnish universities can make sure that, on the one hand, all graduates have equal opportunities to find employment regardless of their background, and on the other hand that everyone has equal opportunities to get a university education in Finland. When looking into these issues, the key factor seems to be the language.
Being able to speak Finnish does not guarantee that foreigners will find employment, as recent graduates who are native Finnish speakers also struggle to find work. Even though there are sectors in Finland where the working language is English and it is not always necessary to speak Finnish, we still cannot say that it is an equal competition. Out of all immigrants with a university degree, 20 per cent work in menial jobs in restaurants, as cleaners or as postmen, for example. The corresponding figure for native Finns in only three per cent. Even though universities cannot have a direct impact on e.g. discrimination in recruitment, they can do a lot to create equal opportunities.
International degree students should be offered better opportunities to study Finnish, and they should be encouraged to do so. If, for example, the amount of work is excessive in relation to the number of credits being awarded, studying Finnish while also working towards a Master’s degree can be too heavy a burden. It is also important to teach students technical terminology that relates to their field in order to link the language studies directly to their area of specialisation. All of us should also try to stop repeating “it’s so hard to learn Finnish”. If the first thing a student hears when they arrive is that you cannot learn Finnish in two years, they are unlikely to put their full energy on the task.
Universities can also help with building those networks I already mentioned. The language plays an important part in whether or not everyone is included fully, regardless of their background or first language, and whether or not everyone has equal opportunities to start building those important networks while they are still studying. The universities should take a critical look at whether they can be called a truly international educational establishment where Finnish and foreign degree students are part of the same community, or whether international students are treated as a separate group who are offered their own English programme and their own English communications.
Finland also has a lot of potential university students who speak Finnish as their second or third language who are not able to or do not want to apply to English degree programmes, but who also do not feel able to study in Finnish or Swedish. The gap between the language skills acquired in e.g. integration training and the language skills required for higher education can be vast, and there is not a sufficient number of language courses available that provide a sufficiently high level of language. Universities could make the situation easier e.g. by offering prep courses for entrance exams and university studies and by supporting students in learning the language during their studies. The entrance exam could me made easier by giving applicants more time or by making it possible to answer the questions in another language. It cannot be that the best and most motivated students in higher education are only the applicants who speak Finnish as their first language.
It is the responsibility of universities to assess critically which applicants are admitted to Finnish universities, and whether the situation reflects our social structure. I would like to challenge universities to consider whether the current admissions practices promote the realisation of true equality, or whether they are only strengthening existing power structures.
Subconsciously the “good guy” that more and more employers are looking for in their job interviews is going to be the person who is most like us. It is worth taking this unconscious discrimination into consideration in the aptitude tests and interviews of universities and universities of applied sciences when interviewers come across a motivated applicant who speaks Finnish as their second or third language.
Project Coordinator for At Work in Finland