The Government’s report on educational policy states that the number of international degree students will be tripled by 2030. That means that every year, Finnish higher education institutions are to accept 15,000 international students. It is an ambitious goal worthy of endorsement and requires not just staring at statistics but taking measures as well. One of them is fixing the inhuman and stiff residence permit process.
There are three points we have to fix about the residence permit process for students. The student must be able to 1) get to Finland without difficulty 2) study in Finland in peace and 3) stay in Finland after graduation. In my previous blog post, I introduced the fictional student called Top Expert, and looked at the student’s chances to get to Finland smoothly. In this blog, we will be taking a look at Top Expert’s everyday life as a student in Finland.
After several applications, authorities, and hours of work, the Finnish higher education institution is ready to welcome Top Expert, who is on her way from outside the EU and EEA. She has paid the tuition fee, the processing fee for the residence permit, several visits to different agencies, the obligatory health insurance, and housing in Finland, and she has met the conditions for the financial requirements. Now she finally has permission to stay and study in Finland for a year.
At their worst, the financial requirements for international students for a single academic year may add up to more than 25,000€. This keeps all too many experts out of Finland, based purely on their financial situation. It would benefit Finland to also give international experts from humble backgrounds the opportunity to study here. One way to ease the unreasonable economic requirements is to lower the financial requirements for residence permits. A reform to the financial requirements is sorely needed, as the system has not been re-examined since the tuition fees were introduced. Fixing up the system would be easy now that the Aliens Act is being updated.
The studies are starting and Top is slowly settling in. During her first months, Top has especially enjoyed the high quality education, various fun student events, and the closeness to nature. Top has progressed in her studies according to her study plan and tried to learn Finnish every chance she has got. In addition, she has taken on shift work in the nearby store, since she wants to get a head start on saving for the tuition fees and other expenses. Top has a busy life, but she is doing okay for now.
Top is no exception in this regard. International students are under a lot of pressure to get enough study credits, and often a certain grade point average. Grants, scholarships, or even the residence permit of international students may depend on them. High financial requirements and tuition fees force international students to find work in addition to their studies, work that may not even correspond to their field of study. Language studies can often not be included in the degree, which means that international students have to learn Finnish in their own time. It is hard to get by in Finnish society without knowledge of either Finnish or Swedish, due to e.g. job language requirements. Then again, knowing the language naturally makes integration easier.
After Christmas, Top Expert already has to start thinking about the next autumn term. The Finnish Immigration Service promises to get the residence permit application process done within four or five months, but does not give an exact date, so Top has to live in constant uncertainty. Exiting the country is restricted during the processing of the residence permit application, so Top is not able to meet her family and friends. The constant uncertainty, the busy schedule and a growing homesickness start to exhaust Top’s mental reserves.
The current system forces international students to apply for a residence permit every one or two years. Often students apply for a residence permit only for one year ahead, since getting a residence permit for two years requires students to have 13,440€ in their bank account in order to meet the required level of income. In other words, an international student working towards a degree has to go through the residence permit circus five times during their studies. The situation is difficult for higher education institutions as well, since every year, they have to worry about the number of international students. The residence permit for degree students should be granted for the entirety of the studies.
After a long spring of waiting, Top is finally granted a residence permit. Once again, she has had to save up 25,000 euro to pay for her studies and to prove she can live in Finland for one more year. Top takes comfort in the fact that after a year, she will have her degree ready, get to work in her own field of expertise, and have to stress less about cost of studying and the yearly residence permit circus.