Higher education mobility and exchange periods have been the success story of an increasingly international higher education community for decades. In scientific communities, inventions and ideas never emerged from a vacuum but spread from village to village through interaction. Trust, education, happiness, and a joint future in Europe is the result of face-to-face exchange of ideas and cultural understanding.
While one person may want to go on an exchange programme to find themselves, another may wish to expand their academic viewpoints – or why not refine their wine palate or make new friends. In actual fact, our society cannot manage without a comprehensive range of experts that understand the changing world without boundaries, are able to work in many languages, and realise that many problems transcend national boundaries. Finland needs international expertise and a foreign labour force. Students that graduate having obtained international competences will make it easier for companies, organisations and public administration to adjust to international working environments also in their home country.
During the pandemic, higher education mobility has meant, for many students, just making their way from their bed to the fridge or their computer. However, the pandemic does not explain why fewer and fewer have been on international exchange programmes. Mobility has been declining since 2016, when students bore the brunt of the then Prime Minister Sipilä’s education cuts. This resulted in meagre student livelihoods, while universities were under pressure to have students graduate as soon as possible. Opportunities for exchange programmes were increasingly only possible for higher-income students. Things were also made more difficult by the tight degree requirements and the problem of balancing them with your life situation.
As Finnish students are required to complete their degrees within tight limits, we should ask us whether Finland will be left behind globally. When an educational system is designed for the sole purpose of getting plenty of graduates, the international aspects are first to be thrown out of the window. Students are encouraged to go on exchange programmes but taking time off for six months and completing courses in other than a specific order maybe difficult to arrange.
Another problem with many fields is posed by mandatory courses that may be difficult or next to impossible to replace with courses abroad. There may not be much of an incentive to study abroad if you will only get five credits for six months of study. And even so, these may be included among elective studies, the number of which is already limited in many degree programmes. At worst, because of rigid degree structures, students have to explain to Kela why their studies are delayed and why they have spent time studying abroad.
One solution is to make international aspects a part of study modules. Genuine opportunities should be offered for international studies, not just empty targets. Internationalisation can also be promoted and supported by other means, it is not absolutely necessary to go abroad. And in any case, studying abroad may not be an option for everyone owing to a life or family situation or illness. For these reasons, too, global thinking should be made a part of every students’ unique study path, whether it’s internationalisation at home, visiting lecturers, language courses, remote studies of a foreign university, or traineeship at an international company.
The Finland of the future will need international experts, people who understand global problems and their specific characteristics. Internationalisation is not just something that happens on its own, it requires input and changes to degree programmes to make international mobility genuinely possible.
Member of the Board