Free high quality university education is a rare thing to find. In the vast majority of countries, students pay high tuition fees for a chance at a bright future. This week the Finnish parliament voted for universities in Finland to begin charging tuition fees from students coming from outside the EU/EEA. As Finland has been known for its free high quality education, this decision marks a major milestone in the international history of the small Nordic country.
Previously free higher education has been a significant factor in attracting young people around the world to come to Finland. During my studies we had people from all over the world, over a dozen nationalities studying together and learning from each other. This allowed the Finnish students to interact with the world and learn about different cultures and people as well as form vital networks for the future and made the obscure northern European country more widely known globally. I am still keeping touch with some of the people I befriended at that time.
However, there’s also the flipside to this coin. The vast majority of the foreign students did not remain in Finland. Although this allowed for international networks to develop, the return on investment in the education of the foreign students would definitely have been higher had they stayed in Finland to find employment or establish companies. Part of the reason for the students returning to their home countries was of course the uncertain economic situation in Finland and the low utilization of foreign talent by Finnish companies. However, another part (something that some students openly and often stated) was that the only reason for their presence in Finland was to get a free education they could leverage in their home country or landing a high paying job in a totally different country altogether.
This latter attitude seems to have changed the view Finns have on free high level education for everybody. Thus the government has decided that a tuition fee of at least €1,500 be placed on students from outside the EU/EEA. This – although still being a very low cost for the service – is going to cut down the applicants to Finland from outside the EU/EEA (we have seen this already in Sweden), but the government also is planning on methods to increase the retention of students who do come. One idea that has been floated around is for example tax deductibility of the tuition fees upon graduation.
Regardless of the final shape of the decision and supporting programs (scholarships, tax deductibility, funds…), this decision is going to make an impact on Finland’s image abroad. Whether the end result of this decision is going to be positive or negative, one thing is for certain: School, as everything else, is changing as a result of the financial reality. There’s no more free lunches, but fair opportunities and good quality education still exist in one of the safest countries in the world.