Hello, tuition fees – farewell, international students?

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On 15 December 2015, the Finnish Parliament decided to impose tuition fees for non-EU/EEA students studying for Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs taught in English, starting from August 2017. Aalto student Param Jolly interviewed students, Aalto staff, AYY and experts to find out how they feel about the fees and their impact on Finland’s academic future.

Imposing the tuition fees is an interesting move and may have some far reaching implications on Finland’s higher education reputation and its overall academic output, among other things. Finland was one of the very few countries in the world offering free education irrespective of the nationality of the student. This will no longer be the case.

I am an international student at Aalto. Before writing this article I believed that the tuition fees were an important issue that deserved to be written and discussed about. However, I was not expecting how much people would have to say on this matter. I read through multiple pages of comments and discussions on social media along with various blogs and forums. I got in touch with some of these people and asked for their views on how they feel, now that the important details about the fees are out. I also got some valuable viewpoints from discussions with people at Aalto University and AYY.

The Study in Finland website markets Finland as an ”exotic and a safe target country” for International Students. Will this still hold true in the near future? Or is the new tuition fee policy going to deter foreign students from applying? Let’s have a look at what the academic community has to say.

”Only 32% of foreign students leave Finland within 5 years of graduation. About 50% of all international graduates are working and as a result paying taxes.”


Iiro Salo, a native Master’s Degree Student at Aalto University thinks that he learned a lot about working with non-European students and that “the new legislation might have a negative impact on the multicultural atmosphere at the University.” On the other hand, he feels that if the number of non-EU students don’t drop, the extra money may help maintain the diversity of courses on campus.

Melissa Demel, an American Bachelor’s Degree student studying International Business at Savonia University of Applied Sciences is writing her thesis on the Customer Satisfaction of Mobility Students. While researching for her thesis she learned this:

”The major reason why universities open their doors to foreign students is to build up an international environment to support globalisation in the working world. These students can bring a wealth of intercultural skills and knowhow along with them. Many of the foreigners I have studied with had to go back home because they simply couldn’t make it work after graduation. So I totally understand why there has been a cry for tuition fees for those who chose not to remain in Finland after their studies and support the Finnish Economy by paying income taxes.”

Demel compiled data from 2 049 students from 77 nationalities on six indicators, out of which ”value for money” of their university education was ranked incredibly high. She further points out that the students get a short period of time to search for a job before their Residence Permit expires and worries how Finnish Universities will remain competitive after the fees are introduced because of the uncertain return on investment.

Patoh Maritim, A Bachelor’s Degree student from Kenya, studying at Arcada University of Applied Sciences is afraid that he may be unable to continue his education post his Bachelor’s Degree because funding his studies will be hard. He believes he would need 2 or more jobs to cover his tuition, rent and expenses.

There are several students like Maritim and Demel who came to Finland to study for a Bachelor’s Degree but are unable to continue their education after graduating. By the time they apply for a Master’s Degree, the new legislation will be in effect and they will have to pay the tuition fee, which they are unable to afford.

Maria Sundin, a former Swedish exchange student at Aalto University says that even though she does not have a specific opinion, her friends consider it quite natural that non-EU Students have to pay for their education.

”They highlight that everyone is supposed to pay the government back in some way, it’s just a question of when and how”, Sundin explains.

Her friends seem to consider it a no-brainer that they have those fees in Sweden.

After this legislation was passed and more recently when the tuition fees for Aalto University were announced, there was a spurt in discussions across social media. Members of the English speaking community particularly voiced their opinions in response to this. Not all of them were against the fees. A few people, especially Finnish citizens felt that there should be some sort of a system in place which doesn’t put the taxpayer under burden for financing the education of foreign students. Instead this public money may be utilized elsewhere.

There is a prevailing sentiment that students exploit the system by leaving the country after getting a good quality free education. This however, may not necessarily be the case as evident in light of some statistics released by CIMO (Centre for International Mobility). According to them, only 32% of foreign students leave Finland within 5 years of graduation. About 50% of all international graduates are working and as a result paying taxes. This means that by staying and working here, they are in fact adding value to the Finnish Economy.


Prof. Gary Marquis, Dean of the School of Engineering clarified some important details and outlined the philosophy behind the new plan:

Introduction of fees for non-EU/EEA Students at Aalto and all other Universities in Finland is purely a legislative decision by the Finnish Parliament. Each Finnish University’s Administration was tasked with deciding upon the amount of the said fee. The decision for the amount was made on the basis of benchmarking other internationally renowned universities, particularly in the Nordic region such as those in Sweden and Denmark.

According to Marquis, the tuition fee policy isn’t based on a profit based model. Instead, at least initially, Aalto University will merely “break even” with respect to the grants and waivers that it will disburse to high performing international students studying under the fee system. He hopes that in the future, after the challenges of the initial transitional period are overcome, the surplus funds can be used to fund more research and other projects, thus raising the academic output of the university.

Marquis believes this new tuition fee policy will help put value to the high quality of education imparted in Finland. He also acknowledges that during the first few years of the fee implementation, the diversity on campus may take a hit, with more students coming from within the EU than from the outside.

An interesting point to note is that the Finnish Parliament stipulated a requirement of a minimum fee of 1 500 EUR, with all Universities being given the freedom to decide upon the final amount based on their own benchmarking studies and/or internal policy decisions. For example, University of Helsinki has decided an annual fee of 13–18 000 EUR and Aalto University has fixed a 12–15 000 EUR fee depending upon the course of study.


Milla Ovaska, International Affairs Specialist at AYY (Aalto University Student Union) strongly believes that:

”The most important factor to safeguard in this tuition fee process is the internationality of the University.”

She emphasizes that Aalto and Finland in general have worked long and hard to internationalise the university, plan new programs and make the university experience international for everyone. All of this effort is now at stake.

She feels that a lot of Finns don’t understand that the non-EU/EEA students don’t get the Kela benefits that Finnish students do. The tuition has so far been free, but the living expenses have always been managed by the foreign students themselves. The introduction of fees may mean that a lot of international students may no longer be able to afford studying in Finland and the international environment of Aalto may suffer as a result.

”At this point the most important aspect would be to try and avoid a complete loss of international students at Aalto.” Milla Ovaska, AYY

Ovaska is of the opinion that Finland will seem to be “superexpensive” compared to other top quality Middle European destinations and that comparisons with Sweden and Denmark are not entirely valid as they both have different funding legislations to Finland and have not been very successful in attracting international students.

She exclaims that it is “absolutely vital” that the grants and waivers to be implemented should be generous and standardized, so that there is at least some influx of international students from diverse backgrounds at Aalto. She points out that funding for the degrees comes from the state and thus granting waivers does not put financial burden on the University. She insists:

”At this point the most important aspect would be to try and avoid a complete loss of international students at Aalto.”

The administration, if necessary, may adapt by amending its current fee policy and increase grants if the new international student enrollments drop dramatically.


The percentage of international students at Aalto University have averaged at around 20% from 2010 to 2014. The top 5 Countries which comprise the international student body are China, Vietnam, Russia, India and Pakistan, all non-EU/EEA countries. Together they comprise 46% of the total full time international students at Aalto. This means that it is almost certain that the new tuition fee policy will change the diversity of the incoming students in 2017. I expect there to be fewer international students on campus and the ones that do enroll, may largely be from EU member states. This is a pity because Finland might lose some vital International talent to countries like Germany and Norway, where tuition remains free.

Finland’s unique and flexible education system, along with its healthy work culture needs to be marketed to the rest of the world. Finland performs so well on a lot of the progressive indices and global surveys, yet people around the world don’t seem to take notice. This needs to change. Finland needs highly skilled people to spearhead its economic growth and maintain competitiveness. This can only be achieved in a framework devised to be favorable to international students.

Internationalization has a big influence on the college going experience of any student. It brings with it a lot of positive elements like learning through working in culturally diverse groups, collaborating on projects, sharing ideas and obviously social interactions at campus events and parties. Aalto will have to greatly improve its marketing strategy to reach out to a wider intellectual group. Along with this, establishing a good grant system, continuously improving its higher education model and creating better research opportunities may help raise the University’s reputation as a favored academic destination. But will Aalto University rise to this challenge and emerge as a champion of internationalization in this rapidly changing global environment? Only time will tell.