Coronavirus complicates the situation of incoming degree students as well as exchange students in Finland

Current issues Higher education Coronavirus Internationalisation
The coronavirus pandemic has had a considerable impact on international student mobility in higher education institutions (HEIs). In the course of this year, the Finnish National Agency for Education has investigated the situation by means of several surveys on the number of mobilities and the arrangements made by HEIs. The most recent survey revealed that coronavirus has in many ways complicated not only the situation of exchange students but also the situation of foreign degree students in HEIs.
Students studying in a library

The survey was carried out at the end of October and the beginning of November, and responses were received from all of the 35 HEIs. The situation of foreign students studying a whole higher education degree in Finland was now assessed for the first time.

The coronavirus situation has made applying for residence permits difficult for new degree students

According to the HEIs, many new degree students from non-EU/EEA countries have experienced problems with applying for a residence permit as some Finnish diplomatic missions have been closed because of the coronavirus epidemic. The statistics of the Finnish Immigration Service also shows that the number of students applying for a residence permit for studies has fallen because of coronavirus: only 1,700 applications for a first residence permit were submitted between June and August, while the number was 3,900 a year earlier. Of course, the figures also include personal decisions students have made in the coronavirus situation.

During the academic year 2020–2021, new students have exceptionally been able to register as non-attending students if the coronavirus situation has prevented them from entering Finland. According to the statistical service Vipunen, there have been a clearly lower number of students from the EU/EEA countries registering as attending students than previously.  

In the open-ended questions of the survey, HEIs told about degree students’ difficulties related to entering Finland and the uncertainty caused by the situation. Some of the new students have started their studies as distance learning in their home country, some have arrived in Finland in the middle of the term and some have still not received a residence permit. Distance learning in the home country has been complicated by network connections that do not always work and the time difference. Studying alone has been difficult for many as the student community around the student is missing. Integration has also been challenging for those physically studying in Finland as distance learning has reduced the number of social contacts. 

The progress of studies has also varied among those foreign degree students who have started their studies earlier. Courses that require contact teaching have had to be postponed to a later time and students have not been able to collect material for their master’s thesis or complete their practical training because of coronavirus. There have also been challenges in terms of income, as the coronavirus epidemic in the spring destroyed work opportunities for many students. In this acute situation, some HEIs have reduced their tuition fees to help students. 

Mobility periods in the autumn term have mainly been carried out in the destination country, the number of virtual exchanges remained low

The survey specified the number of student mobilities in the autumn term in more detail. There were approximately 800 outgoing higher education students from Finland and slightly over 2,300 incoming students, while before coronavirus, the number of outgoing students in autumn has been approximately 4,000 and the number of incoming students approximately 6,000. The periods abroad have mainly been completed physically in the destination country. However, in just under 10% of the cases, the students have started the exchange as distance learning in their home country and travelled physically to the destination country later. Very few fully virtual periods abroad have been completed: 23 Finnish students have used remote connections to study in foreign HEIs and 116 foreign exchange students to study in Finnish HEIs.

Both Finnish and foreign HEIs have organised studies in the autumn term either as fully online or by using a hybrid model combining distance learning and contact teaching. Many exchange students have largely been studying from their student flats, so building social relationships has been more challenging. 

The realisation of exchanges in the spring term is still seen in a positive light

HEIs see the situation in student mobility in the spring term as brighter than it was in the autumn: according to the current estimate, almost 3,000 outgoing Finnish students would be going on exchange or completing a traineeship abroad and slightly under 3,800 incoming students would be coming to Finland. The period abroad has been cancelled or postponed for 1,500 outgoing and 600 incoming students. While 11 HEIs cancelled their exchanges completely in the autumn, only one has done so for the spring term and two HEIs say they will not decide on their exchanges for the spring term until later.

In other words, HEIs have a strong intent to offer their students opportunities to build up international competence as part of their studies, and they closely monitor the development of the coronavirus situation. Some of the exchanges will almost certainly have to be cancelled as the situation in many countries has been deteriorating rapidly. 

Outgoing students from Finland 2020-2021. In autumn semester 2020 73% were  cancelled or postponed, 24% were physical mobilities, 3% blended and 1% virtual. In spring semester 63% of mobilities are planned physical, 33% cancelled or postponed, 2% blended and 2% virtual.
Incoming student mobilities in 2020-2021 in higher education. In autumn semester 52% were cancelled or postponed, 41% physical mobilities, 4% blended and 2% virtual mobilities. In spring semester 2021 79% are planned physical, 12% cancelled or postponed, 5% virtual and 4% blended.