Higher education institutions estimate the number of student exchanges in the autumn semester to be much lower than normally

Current issues Higher education Coronavirus Internationalisation
Student exchanges in Finnish higher education institutions (HEIs) continue during the autumn semester 2020. However, as a result of the COVID-19 situation, the number of both incoming and outgoing exchange students in Finland are much lower than in a normal situation. According to the HEIs’ estimates, the number of outgoing students from Finland will be only one quarter of what it was last autumn. The total number of incoming exchange students is also clearly lower than before, but some HEIs have even seen an increase in the number of incoming students.
Pile of study books in the foreground and some students sitting at the background

In the end of August, the Finnish National Agency for Education collected HEIs’ estimates of the number of international student mobilities implemented during the autumn semester 2020. All 38 HEIs responded to the survey.

student mobility of autumn 2020 compared to autumn 2019

According to the HEIs’ estimates, more than 2,300 foreign exchange students will be coming to Finland. This is approximately 36% of the number of incoming students a year ago. The number of outgoing students from Finland would seem to remain at one quarter of last autumn’s figures: it is now approximately 900. The number of outgoing students may shrink even further as the terms elsewhere in Europe start later in the autumn and some of the planned exchanges may still be cancelled if the COVID-19 situation in the destination countries deteriorates.

The emphasis of this autumn's student mobility is on Europe as the majority of both outgoing and incoming student mobility is implemented with European countries. The partners also include Russia and some Asian countries, from which especially Japan, China and South Korea stand out. 

11 higher education institutions have cancelled all student exchanges

There are major differences between HEIs regarding how much student mobility is realised this autumn in comparison with the situation last year. At most, the number of outgoing students is slightly over 50% of what it was last autumn. There are also HEIs in which student mobility is not organised at all, as a total of 11 HEIs have cancelled all exchanges for both outgoing and incoming students due to the COVID-19 situation. However, some of these HEIs have made exceptions with students who are completing a double degree or whose degree includes a compulsory mobility period. 

The total number of incoming exchange students in HEIs will remain clearly lower than last autumn although, on the other hand, the number of incoming students can also be considered surprisingly high: in some HEIs, it is almost the same or even higher than the year before. This means that Finnish HEIs have managed to create the preconditions for receiving students in spite of COVID-19. When exchanges agreed in other countries have had to be cancelled, additional places in Finland have sometimes been requested for exchange students. 

According to the reports of HEIs, the number of postponed or entirely cancelled student exchanges is high. The exchanges of almost 2,200 outgoing Finnish students and 2,700 incoming foreign students were postponed or cancelled. Exchanges have been rescheduled to the spring semester 2021 or to the next academic year, but some students may miss the exchange altogether if it is no longer possible at a later stage of their studies.

Incoming students study partly remotely, partly in contact teaching

Student exchanges in the higher education sector are usually long: students stay abroad between one semester and a whole academic year. For example, the average duration of Erasmus+ student exchanges is 5 months. As higher education students go and live in the destination country for some length of time, it is easier for them to comply with the travel and quarantine regulations resulting from the COVID-19 situation than when the mobility period is shorter. 

Finnish HEIs have taken into account the COVID-19 situation by making special arrangements for the exchange students who have come to Finland. When necessary, students are instructed to self-quarantine for two weeks after their arrival in Finland. Orientation programmes have been organised through remote connections as necessary. Depending on the HEI, the studies in the autumn term will be partly completed remotely, but the intention is to also organise contact teaching on the campuses. 

The instructions on travel and quarantines issued by the authorities in the destination countries are followed in the exchanges of outgoing students from Finland. The receiving HEIs are responsible for the teaching arrangements.

Virtual mobility still at a low level

When a physical exchange in the destination country is not possible because of the COVID-19 epidemic, it is now also possible to complete a virtual exchange. This means that the exchange studies are completed through a remote connection from the student’s home country. The exchange studies can be completed entirely virtually or as so-called blended exchanges, which means that a part of the exchange is completed virtually and the rest physically in the destination country. 

Graph showing the type of student mobility in higher education in autumn 2020

Based on the survey, virtual student mobility will remain at a considerably low level this autumn and will affect only a few hundred students. The majority of HEIs are not planning any virtual mobility as outgoing virtual exchange students were reported by 14 HEIs and incoming ones by 10 HEIs.

As reasons for the low number of virtual exchanges, HEIs mention the short preparation time and the virtual concept, which students are not yet familiar with. However, some HEIs have decided to pilot virtual exchanges and offer them to students of their foreign partner institutions. In the long term, virtual mobility is considered to have a lot of potential to diversify the ways in which international competence can be acquired.

Decisions on exchanges for the spring term 2021 will be made later

HEIs prepare the student exchanges for the spring term 2021 during this autumn. Only one HEI reports that it has cancelled its exchanges for the spring term. Based on the survey, even the HEIs that have cancelled exchanges in the autumn term hope to be able to organise them again in the coming spring. However, HEIs are preparing for cancellations and rescheduling that may still be caused by changes in the COVID-19 situation. Many HEIs say that decisions concerning the spring will be made later in the autumn.