COVID-19 reduced the number of student exchanges in higher education also in the autumn term
The situation is revealed by a survey addressed to higher education institutions (HEIs) by the Finnish National Agency for Education (EDUFI) in November 2021, to which all 37 HEIs responded. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on international mobility in higher education have been monitored regularly throughout the pandemic.
The number of outgoing students was below half of normal
In the autumn term, almost 1,800 students from Finland went on student exchanges or traineeships abroad. Of them, 1,000 were students from universities and slightly under 800 from universities of applied sciences. The number remained lower than anticipated by HEIs in June: at the time, almost 2,300 exchanges were expected to take place.
However, the number of outgoing students has grown each term since autumn 2020, when only slightly over 700 students went abroad. The figures were clearly higher before the COVID-19 pandemic: in 2019, approximately 4,000 students per term completed a period abroad.
The survey revealed that the uncertainty about the COVID-19 situation made many students postpone applying for a mobility period until the spring term 2022 instead of the autumn as the situation was expected to improve by then with vaccinations becoming more common. Some of the exchanges planned for the autumn term were later rescheduled for the spring term and some were cancelled altogether. This has happened especially with mobilities to destinations outside Europe as exchanges to many Asian countries or the United States have not been possible. In addition to students’ own decisions, cancellations have also been made because of the restrictions in the destination country or in the receiving HEIs.
HEIs anticipate that the figures for the spring term will be significantly better than in the autumn: there should be slightly over 3,600 outgoing students. However, the situation still lives and exchanges for the spring are still getting cancelled.
The reasonably moderate COVID-19 situation maintained Finland’s attractiveness: the number of incoming students closer to normal
The number of students completing a period abroad in Finland has remained clearly higher than the number of outgoing students throughout the COVID-19 epidemic. In the autumn term 2021, Finnish higher education institutions hosted 4,100 foreign exchange students and the number is anticipated to be 4,200 in the spring term 2022. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were between 5,000 and 5,500 incoming exchange students in Finland every term.
There have been differences between HEIs in whether they have accepted exchange students. A total of 7 HEIs said they had cancelled almost all incoming student mobility from abroad in the autumn term. In addition, a few HEIs had accepted incoming students only from within Europe. However, many HEIs have continued student exchanges normally and some HEIs have even received record numbers of exchange students.
According to the HEI’s estimates, Finland's attractiveness in the eyes of foreign exchange students has been increased by the COVID-19 transmission rates, which have been low in comparison with many countries, and the restrictions, which have been found relatively mild.
COVID-19 has enhanced the development of virtual internationalisation
The COVID-19 pandemic has speeded up the mainstreaming of virtual exchanges: virtuality would seem to be establishing itself as part of international cooperation also in the future.
Some of the planned periods abroad have been implemented fully virtually during the pandemic, meaning that students have participated online from their home country, and some as blended mobility, which is a combination of virtual and physical mobility. In the new programme period of the European Union's Erasmus+ programme, which started at the beginning of 2021, blended mobilities of both students and staff will receive funding. Virtual mobility in turn is on the increase in the European Universities cooperation, in which 11 Finnish HEIs already participate.
According to the survey, students of Finnish HEIs have not yet been very keen to seize the opportunities provided by virtual or blended mobility as only slightly under 80 such mobilities were completed in the autumn term. However, as many as 400 foreign exchange students studied virtually in Finnish HEIs.
Estimating what will happen in the spring term is still difficult at this stage, but the numbers would seem to be on the increase. It is anticipated that at least 200 outgoing and more than 400 incoming virtual or blended exchanges will be completed.
Staff mobility is also starting gradually
In the survey conducted by EDUFI early last summer, HEIs anticipated that staff mobility would be starting again in the autumn term after a break of almost 1.5 years.
This is also what happened. However, the number of periods abroad has remained at a significantly lower level than before the COVID-19 pandemic: slightly more than 260 staff from HEIs have gone abroad and the same number of visitors from abroad have come to Finnish HEIs.
The number is expected to grow in the spring as more than 600 outgoing and incoming staff members are anticipated for the spring.
Before the pandemic, in the academic year 2019, there were almost 7,100 outgoing staff from universities of applied sciences and incoming staff comprised more than 3,400 people. The corresponding figures for universities were slightly under 3,200 and slightly under 2,200.
- Programme Manager Anni Kallio, p. 029 5338696, anni.kallio [at] oph.fi