Student mobility in higher education has recovered after COVID – fewer and fewer university of applied sciences students going on exchange
According to the Finnish National Agency for Education’s snapshot survey , a total of 3,200 students from Finnish higher education institutions have gone on student or traineeship mobility periods abroad lasting longer than two months this autumn. Correspondingly, nearly 5,800 students from foreign higher education institutions have come to Finland this autumn. Higher education institutions anticipate that the figures will increase in the coming spring term: according to estimates, over 4,200 students will be going on mobility periods in the spring. The total number of incoming students in the spring is not yet known. The current number reported by Finnish higher education institutions is just over 3,200 students, but this number is likely to increase as there have traditionally been more incoming than outgoing students.
New options for students include so-called blended mobility periods, which combine physical mobility with a virtual part that can be completed remotely in the student’s home country. Particularly popular have been short blended mobility periods lasting less than one month, such as the blended intensive programmes offered under the European Union’s Erasmus+ Programme, the organisation of which has been possible since the start of the 2021 programme period. These types of short blended mobility periods have been especially popular among students of university of applied sciences. The total number of Finnish students who went on these types of mobility periods during the autumn term was 316, of which 261 were university of applied sciences students and 55 were university students.
The Finnish National Agency for Education has been monitoring the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on student mobility in higher education since spring 2020 by means of snapshot surveys , the most recent of which was conducted in October 2022. Responses to the survey were received from all 13 Finnish universities and 24 universities of applied sciences.
Student mobility figures of universities of applied sciences have not recovered to pre-COVID levels – the decline started even before COVID
Of the students going on mobility periods abroad during this autumn term, 2,022, or 63%, are university students. University of applied sciences students thus account for only 37% of the outgoing students, or 1,186 students. Based on preliminary information from higher education institutions, the gap between university and university of applied sciences students is expected to widen further in the spring term: of the students going on exchange in the spring, 65.7% are university students and 34.3% are university of applied sciences students. In terms of student mobility, universities have been more active than universities of applied sciences throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as well.
The student mobility figures of Finnish higher education institutions were already declining before the COVID-19 pandemic, with 2016 marking the turning point. Until 2016, the number of students going on international mobility periods from Finland was over 10,000 each year, and the split between university and university of applied sciences students was roughly even. The current figures are far behind these peak years. The downward trend has been notably steeper at universities of applied sciences than at universities: in 2016–2019, the mobility figures of universities of applied sciences fell by 33% while the mobility figures of universities fell by 16%.
The Finnish National Agency for Education is concerned about the downward trend and, in particular, the way the situation is developing at universities of applied sciences.
“The international skills of higher education students are at risk if students are no longer going on exchanges and traineeships abroad. International mobility periods teach important skills that are needed in today’s increasingly international employment market. According to studies, these skills include not only language skills and cultural competence, but also things like curiosity, resilience and productivity. These qualities are needed in all industries,” says Programme manager Anni Kallio from the Finnish National Agency for Education.
According to the Finnish National Agency for Education’s survey, there are also differences in the development of student mobility within the two sectors. Of Finland’s 13 universities, seven estimated that their numbers of outgoing students in the autumn term were slightly or notably higher than pre-COVID, three estimated that their numbers were at the same level as pre-COVID and three stated that their numbers would remain below pre-COVID levels. Of the 24 universities of applied sciences, 12 stated that their numbers would remain clearly below pre-COVID levels and six stated that theirs would remain slightly below. Only two universities of applied sciences stated that their numbers of outgoing students were now higher than pre-COVID.
The situation is similar as regards incoming students as well: of the students coming to Finland in the autumn term, 66.2% came to study at universities while 33.8% came to study at universities of applied sciences. These shares have remained roughly the same throughout the pandemic. During the 2019 autumn term, the total number of students coming to Finland was 6,639, of which 62.2% came to study at universities and 37.8% came to study at universities of applied sciences.
The global situation has reduced the international mobility periods of university of applied sciences students in particular
In their survey responses, Finnish higher education institutions speculated that the reason why mobility figures have increased might be because of an influx of students taking the first opportunity to go on an international mobility period now after being unable to do so during the pandemic. In other words, the growth could also be temporary. The number of outgoing students may also have increased due to the increasing range of options, such as shorter blended mobility periods. A few higher education institutions also believed student mobility to have been boosted by the Erasmus+ European Universities initiative and resulting closer cooperation between European higher education institutions. Higher education institutions have also been actively marketing different mobility options to their students, which may have increased the numbers of outgoing students.
On the other hand, low mobility figures were explained with reasons that have already been identified as driving the change that has been taking place since 2016: the pressure of students to graduate quickly, inflexible degree structures and the fact that international studies are not a planned part of degrees programmes. According to higher education institutions, the numbers of students going on mobility periods has also decreased due to the limited number of financial student aid months and other economic factors, such as working while studying and general price increases.
With student mobility having been lower than normal during the pandemic, there have also been fewer students serving as inspiring examples for other students. This was presented as a possible reason more commonly by universities of applied sciences than universities.
The uncertain global situation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine was also highlighted as a possible reason by universities of applied sciences in particular. For university of applied sciences students, international mobility has often consisted of traineeships at foreign workplaces, which have been difficult to find during the pandemic. This has been the case for students in the health and social services sector, in particular. The age structure of university of applied sciences students was also noted as presenting challenges: an increasing number of students are adults with families and jobs for whom going on long international mobility periods is difficult.
Apart from the uncertain global situation, higher education institutions did not recognise the war as having had any other direct impacts on the situation of outgoing students. Furthermore, the number of incoming students has been so high in the 2022 autumn term that the war does not seem to have had any major impact on students’ willingness to come to Finland either. However, the security situation of Finland has raised concerns especially in non-European countries, with both students and partner higher education institutions having been inquiring about how safe it is to come to Finland on exchange. A few students have also cancelled their mobility periods in Finland on the grounds of uncertainty, but these have been isolated cases.
- Anni Kallio, Programme manager, tel. +358 29 533 8696, anni.kallio [at] oph.fi