A survey of Finland’s universities of applied sciences has revealed that increasing numbers of students are finding themselves unable to enter the country due to visa issues.
ARENE, the group representing the rectors of the country’s applied sciences institutions, found that out of all institutions, a significant proportion were only seeing 60-80% of their international students arrive at all.
Almost half of the students from abroad that were eventually admitted to Finland had not arrived in the country by the beginning of December last year, despite studies starting in August and September.
“The residence permit handling [was not] successful last year in many areas and therefore many institutions suffered losses,” Joanna Kumpula, head of international education and integration support at Tampere University told The PIE News.
The survey also referred to places being cancelled because of the visa backlogs, and ARENE also recognised that another challenge for the immigration service is the “unreasonable length of them” student visa renewal tends to take in the country.
“When the legislation concerning student residence permits changed last year, we did openly note that the issue most often is not the Finnish immigration services but the consulate backlogs for the identification process,” she explained.
Sandra Slotte, who has worked in internationalisation of higher education for 15 years and currently works as head of sustainable career support at Arcada University of Applied Sciences, said this identification process has been a pain point for a long time.
“This is not just a pandemic backlash,” she clarifies, talking to The PIE.
After tuition fees were introduced in 2017, numbers dropped slightly for general universities, and slightly more sharply for universities of applied sciences – but neither figure ever truly suffered, and Finland is now seeing record numbers of international student applications.
The PIE also reported on problems around residence permit delays in 2019.
“That aim to attract and retain as many international students as possible, tripling the amount of international degree students by 2030 and getting 75% of them to stay in Finland to work – huge national policies – is dependent on the fact that people are able to get into the country,” explained Slotte.
“We try to be flexible and support them so that we can have them on campus in August or get them started online if not. As some of them aren’t getting the residence permits in time, they are understandably stressed and worried and reach out to us but there is nothing higher education institutions can do about the actual visa process,” she added.
“This is not just a pandemic backlash”
The executive director of ARENE, Ida Mielityinen, also concurred that the goal to triple numbers by the end of the decade meant students would require students to actually “arrive on time”.
Slotte also elaborated on how higher education institutions are now more dependent on those tuition fees after cuts to education funding for a variety of reasons.
“Tuition fees obviously are going to be charged for those who actually make it to Finland. And now we have the situation where the higher education institutions don’t get the funding if the students don’t arrive,” she added.
The identification process is currently the crux of the problem, according to schools in the survey. Students have to go to a Finnish embassy or consulate to identify themselves before they are admitted to the country, but some students have had to wait up to six months for access to identification, resulting in what Slotte referred to as a bottleneck.
“With the technical changes introduced during the spring – for example the so-called automatic activation, the aim is to continue to respond to scheduling challenges. At the same time, we are also cooperating with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland to make the initial phase of the process smoother,” said a statement sent to The PIE from the Finnish Immigration Service.
It argued that there was actually a speed-up in summer visa processing – and that despite the strong increase in the number of applications, “the average processing time has not increased to the same extent”.
“The residence permit handling [was not] successful last year in many areas”
The service is confident that with its work with the foreign affairs branch during the spring, it will be “able to better respond to the growing number of applications during the next summer season”.
However, Slotte also pointed out that a simpler, more enduring issue may still hamper the speed-up of Finland’s visa processing for students.
“Timing-wise, there seems to be a mismatch between the annual summer leave for staff at Finnish embassies and consulates abroad, and the most active period for study-based visa applications,” she said.
While Kumpula mentioned that the backlogs were to be expected as numbers started to climb post-Covid, applied science universities are being affected more than other institutions. She was not sure whether it would let up leading into another academic year, given that numbers would continue to climb.
“Our deadline for international masters level applications is January 11 and Tampere already has an almost 200% increase in applications,” she noted.