Greetings from Vaasa.
What would be the best way to celebrate Erasmus programme’s 30th birthday and Europe day? I would say “Spring Forum for international affairs in higher education”, also known as ”Kv-kevätpäivät”. The forum is an event where Finland’s “professional international bubble” meets, shares ideas and builds new connections. This year the event was organised in Vaasa and it was so far my favorite Spring Forum I have attended.
Vaasa is one of the most powerful centres of Finland’s economic growth and plays major role in export. Thus, Vaasa’s graduates go directly to the international market. The city is also international student city. Around 70 % of population speaks Finnish, 20 % Swedish and the rest 10 % other languages.
The University and University of Applied Sciences are both located in the same campus and there is lots of cooperation between the units. Besides its own University and Applied Sciences, Vaasa also hosts units of University of Helsinki, Åbo Akademi, Novia, all in all 12 000 students. The campus is located in Palosaari, by the sea, only 20 minutes’ walk from the city centre. There are both historic old red-brick cotton factory buildings, wooden residences and modern new buildings.
After opening of the Spring Forum, I was honored to hold work shop session together with my colleagues from UTU, Aalto University, AYY (the Student Union of the Aalto University) and VAMK (Vaasa University of Applied Sciences). Our theme was Supporting integration and well-being of international students – sharing experiences and developing solutions. All of us had a short presentation on our local project: Aalto about survey on academic integration of international students, Vaasa about Intercultural Connections course and me about our Supporting international students’ wellbeing seminar that was organised earlier this spring together with University of Turku and Finnish Student Health Services. After presentations we were divided into five groups and each group focused on discussing about different kinds of problematic issues that international students could face and tried to find solutions and best practices.
My session on second day focused on How to make international students and companies meet. We heard about New Competence for SMEs study conducted by CIMO that wished to investigate if SMEs utilise the competence of foreign HE (Higher Education) and VET (Vocational Education) trainees as well as foreign students graduating from Finnish higher education institutions. There are more than 20,000 foreign degree students doing their studies at Finnish higher education institutions. Many do their internships in Finland and look for jobs after graduating. Thousands of students come directly from foreign higher education and vocational institutions to do traineeships and work placements in Finland every year.
Our organisation TYY has been completely bilingual this year due to international board member. Now that the structure has been already built, it will be easier for future international students to apply for TYY Executive Board or Council. I would be happy to study this issue more thoroughly so that we could pass best practices to other organisations.
Until tuition fees came into power, Finland was able to attract students but it has always been struggling in retaining students after graduation. Employment is the key element in integration. Now more than ever before, we have to put more effort in making international student feel welcome from day one. This includes having enough housing possibilities, having user-friendly services in arrival, giving all students equal possibilities to learn Finnish from day one and offering work and internship possibilities.
Finns might be modest in telling what we are good at but we must learn to communicate that besides offering high quality education we also want to retain our international talents. We have to stop dividing internationals and Finns into “them” and “us” and offer better opportunities for internationals to step forward and be active.
As higher education is accessible for more and more people in the world, Finland is competing from international talents in a global market. This makes me feel that working with internationalisation of education is more important than ever before. We should not forget that working together means that we include international students also in planning and executing our ideas.