With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, international student enrolment continues to go down across higher education institutions worldwide. The number of coronavirus cases has now gone above 55 million around the world (around 19 400 confirmed cases in Finland), and no one is certain when this pandemic will be over. On a brighter note, during these dark times and according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), Finland has by far the lowest coronavirus infection rate in the EU/EEA. When looking closer at student enrolment here at the University of Turku (UTU), we can see that in autumn 2020 there were both new exchange and international degree students coming to Finland, although fewer than normally. Some were able to reach Finland right on time to attend the orientation course (held online this year) and some were attending it from their home countries. Some students even postponed their studies to 2021, hoping that the situation worlwide will improve.
In order to better understand the experiences of new international students after reaching Finland in autumn 2020, the Student Union of the University of Turku (TYY) conducted a survey from 7 October to 1 November. Emphasis was put on TYY’s presence in different events, social media, and its organisations. Altogether 50 answers were received from all three University campuses (Turku 78%, Rauma 10%, Pori 12%) out of which 54% came from international degree students and 46% from exchange students. The survey results were also presented at TYY International Council meeting earlier in November informing the organisations and those dealing with International Affairs about the needs of international students. How to best integrate the new incoming students into Finnish society and University studies was also discussed.
Why do people choose Finland/Turku as their study destination?
In a globalised, well-connected world, employers increasingly value graduates with international experience and education. Thus, studying abroad over the past decades has become a global phenomenon that results in fantastic benefits on how one can increase his or her skillset. Studying abroad helps to learn new languages, appreciate other cultures, meet people from all over, overcome challenges of living in a new county, and gain a greater understanding of the world, among other things. Most of us know at least someone who has gone on an exchange or completed an internship abroad, right? However, COVID-19 is reshaping the scenario of higher education as we speak. Many no longer consider going abroad safe, and less people are able to or willing to travel with countless safety measures implemented and different regulations in place. In addition, in-person teaching has switched to Zoom or other virtual meetings, and Universities worldwide can no longer operate as they did in the pre-pandemic times.
Nevertheless, some brave students work extra hard to fulfil their dreams of studying abroad. When asked why people chose Finland/Turku as their study destination, most common answers included opportunities for future study (58%), institution reputation (54%), and research quality (52%). This clearly correlates to the fact that Finland’s higher education system is often regarded as the best in the world. For many students, studying abroad was a dream of theirs (36%). Less common answers received included specific courses University provides (22%), social life (22%), scholarship received (12%), or safety reasons as Finland has lower number of COVID-19 cases than their home countries (12%).
Graph 1: Reasons why people chose Finland/Turku as their study destination
First impressions about life in Turku
Moving to a new country nowadays is even more difficult, as discussed above. In particular, many international students coming outside of EU struggled to get their residence permit on time to actually reach Finland right before the autumn semester started. For those who were not able to do so, had to postpone their studies for a year. Some students from EU countries were able to start studies at UTU from their own home countries online, and reach Finland only later when the second period started. Organising studies online has, indeed, allowed for many to study no matter where in the word they may be located. After reaching Finland, 50% of respondents confirmed following the recommended self-isolation procedure while 14% did it only partly and 36% of respondents did not have to self-isolate.
The survey also asked if new international students have been able to meet other students or their fellow classmates. Here, 86% of respondents confirmed being able to do so, while 12% replied no and 2% of respondents were not sure. In addition, a similar question was raised asking if they have been able to meet locals. Positive results were observed, as 72% of respondents replied with yes while 26% said no and 2% were unsure about this. Despite studying in an online environment, we can clearly see that new international students have been able to establish contacts with both other students or their fellow classmates and locals. Key player here may very well be the tutoring program provided by University in collaboration with TYY, thus ensuring that new incoming students always have an experienced student assisting them to adapt to Finnish culture, student life, and UTU campus.
Link to student organisations
TYY has around 150 different sub-organisations, including subject specific organisations, student nations, and other student organisations. Sub-organisations are actively dealing with student advocacy and interest promotion by following different guidelines set and provided by TYY. All sub-organisations have an Executive Board usually consisting of active students who are taking care of different tasks, e.g. being in touch with different Faculties to monitor study relates issues, hosting of events, parties, study circles, and other activities. Survey results show that there has been a good link between new international students and student organisations, as international students confirm actively contacting their student organisations whenever necessary. For example, 64% of survey respondents have been in contact with any of the student organisations while 20% have not done so. In addition, 10% are still planning to contact student organisations, while 6% are not sure what a student organisation is.
Our survey results also show that Facebook, Instagram, and different mailing lists are the easiest ways to reach international students. They are particularly interested in hearing about upcoming events (84%), study related issues (64%), and topics about Turku/Finland (62%). Survey respondents were least eager to hear about organisation’s meetings (38%) and updates about COVID-19 (24%). At the same time, it is worth mentioning that international students do appreciate when student organisations communicate also in English, not only in Finnish. When asked if there is enough information about TYY in English on a scale from 1-5, the average grade received was 3.75. Following the same metrics and asking if there is enough information about TYY’s organisations in English, the average grade received was 3.4. While the results are above average, TYY will continue putting extra effort in using English in its communication to ensuring that everything is transparent.
Graph 2: Topics international students would like to hear about
International students and volunteering
Volunteering is a well-known concept for many these days. It also has many surprising benefits, including making new friends, learning new skills, advancing one’s career, and even improving both mental and physical health. Our survey results show that, even despite the ongoing pandemic, half of new international students are interested in all kinds of volunteering opportunities. Most common answers include serving as an active member of any of TYY’s organisations (36%) or being an active member of TYY’s Wings (18%). While 46% of respondents pointed out that they are not interested in none of the provided volunteering opportunities, though it is highly possible that they are lacking information about them.
Graph 3: Interest in different volunteering opportunities
The coronavirus pandemic has changed life as we used to know it and restricted movement such that studying abroad has become a greater challenge than ever before. Despite the difficult circumstances, it is encouraging to see that international student enrolment continues at the UTU. While students choose Finland for numerous reasons, a clear trend indicates that students believe Finland’s higher education system to be the finest. Results, however, indicate that moving to Finland has been a bumpy road for many with residence permit delays and delays in starting their studies. On a positive note, most of the survey participants answered that on arrival to Turku they had the opportunity to meet fellow students and locals. The international students in majority were aware of student organisations with 64% already in contact with some organisations. Survey answers reveal that students would like to hear about upcoming events and participate in volunteering opportunities. Despite current difficult times, TYY is positive that international students will continue to be an integral part of UTU. In turn, also University will continue to internationalise.