September 1998

And still they come: Finnish students in Britain

by Pirkko Hautamäki

Student: Hi, I'd like to study in Britain.
Me: Yes, and what did you have in mind?
Student: Well, I haven't really thought about it that way. I don't know what I'm interested in really. I just thought you might be able to help…

Er, right. Give me strength! You might be fine with this sort of request the first few times, but your patience soon wears thin. In no time at all, you'll be heard muttering dark thoughts to yourself about young Finns today. (And that's just the political party.)

On the other hand, times like this remind you to be grateful. That's grateful as in "Thank heavens that I'm no longer a teenager or in my early twenties. At least I don't have to worry about student life. There may be a million other things to worry about but starting out in college or university is not one of them."

No wonder, then, that after a while I find myself thinking, "Why, oh why aren't I a twentysomething with a thirtysomething's experience? There's so much I could do and I wouldn't be making the same mistakes again." Well, that would be a first.

Still, it's true: there is a lot one can do, now more perhaps than ever. Whether it's voluntary work, travel, paid employment or further or higher education, the choice is staggering. If you then decide to do any of these abroad, you're bound to be a little lost.

Which is where all kinds of people can step in, me included. The Finnish Institute in London fields some 300 enquiries yearly from Finns who want to study in Britain. While this is peanuts compared to the thousands of enquiries received by the British Council office in Helsinki, we manage to get a fair picture of the needs, hopes and demands of the Finns who wish to secure a place in a British (or, as occasionally happens, Irish) college or university.

It's all part of a careers advisory service and it boils down to the basic question: What kind of person are you and what do you want to study, where, why, when and how?

Since Finland joined the EU and they no longer needed to pay hefty overseas student fees in Britain, more Finns have found a place in British higher education than ever before. Two years ago, Britain was already the second most popular country for Finnish students abroad. The most popular destination remained Sweden, although only by a margin of 100 students or so: 1,136 Finnish students were pursuing their degree studies in Sweden, while degree programmes in Britain attracted 1,033 students from Finland.

The latest statistics are yet to emerge, but if last year is anything to go by, a record number of Finns will be starting their degree studies in Britain this autumn. Or will they? Are they willing to take the extra risk now that British and EU students alike are expected to make a maximum contribution of £1,000 to their fees per year? Yes, it will be means-tested and only an estimated 30% of the students will be required to pay the full £1,000, but will it still make a difference?

Extra costs always matter. Finns, however, have a longer history of student debt than Britons. They also have what from a British perspective looks like an unheard-of and generous student support system with student grants and loans available for study abroad, too.

Most Finns will study in Finland, but some will be drawn to Britain by the relatively low student/staff ratios, well-developed academic and other services and sometimes by the simple fact that Finland lags behind in some fields which are well established in Britain (such as chiropractic).

Taking all this into account, it remains to be seen whether the extra costs now being introduced into the British system will make Finns opt out of British higher education or opt in regardless.

It is certain, though, that the need for information will be there. It will be about a specific course in a specific college, or funding arrangements for sandwich courses, or accommodation problems in Greater Manchester.

Also, some will always know exactly what they want, whereas others won't have a clue. The clueless need the most help, but they can also be some of the most rewarding people. And that is why I take a deep breath when I hear somebody on the line saying, "I'd like to study in Britain, but I haven't got a very clear idea of myself or the future." A few may be wasting everybody's time – even I do that at times – but most will prove that they aren't. That's the joy.

Pirkko Hautamäki is the Education Officer at the Finnish Institute in London.

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