Dec 29, 2014 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Have you been thinking about taking advantage of Finland's world-class, free education, but been discouraged by recent reports about the impending implementation of tuition fees for international students? Take heart! While as recently as two months ago this transition seemed all but a matter of time, new developments have altered the forecast once again. Let’s take a closer look at the curious case of higher education and tuition fees in Finland. Read more about studying in Finland here.

The Backstory

Finland made headlines this past October when it was reported to be on the verge of implementing tuition fees for students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA). The discussions had been underway for some time with the majority of the Finnish parliament -- a whopping 119 out of 200 -- signing a 2013 initiative in favor of charging non-EU/EEA students tuition. Already underway was a 2010-2014 pilot scheme which mandated tuition fees for select graduate level programs. The eventual plan? Universities were to charge at least 4,000 to international students from outside the EU/EEA in the hopes of ultimately improving the quality and attractiveness of Finnish higher education.

While Finnish parliament may have been largely in favor of the proposal, along with some higher education institutions, the Confederation of Finnish Industries, and the Federation of Finnish Enterprises, it was not without significant critics. Student and lecturer unions were quick to point out that similar recent legislation -- both in Sweden and in Denmark -- had resulted in failure. How much so? Following implementation of its own tuition fees for foreign students in 2011, the Swedish Higher Education Authority reported a staggering 80 percent drop in foreign applications in a one year period alone. While the numbers have slowly risen in the years since due to a combination of aggressive recruitment efforts and enhanced scholarship opportunities, the writing seemed fairly clear.

Opponents of the legislation further purported that if just 25 percent of international students stayed on to work in Finland -- and the numbers were typically twice that, hovering around 50 percent, according to some sources -- the tuition costs would be recouped within three years of Finnish employment. In short, opponents maintained that the introduction of fees for international students would represent a blow, not a boon to the country’s economy.

And the criticisms weren’t entirely financial. Others argued that the "discrimination" against foreign students would hurt the country by deterring international students from studying there and diminishing its diversity -- a major drawing point in the 21st century era of globalization.

An Unexpected “U Turn”

Just weeks ago, the news broke that not only would the proposed plan not proceed, but it would be sent back to the ministerial working committee for evaluation. Even more surprising? As recently as November, the legislation had seemed poised to succeed: news outlets were reporting that many of the country’s universities had reluctantly agreed to the motion, despite the fact that the results of the pilot project yielded no meaningful conclusions in favor of implementing international fees.

So what changed between then and now? Despite some traction, the various government entities could not reach an agreement. And without the necessary consensus, the government sent the proposal back to the drawing board.

Described by the media as a “government u-turn,” the move surely brought relief to the proposal's opponents….not to mention to the many international students studying In Finland. (The most recent UNESCO figures for 2012 claimed 17,636 foreign students in Finland that year.)

In fact, Finland’s appeal to international students has been rising steadily thanks to top-ranked institutions and a dynamic economy. Factor in its premier reputation in terms of research and development, and it’s easy to understand why the number of foreign students choosing Finland tripled in a mere 10 years. Even more germane to the conversation? A full two thirds of international students remained in Finland for at least a year after graduation with half getting jobs and contributing to the country’s economy. Clearly the system was working, if not in the way the government wanted it to.

Prospective international students who crossed Finland's name off the list may now have good reason to add it back again. Despite earlier indications otherwise, the Nordic nation will remain one of only for European countries -- alongside Germany, Iceland and Norway -- that doesn’t charge tuition fees. This looks likely to remain least until the Finnish government decides to revisit the issue. Read more about studying in Finland here


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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