Anyone who has ever been on an exchange knows that moving to a new country is pretty much the most expensive thing you can do while studying in a university.
You have your student allowance, maybe a loan, and money saved up – and still all of it is gone after you’ve spent six months abroad.
Now think about the situation in reverse. A foreign student coming to study in Finland in hopes of getting a world-class degree and maybe staying after graduation to work. Sounds doable, right?
A certain part of the foreign degree students are struggling to make ends meet, Ágnes Stojcsics, Specialist in International Affairs from the Student Union of the University of Jyväskylä said.
“Some people come to me asking about jobs or scholarships. The fact is that at the moment there are no scholarships or living cost support in Finland for foreign students,” she said.
“And about the jobs, I can only encourage them to be proactive, persistent and contact employers, while at the same time they invest into familiarizing themselves with the Finnish work culture, for instance through volunteering, and studying Finnish. There is no ready-made solution to this.”
The student allowance system in Finland does not usually extend to foreign students.
A foreign degree student can’t get a student allowance in Finland unless they are registered as a permanent resident of Finland and their purpose of residence is other than education, according to the Social Insurance Institution of Finland (Kela).
In other words, a degree student can’t get any support from the Finnish government while studying in Finland.
However, there is an exception to this since one can get student allowance if the purpose or residence is seen to be employment or family ties, for example. This is often the case with the students who have already lived in Finland for a longer period of time before starting their education here.
Citizens of EU/EEA and Switzerland are eligible for student allowance also if they find employment for at least 4 months with a minimum of 18 hours of work per week.This rule, however, doesn’t apply to non-EU/EEA students.
In any case, this makes living and staying in Finland that much harder for foreign degree students. Most of them come here for a master’s degree which usually takes two years to complete.
Upon arriving at Finland, they have to prove that they have sufficient funds for living,insurance and a residence permit.
All this adds up to somewhere around 7 500 euros at least as the government considers that 6 720 euros are “sufficient funds” for a year of living. A residence permit costs 300 euros at the moment and the insurance about 500.
In reality, the sum might be much more as many foreign students want to travel both in Finland and in Europe and get to know the country they’re living in.
Minjee Kim, a master’s student in educational sciences is familiar with the situation.
She herself arrived in Finland at the start of September last year in hopes of pursuing a degree and then maybe staying in Finland.
“I’m already an elementary level teacher in Korea and I have a few years worth of work experience,” she said.
“I would like to stay in Finland for the summer between the two years of my degree and possibly after graduation too but let’s see what the realities are.”
Many foreign students have to rely on their parents for financial support, she told but added that for many it is a last resort.
“When you are all grown up but can’t afford your living expenses, it might be hard to call your parents asking for money,” she said.
When it comes to job prospects, Kim admits it might be easier for her to find a job in Korea but she is not willing to give up that easily. As many foreign students are encouraged to do, Kim also is studying Finnish in order to make herself a more appealing applicant for Finnish employers.
“You have to have a basic command of Finnish. If you don’t, you probably won’t get a job here,” she said.
However, she is aware that there are some jobs that don’t require Finnish and there’s always a chance to work somewhere else in the world. In addition to language skills, Kim emphasizes attitude and willingness to work hard to get a job.
“You have to constantly be in touch with employers and take it upon yourself to find something that suits you,” she described. “Many of my friends work as language tutors because that is something that they can do when they’re not yet that fluent in Finnish.”
Career specialist Muru Linjala from the Career Services at the University of Jyväskylä had the same kind of thoughts about foreign students’ employment prospects as Kim.
Language skills, attitude, and willingness to do some extra work in order to find a job are vital.
“There’s so much potential in the foreign students here at the University of Jyväskylä,” she said.
“But it is true that students need to be very active themselves.”
Stojcsics from the student union felt the same. Struggling with money can sometimes force a student to drop out from the university and go back home.
“Financial struggles are sad in a way that they can also exclude the student from social life as well which makes me worried about their wellbeing. Almost everything, even having coffee with friends, costs. And when money is tight, even that couple of euros spent on social life might be too much,” Stojcsics said.
The National Union of University Students in Finland is working towards equal opportunities for foreign students. These include for example more flexibility in residence permit and citizenship policies as well as chances to get to know Finnish work culture and employers.
Kim, on her part, took matters into her own hands. She launched a social dance club at Kortepohja for everyone interested in Lindy hop -dancing.
“It’s a way to meet new people and also show that I’m doing things to fit in here. Hopefully, it pays off,” she said.
Day at Work familiarizes students with Finnish working life
To make getting a job at least a bit easier, Career Services at the University of Jyväskylä have been organizing the Day at Work for international students in cooperation with JAMK University of Applied Sciences and Central Finland Chamber of Commerce for four times now.
The idea is simple: an international student spends a day at a local business doing different activities according to the company’s wishes and getting to know the employer and the Finnish working life.
Minjee Kim, a master’s student at educational sciences, took part in the event in March.
She spent her day at Isoisän puulelut, a Jyväskylä company which sells wooden toys and souvenirs. Kim was very pleased with the experience.
“I got to see a small Finnish company and also met Heidi who is in charge. I taught her some of my language as she is thinking about expanding her business to Korea and China,” she said.
Heidi Hallikainen, the woman behind Isoisän puulelut, was happy about the value Kim’s language skill brought to her company.
“It was nice to discuss cultural differences with her and learn about Korean culture,” Hallikainen said.
This year 40 students signed up for the event but only 23 companies were willing to take students to visit their offices. Career Specialist Muru Linjala said it is unfortunate that the situation is as it is.
“Next year we definitely wish there would be more companies participating. The demand for these kinds of opportunities is high among international students,” she said.