Writer and journalist Umayya Abu-Hanna moved from Helsinki to Amsterdam a while ago. Her main reason to leave Finland after almost 30 years of living here was the racism she and her little daughter had experienced.
Abu-Hanna wrote an essay of her experiences to Helsingin Sanomat. The text was published 30th December, and it started a major public debate. Or, to be precise, a shitstorm.
While Abu-Hanna’s provocative essay irritated some, it forced many to discuss difficult issues:
What do native Finns think about immigration and immigrants?Â How do the immigrants perceive Finland? How do they feel?Â How should we adjust our society to the fact that the number of non-Finns in Finland is increasing?
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Guess it was a coincidence.
Only a week before Abu-Hanna’s essay was published, just a few days before Christmas, 119 out of 200 Finnish MP’s wrote an initiative to the Parliament to change legislation. If the initiative is accepted, it’ll make a big difference to the lives of foreign students in Finnish universities.
According to the initiative, all students from non-EU/EEA countries should pay tuition fees to their respective Finnish universities. The fees would vary from 3500 to 12 000 euros per year.
This isn’t actually a new thing in Finland. The initiative’s idea is tested at this very moment in some Finnish international master programs. The results have been very poor.
Despite the fact that the tuition fees don’t seem to work,Â
119Â 117 MP’s want to make the system as a standard.Â (Two MP’s haveÂ withdrawn their signatures.)
Why on earth?
“Smells like racism”, bloggedÂ ms Annika Lapintie, a frontwoman of the Left Alliance party’s parliamentary group.
While there’s clearly some populism in Lapintie’s blog post, and her conclusion seems exaggerated, there’s something noteworthy in her remark. The MP’s who’ve signed the initiative represent the conservative side of the Finnish parliament. Each and every so-called “immigration critic” has signed the proposal.
And then there’s the frontman of the initiative. He’s mr.Â Arto Satonen, a MP of the conservative Coalition Party. Satonen is known for leading the writing of “Migration paper of Conservative Coalition’s parliamentary group” back in 2009. Let’s just say the paper isn’t the most liberal immigration paper you’ve read and leave it to that.
It’s worth noticing that the liberal side of the parliament hasn’t been eager to sign the initiative. For example,Â there are no Green MP’s who’ve signed it (which makes me, as a Green, personally happy).
It seems that the initiative isn’t only university politics. It’s also a part of Finnish immigration politics, and it should be treated as such.
Let’s bite the bullet and do just that.
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This is where I start to get all sociological. But first, some background information.
Since last autumn I’ve had a privilege to study in the Media Lab of Aalto University’s School of Arts, Â Design and Architecture. I’m a student of New Media master program, where people from all over the world study everything related to the field. A huge number of students are from non-EU/EEA countries. Previously I’ve worked as a project officer of Academy of Finland’s unit of International Relations.
During my work and studies I’ve met many foreign academic students and highly educated immigrants. Great, talented people. They’ll make their careers probably in the IT sector or gaming business, ad/design agencies, maybe in universities.
To put it bluntly: they represent the type of immigrants official Finland has craved for. They are also people who Finnish universities have to compete with universities all over the world.
Many of them will probably stay in Finland after graduation. As does the majority of all foreign students:Â according to CIMO 75 % of gradutes of 2009 actuallyÂ did stay in Finland.
It’s an incredibly high percentage which should be seen as a good result from Finland’s perspective, but the MP’s who’ve signed the initiative don’t seem to think that way.Â Â They say there’s a problem in the system: students from non-EU/EEA come to Finnish universities, study for a year or two (or six) for free, then leave Finland. They seem to imply that many foreign students use the Finnish tax-payers’ generosity to their own benefits without giving enough back to the Finns.
Sound familiar? Conservative and “immigrant critic” MP’s implying that selfish, ungrateful immigrant leeches are yet again using honest Finnish tax-payers’ money to their vile schemes?
What a way to make Finland more appealing to foreign students and academic professionals.
Let’s pretend for the sake of the argument that the MP’s don’t see foreign students as potential leeches. Let’s pretend that their intention really is to keep as many young professionals in Finland as possible. Â And let’s pretend that in some weird way they think that the tuition fees are a good way to do this.
My short answer? Hell no.
My long answer?
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We sociologists are a mysterious sect. We know many mind-tricks, our weapon being the almightyÂ sociological imagination. Thus, I’ll use it to address the issue at hand.
Tuition fees aren’t really the problem here. I think the problem is far more complex. If Finland wants to keep the foreign academic professionals in Finland, I think it’s obligatory to find the reasons people move to and away from Finland.
So, lets do that.
By using sociological magic, I’ve made a list of issues and/or reasons which in my opinion make staying in Finland difficult for some foreign students and academic professionals. Do agree, disagree or add your comments to the comment section of this text!
1) The World Is Global, Deal With It
If a person is willing and able to move to a faraway country, he/she just might do that again.
People who don’t have roots in Finland and people who’ve already been elsewhere can change their place of residence more easily than people who have roots here.
Some people will move around the globe.Â Finland can’t never ever hold on to 100 % of foreign professionals graduating from Finnish universities.
A possible solution to this problem:Â Don’t see it as a problem, as there’s none. Let’s just deal with it.
2) Getting A Job In Finland Is A Bitch
Jobs, jobs, jobs.
If getting a job as a Finn can be difficult, for foreign graduates getting a job seems to be almost impossible. For highly educated people looking for high-level jobs this really is a huge problem.
While the number of immigrants working in IT sector, gaming companies or universities is on the rise, there’s still not enough high-level jobs for professionals. Especially finding the first job is a real pain in the ass, I hear.
I don’t think that MP’s who’ve signed the tuition fee initiative really understand the size of this problem. The tuition fee system can’t fix the problem of not finding a job.
A possible solution to this problem: MP’s should innovate and advocate policies which make job-finding for immigrant academics easier. MP’s should not advocate policies which make academic immigrants feel unwelcome.
3) The Language Issue
Why the talented academic graduates don’t get jobs?
One of the many reasons might be the Finnish language.
Finnish language is difficult to learn and master. While knowing that, some Finns tend to forget the fact that Finnish language is useless outside Finland’s borders or in the global academic discussion. The difficulty and uselessness of the language don’t really motivate to learn Finnish.
(The great majority of Finnish youth have to study Swedish in schools. Huge portion of them don’t like to do so. The reason is basically the same: they don’t think learning Swedish is useful to them. And it’s often is quite true.)
In my opinion, this might be a bigger problem than we tend to think. Do the companies still hire Finns just because it’s easier and more convenient to have Finnish as a working language? Do we expect immigrants to speak and write flawless Finnish? Do we think that simple phrases of Finnish is just not enough? This admittably is changing in the IT business and in universities for example, but not quickly enough.
A possible solution to this problem:Â This really isn’t a solution, but: I do think that we need more jobs where Finnish language isn’t an issue. We need more English-speaking businesses and company policies.
Â 4) Us And ThemÂ
“We’re all “someone else” to someone else.”
—Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comic strip
No matter where an immigrant comes from, no matter who he/she is, he/she is seen as a “foreigner”, and thus different from the majority.
That can be wearisome.
On a certain level, there’s nothing we can do about it. If one moves abroad, one will feel different and alone from time to time.Â It’s just the way it is.
But we should do our best that people wouldn’t feel that way. We should do our best so that a person moving to Finland would gradually feel he/she’s one of “us”, not a part of “them”.
When talking about “us” and “them”, one can’t pass the issue Abu-Hanna was talking about: racism. It’s there. I think none of my foreign friends have experienced anything really harsh, but they all know racism exists here.
The Finns aren’t racists (since nation-wide generalizations don’t really ever work). But there are racists in Finland.
A possible solution to this problem: This is the easiest part.Â Let’s just behave in a way that nobody feels unwelcome or unwanted. Let’s be friendly to each other. Let’s treat other people with respect.
Oh wait. Wasn’t it the hardest part?
5) What’s Up With The Politics?
I have a really saturated point of view here, but please bear with me.
Most of the immigrants I know are liberal and academic. They’ve mostly enjoyed being in Finland,Â but many of them are a bit worried.
And so am I.
It seems to me that Finland is gradually polymorphing to a country which is more closed, more xenophobic, more conservative and more anti-immigrant than it was, say, a decade aco.
Now I’m generalizing and maybe even making a straw man argument fallacy here, but for the sake of the argument: while the so-called “immigration critics” declare that everyone who’s willing to work and pay taxes here is welcome (but others, especially leeches loitering with Finnish tax-payers’ money, should fuck off), they try to cherry-pick people, and might not realize how much they’re actually damaging Finland.
While they a) proclaim that there are “good” and “bad” immigrants and b) know that getting a job as a foreign professional is really difficult, and c) say that jobless immigrant is a “bad” immigrant, and d) imply with the tuition fee initiative that foreign students are potential loitering leeches,
the liberal immigrant university graduates desperately looking for jobs just might get a feeling that the environment is getting a bit hostile.
If the message we say to immigrants in general is “get a job or get out”, also the academic immigrant professionals do get the message. If they don’t get a job, or if they feel unwelcome, they move elsewhere.
A possible solution to this problem: No matter what you think of these issues, I think’s it’s crucial toÂ follow politics and to take a stance.
6) Our Universities Aren’t That Great
I could write an essay about this, but for now, let’s just say that our universities aren’t exactly world-class. The teachers and other staff do their best, but the resources Finnish government(s) give to higher education and research are ridiculously poor.
Returning to tuition fees: if one would have to pay thousands of euros per year for studies, one would expect higher quality.
But the tuition fees wouldn’t improve quality at all. The hard cash obtained from non-EU/EEA students is peanuts compared to amounts needed for improvements.
The best thing we can offer to qualified foreign students is that studying in Finland is free. It’s the onlyÂ functional lure we have against universities from, say, US, UK or Middle-Europe.
Charge money for studies, and a great number of students from non-EU/EEA zone won’t even consider Finland as an option. Charge money for studies, and they choose a country where the language is comprihensible, where they get better quality for their money – and where they might get a tan.
A possible solution to this problem:Â Money. A paradigm change towards a society which appreciates high education, research and development would be nice, too.
7) It’s Not Easy Being A Finn
Not maybe a big thing, but worth mentioning anyway.
If one consideres staying in Finland for a longer while, eventually one might want to be a citizen of Finland.
But getting a citizenship is not very easy. Sometimes even getting a permission to stay in Finland can be hard to obtain. AndÂ eventually, if getting a citizenship is difficult or one has to battle with endless bureucracy, one might think it would be easier to move abroad.
A possible solution to this problem:Â Less bureucracy. Make obtaining a citizenship, work permit or a visa for immigrant students and graduates more hassle-free.
8) Oh, Woe This Distant Country & The Thing That Really Matters
While Finland’s cold and dark weather might attract some, for others it really isn’t a bonus.Â But is it a problem? A reason to move to Finland or away from here?
But the location of Finland might be a problem. It takes a whole lot of time and money to travel anywhere from Finland. To see the sun in November.Â To see family. To see friends, relatives and loved ones.
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Ending with a bit of pathos here.
I believe the biggest reason for moving from one place to other, or deciding to stay put, is heartwarmingly human. Finding a job or a place to study is probably the second biggest reason, but I believe the biggest reason for staying or moving is the people we care about.
We move to a place where we can be closer to our friends and family.
We don’t move because we don’t want to be too far from our loved ones.
We don’t take a faraway job since we like to spend time with our families.
We move back from a distant country to be closer to our friends.
In the society of social media and smartphones, I still find being close to our loved ones the foremost factor in choosing a place to be. That somehow makes my heart a little warmer, my thoughts a little happier.
And: wanting to be near our loved ones, that certainly is not a problem.
About the author
M.Soc.Sc. Vesa Saarinen is a sociologist, a communications manager in an NGO, a Green politician, a MA student and a bassist-to-be.