The summer holiday season is a busy time in the Finnish Immigration Service as thousands of new degree and exchange students arrive in the country in the beginning of the fall term. International students begin their studies in foreign-language study programs at the same time as Finnish first-year students. From the perspective of the Finnish Immigration Service, studies that begin in stages or in the beginning of the spring term would balance out the bottleneck of the high season.
“Currently, the short interval between accepting students into higher education institutions and the beginning of their studies causes congestion in different national embassies, which gives rise to a snowball effect,” says Senior Adviser Pentti Sorsa from the Immigration Service. He says that the institution is preparing for the peak season by hiring extra help. In the summer, students’ applications are handled by up to four times more officers than outside the season. Despite this, not all students will have time to receive an entry permit decision before their studies begin.
Beginning one’s studies in a new country is always a significant change in one’s life. Incidents related to both positive and negative change gain in importance in a new linguistic and cultural environment. International students who arrive too late for the orientation period find it more difficult to integrate to the new higher education institution and, for some, the repercussions of arriving late may hinder their studies or even employment after graduation.
Senior Adviser Pentti Sorsa stresses that, when arriving to the country for the first time, students undergo an extremely simple process, and about 85 percent of the decisions are quick and straightforward. This is the case when all the applicant’s documents are in order. The applicant has an acceptance decision from a Finnish educational institution and can prove that he or she has the required 6 000 euros in his or her bank account and is covered by a valid insurance during his or her studies. Pentti Sorsa says that the most common mistake in the applicant’s papers is that the applicant has taken the wrong kind of insurance: travel insurance for tourists.
Roughly 10 percent of students are denied entry into the country. In such cases, there is something wrong with the process in their country of origin or their documents, usually forgery. Sorsa goes on to mention that some Asian and West-African countries have organized operations where illegal immigrants try to enter another country posing as students. Sorsa stresses that this phenomenon is occurring throughout Europe. Students are used as tools for illegal immigration.
From the perspective of the Finnish Immigration Service, it is important that those trying to enter the country with forged papers are caught in the permit inspections. Deportation processes may stretch on even for years. “During this time, these people are stuck in Finland. Such cases are very unfortunate tragedies from an individual’s perspective,” says Sorsa.
Senior Adviser Pentti Sorsa commends his department in the Immigration Service as the best job in the house, because they get to meet young, intelligent individuals whom they are happy to advise. He continues by stating that in order to keep the entry process of international students flexible and as fast as possible, the Immigration Service must work in seamless cooperation with other organizations. Key cooperation partners include e.g. higher education institutions that send incoming students a welcoming letter, attached to which are instructions from the Finnish Immigration Service on what documents the students need. This has made the process much smoother.
When considering the future, higher education students are perceived as positive immigrants. The Ministry of Education and Culture wishes to increase the number of international students in Finnish higher education institutions. On behalf of the Finnish Immigration Service, Pentti Sorsa hopes that, prior to increasing the flow of students, the topic is discussed more extensively with various cooperating authorities, including the Ministry.
The resources of the Immigration Service are currently used to their maximum in terms of the incoming permit applications. Pentti Sorsa stresses that centralizing all control on the permit authorities is not the correct way to reorganize the immigration path. The Immigration Service’s process, in its current form, can no longer tolerate any increase in volume.
Sorsa turns toward the beginning of the recruitment process and urges higher education institutions to continue to invest in honest recruitment. For instance, when speaking of the entrance examinations organized in target countries, local customs and police authorities must be present in addition to staff from the institution in order to guarantee that individuals cannot take the tests under a false identity. “What is the sense in accepting students who will never arrive?” asks Sorsa. The most common reasons why entry is denied are that the student does not have 6 000 euros in his or her account or the bank statement is forced; the language certificate is forged; or the papers are all genuine, but the person using them to try to enter the country is the wrong one.
Sorsa points out that educational marketing must also provide a truthful image of Finland and the costs of living in our country. “Students in developing countries are often under the impression that it is easy to form a good life here. This may be, but alongside a free degree, the costs of living, particularly in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, are a surprise to many students,” says Pentti Sorsa.
In the past few years, unpleasant surprises have given rise to various isolated and even harsh cases where students have been taken advantage of by a third party. In such cases, the staff of higher education institutions has been placed in a difficult position with other authorities. In some cases, it has been necessary to deport the student from the country. Such situations do not serve in anyone’s best interests. They are the most difficult for young students who have been abused by e.g. agencies in their home country or have drifted into a situation in Finland where someone has taken advantage of their weak financial situation.
Various financing models, such as scholarship systems, for students from developing countries should be considered. Six thousand euros is an extremely small sum to get by on in Finland for one year. On the other hand, perhaps higher education institutions should consider the fields in which active student recruitment should focus on in the future, so that accepted students would have realistic starting points for coping with the costs of living during their studies, Pentti Sorsa ponders.