Universities say Migri delays are damaging their international reputation

There are still almost a thousand first time visa applicants from outside the EU waiting to get visa interview appointments, or waiting for their residence permits to be processed.

File picture of students at Aalto University, spring 2019 / Credit: Aalto

Universities say a backlog of unprocessed residence permits for international students is causing reputational damage to Finland’s higher education system, and hurts their chances of being able to recruit talented students from outside the EU in future.

New information supplied by Migri to News Now Finland shows there’s still 937 first time international students waiting for applications to be processed, even though their university and college courses have already started.

Among the top ten countries, there’s 533 students from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and India alone; and another 185 from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Cameroon. Russia (75) and China (29) round out the rest; with 181 students from other countries still caught up in the backlog that Migri says was caused by a 7% increase in applications this year, and problems with temporary summer staffing levels.

“Definitely I consider it a threat to the attractiveness that we are trying so much to build” says Petri Suomala, Vice President of Education at Aalto University.

“I think it’s unfortunate that this problem neutralizes or hinders our success. We have so many positive ingredients in Finland and Finnish universities, so I really think this needs to be fixed” he says.

Although Aalto hasn’t been hit as hard as some other universities – Suomala estimates there’s only around ten students who have been delayed by residence permit problems – he says it’s still “quite a severe issue.”

“This is not only causing problems for the individual students, but also affects our attractiveness in the long term, and I think the price tag related to that is much higher” he adds.

Computer lab at University of Eastern Finland / Credit: UEF

University of Eastern Finland hit hard by Migri delays 

One of the worst-hit universities is in Eastern Finland, where out of 290 non-EU students who were admitted for courses, 170 still haven’t been able to arrive to take up their places because of long lead times to get initial interviews, or waiting for the Migri processing backlog to clear.

That’s a full 57% of the university’s masters degree programme international students who haven’t been able to take up their places this term.

“Our biggest problem is in Nigeria, especially where Ghanaian students have been affected” says Roseanna Avento, who works on the Development Services International Team at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio.

“I was in touch with the Abuja Embassy and got an email saying they are doing their best and it’s our fault we didn’t make admission decisions early. Whatever the case, students are either deferring their studies or not going to come at all” she explains.

Correspondence seen by News Now Finland between the University and the Finnish Embassy in Nigeria shows how school officials pleaded with diplomats to help expedite the paperwork for a number of incoming students, and stressed that they’ll face challenges in the future to market their study programmes if the bureaucracy for getting even an initial interview appointment is so inefficient.

“The situation is grave and dire” says one recent letter from the university to Finnish Ambassador Jyrki Pulkkinen.

“A lot of students have already started to express their disinterest in studying in Finland due to the challenges in residence permit issues.”

A reply from a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said they had increased appointment slots and were “trying over very best” to cope with applications in Abuja.

Students at Häme University of Applied Science / Credit: HAMK FB

“It has to be doing some kind of damage”

At the Häme University of Applied Science HAMK they’re still waiting for at least a dozen international students to show up for autumn classes. And they’re not holding out much hope of success for them all.

Attracting non-EU students has become a lucrative income stream for Finnish universities in the last couple of years, and is set to grow as schools work with agents or go directly to education roadshows to bring students from key target regions.

“Since the tuition fees opened up we market a lot in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and we use [Finnish company] Edunation there” explains Melanie Kirwa, a Senior Lecturer in International Business Studies at HAMK, who also oversees incoming first year international students.

Students from outside the EU pay €8700 up front to HAMK, even before they can apply for a visa. From developing countries they’ll also have to prove they’ve got between €6000 and €8000 in the bank, at least enough to live on for ten months.

“I know we’re missing one Kenyan, and one boy from Ghana. The Kenyan, he was told he won’t get anything before Christmas. There’s seven from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Two from the Philippines, but since there’s no Finnish Embassy there, they have to travel to India for a visa and there’s already a huge queue there” Kirwa says.

When students, stuck in limbo waiting for appointments or permits to be processed, get in touch with the school asking for help, Melanie has to tell them there’s nothing she can do.

“We say, you just have to wait. And we feel really frustrated our hands are tied. We really pride ourselves in diversity, and we’re excited about this opportunity to bring international students here, and this is frustrating” she says.

“It has to be doing some kind of damage to Finland’s reputation. The problems are so widespread” Kirwa adds.

How can the problem be fixed?

The key to fixing the problems seems to lie in better communication, better planning, and more resources both at Finnish Embassies overseas and at Migri – especially during the summer holiday season which is the peak time for student visa applications before terms start in September.

“The situation is very unfortunate. Right now we’re doing our best to ensure the students get their decisions as soon as possible” says Tiina Suominen, Director of the Immigration Unit at Migri.

“We will of course review the situation in detail to make needed improvements in our processes. We are for example developing our digital services to improve the process, but the embassies and we need to have enough resources as well” she tells News Now Finland.

“Communication between us and the universities is very important. The sooner we and the embassies know about the universities plans the better we can prepare for the upcoming applications. It’s also important that the applications are submitted as early as possible with the required documents” Suominen adds.

Students from Häme University of Applied Science / Credit: HAMK FB