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The transition period in Finland

Photo by Matthew Freedman

Dr. Charles Mathies is a US scholar who currently resides in Finland. His main research focus is on International student migration and mobility in Finland and the EU. During the discussion, Dr. Mathies explains why and how Finland makes an effort to retain foreign talents in the country. His level of expertise makes him an ideal personality to discuss what should be changed in the Finnish higher education system and labour market. He also explains how urgent it is for the Finnish systems to deviate from their traditional structures to enable foreign talents to enter the labour market with the necessary skills and competencies.

Photo by Leasa Weimer

Charles Mathies is originally from the United States of America. He moved to Finland in 2011 when his spouse received a research grant at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He has a Master’s degree and PhD in Higher Education, focusing on Public Policy that he earned when he was still in the United States of America. In addition to his educational qualifications, his expertise in Institutional planning, data-analytics enabled him to find a job at the University of Jyväskylä helping them move forward with reforms stemming largely from the Higher Education Act of 2009. He and his family lived in Jyväskylä for eight years and two years ago moved to Helsinki. However, Dr. Mathies still continues to work for the Finnish Institute for Educational Research in Jyväskylä.

Dr. Mathies holds an Academy of Finland Research Fellowship and works as an Educational Researcher at the University of Jyväskylä since 2017. He collaborates with colleagues including other educational researchers, sociologists, economists, as well as Finnish government entities such as the Ministry of Economics and Employment. His current grant focuses on international student migration and mobility in Finland as well as in Europe.

“[we are] looking at the issue of international students, how do they come to Finland? Why do they come? Who stays? What factors impact students staying, and then how did they enter the labour market? And what happens to the students if they stay, particularly around labour market issues?”

As an expert on international student migration in Finland, Dr. Mathies has a fascinating insight into the challenges the immigrants have to go through to find a suitable career in Finland. He mentioned that not only immigrants face these challenges, but also often Finnish citizens who go abroad for a longer period and then come back to Finland find similar challenges to finding a suitable career.

Photo by Leasa Weimer

“I would characterize the issue as Finland has a very difficult time from the labour market perspective in recognizing skills or experiences earned outside of the traditional Finnish tracks or mechanisms that are in place for people to build their careers. This is something that I think the business community is finally recognizing and they are working on this.”

Dr. Mathies states that Finland is recognizing the importance of retaining skilled immigrants who have already moved to the country and who are yet to come mostly for their higher studies. But he also says that the country needs to step up their game to recognize and actively support the foreign talent and the Finnish nationals who are willing to work outside the traditional norms of Finnish culture. The country should support them in finding suitable careers with decent incomes. Finland is already experiencing labour market challenges due to a lack of skilled labourers in a number of industries such as Nursing. Moving forward it is going to be more challenging if Finland is unable to identify and recruit new talents in other industries without forming a pathway for foreign talents to step in.

He also discussed the Ministry of Education and Culture plans that may help Finland avoid the labour shortage in the future.

“The Ministry of Education and Culture is speeding up the desire to bring international students. They want to triple the number by 2030. And they want to keep them at a 75% rate in the country.”

Charles Mathies appreciates the collective effort of the country in identifying the necessity of foreign talent to retain in the country for a smooth workflow in the future. Yet Finland still should consider moving more quickly by taking necessary measures to provide opportunities for international talents to join the country’s labour market.

Further, he explained why Finland is still figuring out how to recruit foreign nationals and integrate them into their labour force. Finland historically has had a very low percentage of migration and even after 1995, the year Finland entered the European Union, to date, there have been low numbers of inter-EU migration cases compared to other EU countries. But since a large portion of the workforce is retiring each day or being pension eligible, Finland is in a state where they have no option but to invite skilled immigrants into their workforce.

Photo by Kyle Glenn

“We are in a transition period right now. People in the government and in the ministries are trying to do the right things and trying to push this path through but it's ultimately going to be the society that moves this through, and I think it's still going to be another 5-10 years before we really see this change.”

We next moved on to the discussion about the education system in Finland. As a Higher Education expert, Dr. Mathies brought to light that currently, Finland is doing a good job at retaining foreign students who come here for their higher education.

“If we look at the research, Finland does a very good job at retaining the students. About 2/3 of the students stay here in Finland [after their studies]. When we look at ‘do students stay where they studied?’, what we find is that the students who studied outside of the large cities like Helsinki, Tampere, Turku; those students actually stayed in Finland at a much higher rate. But they are not staying in the same city where they studied as they were moving elsewhere within Finland… this goes to the regional development (outside of the Helsinki region) issue and this has been a topic in Finland already for some time, outside of immigration concerns”. 

Dr. Mathies also stated that international students deal with many challenges in receiving a white-collar/professional job in comparison to local students. He says “the policy goal should be focused on getting international students into these white-collar jobs…”

When it comes to fields of social sciences and humanities, Dr. Mathies points out that even though the degree programmes are international, the content of such programmes is challenged to be global as, in many cases, they tend to be more nationally focused. Consequently, the training international students receive makes them ideal candidates for the Finnish labour market. Yet, the language barrier and other cultural aspects of the country may hinder the foreign students in getting into the labour market. On the other hand, international programmes that focus on STEM subjects have a higher probability of enhancing a foreign student’s opportunity to join Finland’s workforce as there are new industries and businesses that are being built around science as part of the knowledge economy. Charles Mathies also says that Finland needs to be careful when creating international programmes, as they should create opportunities for students to get into the labour market once they are qualified in a certain area to carry out a job.

Photo by Carlos Muza

“I think with the Ministry's goal of 2030 of retaining 75% of these international students and tripling the number coming in by 2030, we're going to see much more focus in creating programs, and they're not necessarily going to be in the social sciences or humanities. They're going to be in business, in ICT, and in the STEM fields. I believe that's where we're going to see the growth.”

Finally, Dr. Mathies discussed his work on “Reducing the precarity of researchers’ careers” which was an OECD led programme. While discussing his contribution towards the cause, he emphasized the challenges the researchers have to undergo just to secure their profession as a researcher. Usually, research work in almost all the academic fields is well-funded in Finland. But if a researcher is unable to network and collaborate with the correct set of people in the field, it can negatively affect their ability to compete for grants and other funding let alone secure employment. He also emphasized the difficulties female and international scholars face in academia. According to Dr. Mathies, the research shows there is often a glass ceiling that affects people when trying to go up the ladder towards a professorship.

Nevertheless, Charles Mathies says Finland is consistently amending its policies and adjusting the systems with the intent to improve conditions for both domestic and international talent hubs in the country. He is positive that Finland will reach this goal one day in future. But in his opinion, Finland needs to speed up the pace of reforming these policies and plans to make the country an immigrant-friendly one. He is hopeful and looking forward to these positive changes in the country. In closing, he says, “It is an interesting time to be here” and looks forward to what the future brings to Finland.

Read more about Charles Mathies:

Read “Being an academic and engaging in social change”

Author: Hansika Piyumali Ambahelagedara.

Interviewer: Arina Lykova.

Interviewee: Charles Mathies.

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