A crisis over a threat to deport up to 200 Kenyan students in Finland at the end of March has been narrowly avoided. However, it raises ethical questions over the handling of Finland’s export education scheme. Additionally, county authorities in Kenya have allegedly been dishonest partners.
The problem was resolved after outstanding fees began to be paid to Laurea University of Applied Sciences, which operates in the Uusimaa region of southern Finland, across six campuses and with some 7,800 students.
Finnish universities contracted to provide several hundred study places with the county governments of Uasin Gishu and Elgeyo Marakwet in Kenya. The counties are neighbours in the Rift Valley area in western Kenya. Most of the places were for nursing studies.
A podcast of Yle – the Finnish Broadcasting Company – called “All Point North”, on 9 March published aprogramme titled “When Finnish education export dreams turn sour”. It discussed the problems of Kenyan nursing students attending Laurea under an export agreement scheme.
The Yle podcast said that hundreds of Kenyan students who travelled to Finland in 2022 to study under the education export scheme had their studies suspended and faced the risk of deportation because of tuition fee non-payment by the counties. Text accompanying the podcast said: “It appears the costs were passed straight on to students themselves.”
The Kenyan students faced being locked out of their studies, and not having their residence permits renewed by the Finnish authorities.
On 3 April Jouni Koski, president and CEO of Laurea University of Applied Sciences, reported that a significant portion of missing second semester payments had been made. “Uasin Gishu county and the students and their parents are in the process of signing agreements for participation in the programme and the fees to be paid.”
Since the situation had changed – under the contract it was Uasin Gishu county that should be paying – the board of Laurea would need to take a new position, until then teaching remained suspended. “There are no changes to students’ rights to study at the moment, so there will be no acute impact on the criteria for residence in this respect.”
Booming education export
In all, 139 trainee nurses and physiotherapists went to Finland under the current contracts between the county governments in Kenya and Finnish universities through the government education export programme Education Finland, which is managed by the Finnish National Agency for Education.
The objective of Education Finland is to grow the value of education exports to €1 billion (US$1.1 billion) by 2030. The target was reached way faster than anticipated.
According to the Labour Institute for Economic Research, LABORE, the total value of the education export sector in the Finnish economy was already nearly €1 billion, or a little less than 0.5% of Finland’s gross domestic product, in 2019.
Education exports refer to service exports related to education, training and competence, such as selling education provision abroad and training foreign students in Finland, as well as goods exports, such as the export of physical learning materials.
According to Education Finland, in April 2022 EduExcellence Oy, an education service provider owned by three major Finnish universities of applied sciences, and Kenyan authorities together with Skill Dove Ltd, agreed to implement on-demand degree programmes in three institutions.
They are Laurea and Metropolia Universities of Applied Sciences and Jyväskylä Educational Consortium Gradia. Skill Dove Ltd, a Kenyan work agency, conducts the business operations of the partnership. The Kenyan counties were contracted to cover the students’ costs.
The Kenyan students, most of them from Uasin Gishu county, were accepted for BA degree studies in nursing and physiotherapy at Laurea, information technology degree study in Metropolia, and a practical nurse vocational qualification at Gradia.
An Education Finlandrelease dated 12 April 2022 stated: “The demand in the health sector, especially in nursing, is very strong in Kenya.” There were to be nearly 450 students in total in the first cohort, and the first phase of operation was worth more than €10 million (US$11 million).
“Many students are seeking opportunities to be educated in Europe, and now especially in Finland,” said Education Finland. Although the upskilling of most of the students would help develop Kenyan society, many others would want to stay in Finland to work after graduating.
Thus the education export programme could help alleviate the skills shortage in Finland and intensify cooperation with workplaces in regions, in terms of future needs and work-related immigration.
Education Finland quoted Koski as saying that the cooperation project offered opportunities for students from different backgrounds to achieve a prestigious Finnish degree in nursing or in physiotherapy.
“The experts of our university have praised the high level of competence of those who took the entrance exams, so we believe that they will be excellent in their studies,” Koski said.
Riitta Konkola, president and CEO of Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, said the agreement enabled students to acquire high-level skills that could be used internationally for employment, and provided a significant opening for Finland to export high-level know-how.
Scandal hits the headlines in Kenya
Just a year later, the problems emerged. There has been a flurry of newspaper reports in Kenya on the plight of the students. The following are just two examples.
On 6 March 2023, The Capital in Nairobi reported that an ad hoc committee of the Uasin Gishu county assembly had found evidence of mismanagement of funds.
Far from funding the students, the country had charged students KES1.19 million (US$8,870) for tuition fees, KES80,000 for accommodation for three months, KES30,000 for insurance, KES49,000 for a visa, KES5,000 for COVID testing and KES100,000 for the flight.
The committee observed that some senior county officials colluded with some financial institutions and irregularly benefitted themselves from funds meant for the studies. It recommended that three senior officials be investigated for forgery, abuse of office and breach of integrity.
On 24 March, The Nation newspaper reported that Elgeyo Marakwet county also had 200 students in Finland, studying for qualifications in nursing and applied sciences, who faced not having residence permits renewed.
“Elgeyo Marakwet County Governor Wisley Rotich has formed an 11 member task force to investigate the Finland Scholarship Programme, under which hundreds of students from the county studying in Finland now risk deportation over failure to pay fees, just like their Uasin Gishu counterparts,” the paper alleged.
Laurea leader speaks out
Koski, gave a lengthy account of the situation to University World News. He said commissioned education, also known as tailor-made degree programmes, is described in the Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences Act.
“According to the law, Finnish universities of applied sciences are obliged to charge a fee for commissioned education covering at least the costs [incurred] from it, and therefore Laurea’s options are limited.”
Currently there are 67 Kenyan nursing students at Laurea on the Vantaa, Lohja and Porvoo campuses, and 32 nursing students and 40 physiotherapy students in distance learning in Kenya. In addition, 96 students have completed foundation studies in Kenya, which include Finnish language studies before starting the degree studies in Finland.
The payments from Uasin Gishu County were delayed. After negotiations, Laurea extended the payment deadline for second semester tuition fees until 31 March. Laurea also requested that Uasin Gishu County enter into a written agreement with each student and send a copy to Laurea.
Initially, both Uasin Gishu county and the students told Laurea that the county would pay the fees as scholarships. Only later it turned out that the county charged the students.
“While this would be a valid option under the Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences Act, we believe it has been misleading and it is our understanding that Uasin Gishu county has not acted responsibly in this matter. We believe the situation should be clear and transparent for all parties involved from the beginning,” Koski said.
“Why we were not told of the actual state of matters from the get-go, we do not know.”
Koski told University World News that Laurea had tried to ensure ethical compliance in relation to the issue at all times. The university had “extensively informed the applicants and students about length and content of the studies, the importance of learning Finnish, working hour limits of the student visa, as well as other relevant matters” throughout the process.
He concluded: “Laurea is deeply concerned for the students and is putting its best efforts to solve the situation positively for the students.”
Namibian teachers’ success
There have been other, more positive experiences with the education export scheme.
One example was a programme through which 50 Namibian teachers graduated from bachelor and masters programmes at the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Turku. In a University of Finland report from December 2022, Professor Sari Havu-Nuutinen, head of the school of applied educational science and teacher education, said:
“The teachers who participated in our training have found good jobs, and many of them have started new careers as university lecturers or in administrative positions in the field of education and training. Four students are currently pursuing their doctoral studies at the University of Eastern Finland and Stellenbosch University in South Africa.”
Ida Mielityinen, executive director of Arene – Rector’s Conference of Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences – commented to University World News: “Finland’s healthcare system needs a skilled workforce. Universities of applied sciences seek to respond to this need.
International recruitment and education exports are demanding practices, she said, and their processes have been refined in many countries for much longer than in Finland. “The most important starting point for universities of applied sciences is ethics, and they want to take care of it in everything they do.
“The funding of universities of applied sciences has been cut drastically in Finland over the past 10 years, while the number of students has increased. All activities are aimed at being done as efficiently as possible due to limited resources – without compromising quality and values. The legislation regulating the activities is also partly unclear,” said Mielityinen.
“We learn a lot from these cases and do everything we can to ensure that all universities of applied sciences avoid mistakes in the future. We want to help Finland to obtain a skilled workforce, ethically and with high quality.”
Dr Jari Lavonen is a professor of physics and chemistry education at the University of Helsinki. He is a director of the National Teacher Education Forum and chair of the Finnish Matriculation Examination Board. He told University World News:
“One important issue is that we have a decentralised education system. There are, of course, several widely shared ideas, such as educational equality. This decentralisation is also in education export. There are some national guidelines for education export. However, each company and university is independent and aims to make progress.”
Jonna Korhonen, director of higher education policy at the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland, explained to University World News: “Higher education institutions may arrange commissioned education leading to a degree for separate student groups. The party commissioning the education could typically be a non-European country, such as Kenya, that wants to train a group of its citizens in a Finnish higher education institution for a specific degree.
“Universities charge the party commissioning the education a fee, instead of charging tuition fees to individual students. The party who commissions the education is, however, entitled to charge participating students fees in accordance with the legal provisions or other practices in the country where the education is offered.”
Individual students are also free to apply to study through the Finish application system, for which there is no fee.
Korhonen said the ministry had sent a letter to universities to remind them of the legislation and other aspects of commissioned education.
“Commissioned education is business, so the status of a student is agreed on the contracts between the education institution and the client and, on the other hand, between the client and the student. That’s why it would be important to take care of the student’s legal protection in these contracts,” she continued.
“Another aspect is that education institutions should ensure that the education is paid in advance, or the money is secured by a reliable financial institution in order to secure the position of the students.”
Göran Melin, managing director of the Technopolis Group in Stockholm and a higher education expert, commented to University World News: “It is very unfortunate when individual students become victims of administrative and juridical mistakes like this.
“From what I understand, the Kenyan students may have been exposed to some fraud in their home region when it comes to the payment for their studies.
“It is difficult to say if the Finnish university has not applied sufficient monitoring and control of the agreements with the Kenyan partners, but regardless, it now seems like it is the students who will take the hit. Quite obviously this damages the otherwise high reputation of Finnish higher education for foreign students.”