Mr. Matti Taajamo' s Academic dissertation 26.11.2005

Taajamo, M. 2005. Foreign students in Finland. Experiences of studying and learning, life and diversity. University of Jyväskylä. Institute for Educational Research.



The study describes foreign students’ experiences of Finland. Studying abroad or in a multicultural context provided by one’s home university can be characterised as an academic, cultural, intellectual and emotional condition that fosters both the student's intercultural competencies and their personal growth. However, we are still some way from interaction among foreign and Finnish students, teachers, teaching and the community outside campus wide-ranging enough to generate cultural encounters which promote internationalisation. Because studying abroad has, so far, received relatively little scholarly attention in Finland, I defined the research task as broadly as possible. My purpose was to examine foreign students’ experiences of Finland and studying here and how they see themselves as students in Finland. Additionally, I looked at how Finnish students, teachers and people involved in international affairs perceive foreign students. Furthermore, I elaborated the concept of the developmental task, based on the ideas of Havighurst, from the perspective of the challenges that internationalisation poses to the individual and the community.

The subjects were 23 exchange and degree students, 3 Finnish students, and 14 members of the teaching and administrative staffs at the University of Jyväskylä and the University of Art and Design Helsinki UIAH (N = 40). The data were gathered through thematic interviews. Allowing the interviewees themselves to formulate their answers and use concepts selected by themselves turned out to be an important factor in my interviews with the foreign students. A free-form interview made it easier to find a common language. I analysed my data using content analysis because it provides explicit rules for constructing categories but allows the interpretation of qualitative data.

The findings indicate that for foreign students, studying in Finland, develops into a significant learning experience. They find instruction delivered in English a positive, its limited provision a negative feature. Academic freedom is seen as an opportunity for independent studies but also as a bewildering factor that requires adjustment. In a Finnish university, coming to terms with multiculturalism is a smooth and culturally sensitive process on the one hand. As the students see it, stereotypes are not unchanging; as internationalism spreads, cultural images are reshaped. At the same time, foreign students have, nevertheless, too little contact with the larger society outside the student world. They become familiar with university culture but remain isolated from the culture of their host country. Foreign students rarely acquire Finnish friends, and there is a feeling that getting to know Finnish students is a slow and difficult process. This is partly because the Finns stick to their own image of Finnishness by maintaining stereotypically disparaging images of themselves. Another thing that exchange students find problematic is the selective transfer of Finnish credits allowed by their home universities, which often require students to complete quite specific “appropriate” courses. Accordingly, the research findings suggest that educational contents different from those available in a student's home country should be seen as enriching their professional competence instead of limiting it.

Efforts to develop the problem areas of internationalisation must start at the grass-roots level. We should look for answers to questions such as the following: What should be done to achieve closer interaction between Finnish and foreign students? How could Finnish students be motivated to make use of the teaching provision that is delivered in foreign languages? How to develop informal intercultural activities? In teaching, putting diversity to use is also a resource that produces knowledge, skill and experience impossible to gain in any other way. Our aim should be to develop studies abroad into authentic meetings between cultures that are about reciprocity, courage, self-understanding, an awareness of one’s limitations and potentials, and the daring to stake oneself. Reciprocity benefits not only the foreign student but also the host culture.