What America Can Learn From Finland’s Education System Part 2: Embrace International Students and Pursue Graduate School for a Secure Future

I am spending my sabbatical in Finland at Aalto University on a Fulbright Fellowship. I would like to share some insights that could be helpful back home about universities in Finland in this series. — J. Pearce

Finland is actually a relatively new country, but has already built up a solid international reputation in education. When I first arrived in Finland, they were celebrating their 100th year anniversary of independence. On November 15, 1917, the Bolsheviks declared a right of succession for everyone in Russia. Without even letting the ink dry, Finnish Parliament took control of their country on the same day. The next year there was a bitter Finnish civil war and then shortly after Finland defended its independence twice from the Soviet Union in World War II. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that what started out a relatively short time ago as a poor war-torn largely rural country has universities that are any good at all. Finnish universities are all public and among the top 2% of international rankings. For example, Aalto University, where I am now, ranks 137th globally (for perspective that puts them several spots above of Michigan State at 149th, which has never been bombed by Russia).

Micronova, the Aalto University Microfab where I am working, shows off their national spirit and technical prowess with a celebratory message taken with a scanning electron microscope much smaller than a human hair and then ironically made poster size so you can actually see it.

In Finland, I taught several graduate classes just as I do at Michigan Tech. The room I teach in is laid back just like the rooms for younger students (although we all keep our shoes on), with clusters of couches that create a conversational atmosphere for smaller classes.

Lecture room for my graduate classes this semester

The room was a bit different from what I am accustomed to, but the most striking thing I noticed about teaching graduate students in Finland is that many of them were Finnish. That may not seem overly surprising to you as Finns are known to value education and I am in Finland after all! However, my experience as both a graduate student and a professor in America are far different. In America, those willing and able to pursue graduate degrees in the technical disciplines are few and far between. This is despite the evidence that most jobs are either very likely or very unlikely to be automated in the future. Many weakly skilled jobs will be the first to be automated away. Young people that want future job security should work hard to ensure they have advanced degrees doing the designing not being only employable in jobs that are easily designed away. Finnish young people are clearly choosing to be the designers, while many American youth are struggling.

Last year, for example, I taught a graduate level solar photovoltaic class in Michigan. Solar energy is by far the fastest growing source of energy, creating jobs 12X faster than the rest of the U.S. economy, as lower-cost solar energy even makes it highly profitable to turn tobacco farms into solar farms. Predictions are optimistic for the future of solar energy. As America’s electric system must be redesigned for the transition to a more distributed, modern grid running on renewable energy, there are thousands of new, rewarding, high-paying electrical engineering careers for those willing to work hard in graduate school to earn them. International students seem to know this. Michigan Tech’s graduate classes in solar and wind energy are always packed with those looking for a good job that will help them make a comfortable future in America. We are lucky to have them, as Americans themselves seem to have missed the memo. One of Michigan’s top electrical engineering students, whom I had recruited into my research group came up to me after the first solar class last year and asked “am I the only American student here?” The unfortunate answer was yes. Now in my large and small classes in Finland, there were certainly international students, but there were still many Finnish students.

Even more shocking is where some of the international students came from. I expect to see Indian and Chinese students because their countries have more than a billion people each and are graduating millions of engineers every year.

Infographic of the countries with the most STEM graduates.

However, I was surprised that I had several students from south and central America as well as Mexico. These students literally have 100s of North American university choices, yet they were coming all the way to Finland to study. A good example is an extremely smart Mexican mechanical engineering graduate student that took my 3D printing class to help speed her prototyping of a pizzabot. In 9 months with a team made up of herself and Finnish engineering, design and business students, they created a robot about the size of a small kitchen table that makes pizzas to order. The idea is these small kiosks would be deployable on a tiny footprint and have trivial labor costs (e.g. stocking the machine) and customers could get inexpensive pizzas fast. I had a slice of the robot-manufactured pizza and it was pretty good. A Finnish company sponsored the project and clearly benefited from the talent pool at Finnish universities. Our future local pizza shops are more likely to sport a “Made in Finland” label.

Mexican graduate student in showing off her pizza making robot designed and built with her Finnish classmates.

Why would a talented Mexican graduate student pass America by and come all the way to Finland? One reason is that Finland is much more inviting to international people. Finland’s Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, who was kind enough to personally give my children buttons when we stopped by his office during an open house, offered his own home to displaced migrants! It is hard to imagine either version of the Finnish open houses occurring in the U.S. under any administration. This is a very different greeting than we sometimes offer those that cross American borders. Thus, it is concerning, although not surprising, that international student demand has suddenly dropped in America. Make no mistake about it, losing the smartest students in the world to other countries is not in our best interest.

Another reason that international students may choose Finland is simply cost. Any Finnish person smart enough can attend Aalto University for free ($0). Actually, in Finland, university education is free for everyone, with the cost covered by taxes (except for non-EU students who only pay a nominal charge compared to U.S. universities). Again, for perspective, our two local universities cost much more: Finlandia University’s tuition is over $22,000 per year and Michigan Tech costs Michigan students about $15,000 per year and out of state students, $32,000 per year. Finnish universities are actively recruiting foreign students. By making education free for their own students and low-cost for the top international students, Finland is clearly gaining a competitive advantage. A zero price tag can obviously be a benefit to students to avoid debt (it averages over $37,000 for students in the U.S.). Zero cost university creates a society where — even if you are poor — you can get a good education and a good job no matter how badly pizzabots and their electronic relatives decimate low skilled jobs. This Finnish meritocratic system is a lot like what the U.S. aspires to be. For example, we offer as many scholarships as we can to the best students. This is good, but a far cry from providing every talented student a free education and a much better chance at a good future as I see here in Finland.