Finland soon left out in African mobility unless…


Finland soon left out in African mobility unless…

Academic mobility is one of the most important forms of collaborative learning. It allows the academic community to share and advance scientific knowledge and innovations. However, to fulfill this commitment Finland has still a long way to go. What are we exactly missing out, and what could we do to fix it?

The importance of international academic mobility is recognised in Finland’s “Africa Strategy”, in which Finland commits to “promote exchange studies and exchange of researchers between Finland and African countries”. It offers particular role for Higher Education Institutions to increase international interactions in all forms. However, according to the Finnish National Agency for Education’s statistics, only less than 70 Finnish higher education students did their student exchange program in Sub-Saharan Africa last year. Additionally, less than 60 teaching and research staff from Finnish HEIs travelled to the region. Therefore, Finnish HEIs are in danger to be left out of great opportunities that could be the future’s scientific breakthroughs and innovations.


Enormous potential for student mobility now and in the future

Student mobility from and within Sub-Saharan Africa is high and Sub-Saharan students made up for 7% of all mobility in the world. According to a study published by Campus France last year, the number of outbound students from Sub-Saharan Africa increased by 21% between 2016 and 2021. In 2020, there was around 430,000 students studying abroad from the region. The study did also include the mobility of high school students, but the majority of 88% of students in the study attended a higher education institution. By 2050, the number of outbound Sub-Saharan African students is expected to double to more than 850,000.

One of the reasons for high mobility out of Africa is the growing number of young people looking for study opportunities that do not keep up with the demand. Only a small portion, around 9%, of youth in Sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled to a higher education institution while the global average is 40%. Therefore, Sub-Saharan students are particularly mobile compared to the rest of the world. Nearly 5% of Sub-Saharan students study abroad, compared to the 3% on average globally. Students from Nigeria, Cameron and Zimbabwe are the most likely to travel abroad to advance their studies. Most Sub-Saharan students, around 27%, make their way to Europe. France is the number one study destination as it welcomed nearly 92,000 students in 2020-2021, which represents 14% of international students from the region.

However, Europe is not the only appealing region for Sub-Saharan Africans. In fact, around 20% of students decide to study in other African countries. For example, the third most popular country for Sub-Saharan African students is South Africa with 30,000 students in 2020-2021. This is not surprising as South Africa represents the top-ranking country in the continent when it comes to higher education and science. South Africa was only defeated by United States that had 41,000 students from the region, making it the second most popular country for the region’s students.


Other countries are tapping into the potential – for different reasons

Even though foreign students enjoy their stay and studies in Finland, we have not been able to tap into the potential of African students and researches. According to same study by Campus France, only 1300 students arrived to Finland in 2021-2022.

France’s success is partly due to the common (colonial) history that is has with some African countries but France has also put effort into the internationalisation and competitiveness of its higher education institutions. The effort is also shown at government level as France has put in place the so-called Bienvenue en France plan. And the French seem to be doing just well: from 2016 to 2020, France managed to grow the number of Sub-Saharan African international students by 40%.

However, geopolitics also play a role in advancing African academic mobility. Russia will be cooperating even more closely in the future with African countries regarding higher education and scientific research, including enhancing student and academic mobility. President Putin has stated that currently in 35,000 African students are studying at Russian universities and the number is expected to grow every year. Scholarships for among others South African students are doubling and next year already 300 students will be offered almost a full board to study in Russia. At the same time, China has exponentially grown its number of African students in the past 20 years. In 2003, there was only 1,800 African students, while before the COVID-19 pandemic African students were the second largest group of international students in China (nearly 82,000). China’s struggle with the pandemic has since lowered the number of African students in the country but the effort to increase China’s influence on the academic community is still very much there.

The increased demand for studying abroad among sub-Saharan students will lead to the emergence of new study destinations, and France, Russia or China are not the only countries to recognise the potential academic mobility of the African continent. Turkey is currently experiencing the strongest growth and has almost tripled the number of sub-Saharan students it hosts the past five years.


Short-term mobility serves as a springboard for HEIs

Even though Finland has not yet been able to promote either inbound or outbound student mobility, we do have some tools that could change this in the future. One of these being short-term mobility of both research staff and students.

For example, the Finnish funded bilateral Team Finland Knowledge (TFK) Projects strengthen cooperation and mobility between higher education institutions in Southern Africa and Finland. At this very moment, there are in total of 22 active TFK projects in SADC region with topics varying from toxicology to mental health literacy. Many of them include short-term mobility of either students or staff, and sometimes both.

Furthermore, short-term mobility programmes such as Erasmus + serve as a great tool to promote future mobilities in the long run. They should be seen as an opportunity – a springboard – for students and staff to seek cooperation between Finland and African countries when it comes to science and higher education.

Our disadvantage is that Finland and Finnish HEIs are relatively unknown to African students. Therefore, it is even more important to start building bridges now between our HEIs. As stated before, success when it comes to mobility is not build over-night but the very contrary: it is about consistent and active policy-making towards more international and competitive higher education by both HEIs and our decision-makers. Country-branding and focused campaigns like #FutureWithFinland serve a bit. And finally, for Finnish students to go and study in African countries, equal awareness building on African modern opportunities and innovative research ecosystem needs to better spread.

Photo: The students of music education from Jyväskylä University/SAFINET had a month long exchange visit to Universities of Zululand and Pretoria. This short-term mobility paves a way for longer visits. From left: Jukka Pesonen, Veera Laamanen, Tiina Salola (TFK intern), Erika Airaksinen and Veera Luomi. Photo taken by Iina Soiri

Stay in touch with TFK-expert Iina Soiri and trainee Tiina Salola/ Pretoria