November 6, 1981: Address to the international seminar (on the plight of foreign students in Finland)

by , under Enrique Tessieri

Enrique Tessieri

Finally the consciousness of the Finnish government and the Finnish public via the press have come to the point where the status of foreigners has been recognized as a problem. The simple fact that this issue has found its way into the public consciousness shows that we’ve come a long way. We’ve made our needs known and more than anything the purpose of the seminar* is to find out and get general agreement upon where do we go from here?


Irmeli’s* presentation has given us a good basis for discussion both regarding the statistical realities of our predicament and as a first hand report from a person who has spent a good deal of time dealing with these matters over the years.

What I would like to do today is to lay some philosophical ground work for the hopefully productive discussions to follow in the course of this conference. To do this, we should start by distinguishing the kinds of foreign students in Finland. The first group are the ones with means. These are the scholarship holders, or from well-to-do families, whose intentions and aspirations as to what they shall achieve during their relatively short stay in Finland are specific. Their personal investments in university life and Finnish society at large is limited. Upon finishing their year of study or in some cases a degree program, they return to their country. This groups i the least affected by what Irmeli calls “the uncertainty factor.”

The second category includes the rest of us. The unifying feature of this group is that for some reason, no matter how tenuous that reasoning is, they continue to hang on to the notion that they’ll end up living and working here. When they start to make plans they soon realize the magnitude of “the uncertainty factor.” Money, has to be gotten by the expenditure of large amounts of energy which usually has nothing to do with their course of study.

The effort to keep family, studies, and household together should be described in terms no less than heroic. I think I don’t have to describe this subject any further since all of use here know exactly what I am talking about.

Why does all this uncertainty exist? For the second groups clearly it cannot be confined to academic categories – if you cant’ eat you can’t study. The American poet Gertrud Stein once explained that public opinion was what it was because people “love what they know,” and by large, foreign people are seen by the police, by the Office of Alien Affairs, and by that part of the population who lack the opportunity or the ability  to communicate with us, as unknowns. In short we are not loved. No matter how much we bitch or kick our heels it won’t change the situation and thus lay a foundation for the reforms we seek.

We have not come to this conference to complain to each other; we know the score. If there is an abuse of our rights or deficiency in our legal status, let’s ask ourselves what we can do about it here and what the Finnish authorities can themselves do about it.

Let’s focus our energies on the three areas we have come to discuss: our legal status, the academic set up, and our integration into this society.


Finland’s xenophobia is clearly reflected in her laws concerning foreigners. Proper manipulation of these laws by the authorities no doubt is connected to the underwhelming size of the foreign population of this country and probably exerts and effect on keeping the number of foreign students down. Remember Irmeli’s observation that healthy student bodies contain as much as 10% foreign population? Our population is 1/12 of that!

The first and foremost factor is the distinctly negative approach the laws has taken towards foreigners. Much of our rights are defined in terms of what we may not do. We cannot vote, we cannot participate in demonstrations, we cannot buy land, we cannot edit newspapers, we don’t even have the right to appeal upon deportation. Obviously these laws have been made to protect the citizenry of this country, but in all fairness, do foreign students represent the kind of threat to property, to national security, or the ideology of the official representatives of this country to justify blanket condemnation under the law? By and large, the foreign student population has very little influence on the financial and political fate of this nation and the laws were made with other interests in mind. The other Scandinavian countries have realized the discrepancy and have gone far to ameliorate it. This has been done by the reaction of an immigrant or permanent resident status. Uncertainly is removed because the foreigner has limited power in controlling his destiny and this is what it’s all about. Under this status a foreigner takes on the responsibilities of what could be called a quasi-citizenship; he votes locally, pays taxes, and participates in the construction of society. As far as foreign students are concerned, most of us end up being qualified for such status after a couple of years. So why doesn’t this status exist?

The second undesirable factor concerning legal status is the tremendous waste of personal talents and time. Constant reapplication for work and residence permits, as well as the limits placed on the kinds of labor we are permitted to do (generally language teaching or menial labor) prevents Finland from realizing the benefit of a fully actualized foreign population. This is based in some part on the unfair perception that without limits foreigners would deny citizens of employment but in practice it means any new avenues of creative endeavor, or said the other way, “the benefits of new blood in the system” are very effectively thwarted. Who gains by all this? As a final note, I would like to ask those preparing  proposals on changing legal status to keep those proposals positively worded.


Not too long ago I was told by a Finnish leader of a certain immigration organization that I could not aspire to ever hold a university post. He pointed out that since my Finnish would never be at the same level as that of a native I could never have a chance. He told me that my best bet would be to get into the restaurant hotel business since I was kind mannered and spoke languages. If this is true we might all as well switch over to the “ravintola ja hotelli opistot.” Certainly my experience with foreign teachers in the University of California leads me to believe this need not be the case. The bad news is that any foreigner who aspires to academic success must be able to communicate fluently even gracefully in Finnish and as long as a foreign student fails to rationalize this he will always remain among the academically disadvantaged.

But even assuming the foreign student makes a serious effort to learn Finnish he must still confront completely unjustified academic pretense of the educational system here. The “osta kotimaista” mentality is well rooted in Finnish academic tradition and often results in the foreign scholar’s sad realization that his is having to cope with nothing more than simple provinciality cloaked in a dress of bureaucratic paper and regulations. Against we might ask: Who is anybody gains from such attitudes?


What I am discussing here are really nothing more than aspects of barriers to comfortable integration into this society and perhaps we can do greatest justice to foreign students by taking a holistic approach to their problems. When foreign students can eat properly, house themselves, and possess greater power in determining their academic and economic futures, they can solve their other problems by themselves. In return for greater freedoms within this culture, foreign students should be made aware that they will also have to shoulder greater social responsibilities. Joining a club is never grounds for sustained membership, we will always have to be proving ourselves.

The foreign students who stay on, most likely will be the future leaders of the foreign community. Presently, that community numbers 10,000 (not counting our children) larger than the Lapp and gypsy minorities put together. We could say we constitute a pretty sizable minority, albeit fragmented. This minority speaks many languages, and follows many customs. But we are all unified in the extent of our exclusion from the majority culture. Until we begin to speak for ourselves, until we begin to document our history and until we assess our efforts to integrate with this society, our improved status will never be justified in the minds of the authorities or the Finnish public. This is a long-range project, but hopefully we can plant some seeds of understanding in the course of these seminars whose growth will have meaningful benefit for all of us.

Have a good conference.


*International Seminar, Ilkon Kurssikeskus (Nov. 6-7, 1981), Tampere, Finland.

* Irmeli Tammivaara-Balaam, Helsinki University foreign student advisor.