Birgitta Vuorinen joined the Finnish Embassy in London in early January to serve as a Counsellor in higher education and science policy. Vuorinen’s task is to follow higher education and science policy in the UK, foster opportunities for cooperation, promote Finland’s visibility, and assist Finnish higher education institutions, research institutes and other innovation ecosystem stakeholders in their endeavours for closer cooperation with British parties.
Due to its common history with the European Union, the UK differs from the rest of the countries where Team Finland Knowledge operates. The role of EU programmes has been instrumental in promoting mobility and research cooperation between our two countries, and collaboration between the EU Member States still plays a key role in building a new kind of UK-EU partnership. Cooperation with other EU countries will also play a strong part in consolidating bilateral relations.
Close research cooperation between Finland and the United Kingdom
Finland’s reputation as a leading country in education is a solid one, and research expertise is among the best in the world in many fields. Finland also possesses unique computing capacity by European standards, strong telecommunications and information network expertise, Arctic knowledge as well as expertise that supports the green and digital transition, for example. UK universities consistently hold high positions in higher education rankings, and British researchers are among the most cited in many fields. In the Global Innovation Index 2021, UK ranks fourth in a comparison of 135 countries and Finland ranks seventh.
Both Finland and UK are seeking growth in research investments. The UK aims to reach a ratio of 2.4% of GDP by 2027 (OECD 2019: GDP ratio of 1.76%). Finland has set a target ratio of 4% by 2030 (OECD 2019: 2.8%). In both countries, the public sector accounts for about one third of R&D expenditure while the private sector accounts for about two thirds. Besides increasing research investments, the objectives and other policy documents of the governments of both countries also underscore the importance of strengthening expertise and partnerships, fostering an innovative public sector, promoting health and wellbeing, securing a low-carbon approach and ensuring sustainable climate and energy solutions as well as harnessing digitalisation and data in effective ways.
More than half of the research conducted in the UK is in the shape of international cooperation. Measured by the number of joint publications, UK is Finland’s second biggest partner after the United States, and measured in terms of funding, UK has also been Finland’s second most important Horizon partner.
So far, the European Union and the United Kingdom have not reached an association agreement on UK accession to Horizon Europe. UK researchers have taken part in applications under Horizon Europe. They still do well in them, but the no-deal situation has created uncertainty. The UK government has now announced that it will ensure the funding of British participants approved for the programme during the transition period, but the interim decision is nonetheless a cause for concern among researchers.
From the perspective of the quality of Finnish higher education and research, engaging with strategically important effective RDI networks and building partnerships with UK universities remain important, despite the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. In fact, for this very reason it is still important.
What is the future of cooperation with higher education institutions and mobility between the two countries?
Finnish and British universities have many bilateral agreements and research cooperation is close. Finland belongs to eleven European university alliances that are working on new collaborative forms between higher education institutions as well as cross-border collaboration in teaching. Two networks of Finnish higher education institutions also include a UK university. The alliances receive funding from both Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe. The terms of the programme funding guide the activities, so the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and any agreements on programme cooperation will in future be reflected in the activities of the networks.
Following UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the tuition fees of international degree students in the UK have risen, and in some cases even quadrupled. Higher costs, restrictions on entry to the country, the COVID-19 pandemic and more opportunities for distance learning as a result of the pandemic means that the number of applicants and admissions from EU countries to the UK has dropped. For example, the number of Finnish applicants in the main round of applications was approximately one thousand in 2015-2016, whereas in 2021 it was down to a mere 240.
However, attracting international degree students is still on the UK agenda, and it has now shifted its focus to recruiting prospective students from Asia and Africa in particular. A significant percentage of the revenue of British universities is composed of tuition fees, which means that international degree students are also of financial consequence. However, UK universities are not unduly concerned, as the country achieved its target of 600,000 foreign degree students by 2030 ten years ahead of schedule.
Finland aims to triple its number of international degree students by 2030. British students do not have high incentives to pursue degree studies abroad, such as in Finland, because the UK has an abundant supply of higher education institutions and offers a lending concept that balances out tuition fees, including means testing that takes income levels into account. In other words, where incentives to study abroad are not high, attracting overseas students becomes worthwhile.
The UK has withdrawn from the EU Erasmus programme. However, the UK aims to advance mobility, so the UK has been designing its own national mobility programmes. To this end, the English Turing programme supports UK students’ studies and traineeships abroad. The Welsh Taith international learning exchange programme encourages not only outbound mobility but also inbound youth, student and researcher mobility to Wales. Scotland’s own programme is still in progress.
Both countries need skilled labour, so the desire to employ highly educated people is great. Making sure that different policy areas in talent attraction are interoperable is important. For this reason, both the UK and Finland are currently reviewing their entry regulations, among other things. The entry of trainees into the UK is challenging at the moment, for example, and Finland wishes to draw the UK government’s attention to it together with the other EU Member States.