People voiced their opposition to fascism and racism in Helsinki on 3 September 2023. The release of the government programme and the racism debate sparked by revelations about the online comments of cabinet members have altered impressions of Finland among international talent, views Ilkka Niemelä, the rector at Aalto University. (Jussi Nukari – Lehtikuva)


ILKKA NIEMELÄ, the rector at Aalto University, has levelled sharp criticism at the immigration policy revisions pursued by the government of Prime Minister Petteri Orpo (NCP).

Niemelä on Sunday stated to Helsingin Sanomat that, if implemented, the revisions will reduce top-quality research and innovation activity by encouraging international specialists and workers to choose to work in another country.

The plans alone have dented the country reputation among skilled labour more than one could judged based on media reporting, he believes.

The government programme states, for example, that work-based immigrants must leave the country if they fail to find new employment within three months of the end of their previous employment. The language and residence requirement for a permanent work permit are similarly to be stepped up, the latter from four to six years.

The three-month re-employment requirement is what has stirred up the most concern at Aalto University. Almost half of the university faculty are from outside Finland.

Also the startup community and software developers have singled out the requirement for criticism.

“What can easily happen in expert work is that a company adjusts its operations slightly or terminates some operations. Although there’d be a need for the expertise, it may be almost impossible to find a new job in three months in a way that the documents have been signed because the recruitment processes are thorough and last a long time,” said Niemelä.

Finland, he said, has formerly been regarded as a stable and predictable society that values merits and treats people from other parts of the world equally. The release of the government programme and the racism debate have reversed the impression – so much so that there are concerns about outright hostility toward immigrants and the country wanting to get rid of even international specialists.

“That’s the message that’s being relayed abroad through networks,” he told.

The message is having an even greater impact on the appeal and reputation of the country than international media coverage about the racist comments of cabinet members, according to Niemelä. The significance of networks is emphasised because many look for information and experiences through their acquaintances and social media contacts before determining whether to build a career in Finland.

“In our community, we’re seeing widespread concerns about the direction of Finland. When they’re asked if Finland is a good place to take up a job, to come to study or pursue your research career, they’re quite reserved about making the recommendation,” he revealed.

The uncertainty stems also from the fact that many do not know how major the decisions are and when they could be implemented into law.

“Many ask if the three-month rule is already in effect and what it will mean for them. Or if they should already start thinking, if they’re about to graduate, if they should look for a job overseas rather than in Finland,” elaborated Niemelä.

An inability to attract talent to work and study, he warned, will undermine not only research endeavours but also national competitiveness.

“Our industrial make-up is such that economic growth is based on work productivity growth, which arises almost exclusively from new technologies, innovations and human capital, or expertise,” he reminded.

One hindrance for growth is weak demographic development.

“We need international experts if we’re trying to generate new innovations and sustainable growth in Finland. Without international networks and experts, it won’t be possible,” said Niemelä. “If we now make decisions that damage international recruitment, it’ll also be difficult to solve the sustainability deficit.”

Aleksi Teivainen – HT