Finnish higher education institutions' reactions to the 2015 asylum seeker situation

Motives, goals and future challenges

  • Heidi Vaarala
  • Eeva-Leena Haapakangas
  • Erja Kyckling
  • Taina Saarinen
Keywords: Asylum seekers, Community service, Higher education, Third mission, Media


In 2015, military conflicts and related humanitarian crises neighbouring areas of Europe made millions of people leave their homes. Europe, including Finland, experienced a rapid increase in the number of asylum seekers. In this article, we examine the reception of asylum seekers by Finnish higher education institutions mainly by analysing media data written about and written by universities and universities of applied sciences in Finland. The higher education institutions, in keeping with their societal role, spontaneously developed various kinds of pop-up courses, co-operation projects and other activities for asylum seekers. These activities range from crisis work to medical clinics and sports events to language teaching. This led us to ask in this article, whether new tasks were emerging in the Finnish higher education institutions’ understanding of the societal role of higher education. This main question is operationalised in three subquestions. Firstly, we are interested in seeing how higher education institutions motivate their actions on developing activities for asylum seekers. Secondly, we analyse the goals and gainers of these activities. Thirdly, we discuss the challenges faced by the higher education institutions in their refugee and asylum seeker activities. Based on our findings, we suggest that new kinds of voluntary and humanitarian activities appear to be emerging at Finnish higher education institutions, as they responded to the increase in the number of asylum seekers, suggesting a change in the traditions of societal impact of Finnish higher education. Our analysis also shows an apparent paradox in the activities of the institutions: while they had no way of knowing how many asylum seekers will remain in Finland, they still organised activities that implied staying in Finland for a longer time. The higher education institutions themselves benefitted from the activities: they could exhibit their expertise and previous research in the area of immigrant studies, and aspects of service-learning system of societal activity could be taken into their curricula. Helping the asylum seekers brought the university community together while the asylum seekers themselves remained passive objects of the activities.
How to Cite
Vaarala, H., Haapakangas, E.-L., Kyckling, E., & Saarinen, T. (2017). Finnish higher education institutions’ reactions to the 2015 asylum seeker situation: Motives, goals and future challenges. Apples - Journal of Applied Language Studies, 11(3), 143-165.