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Higher education institutions’ structural weaknesses are putting students with S2 language skills in an unequal position

Published on 20.2.2023
Tampere University
Maija Tervola
Photo: Jonne Renvall / Tampere University
The Finnish language can no longer be approached as a purely theoretical linguistic matter. It is a societal matter that determines the success of our society. Having the Finnish language as lingua franca, a language common to all members of the community, is one of the greatest challenges of our time. University Instructor Maija Tervola is seeking solutions to remove structural weaknesses related to language skills at Tampere University.

Tampere University has an official B2 language skills requirement. This means that in Finnish-language degree programmes students must have at least B2 level Finnish language competence. Maija Tervola emphasises that if an official language requirement like this exists the student must be able to study at that language level.

“It is the responsibility of universities that students who have been admitted to a university can complete their studies from the outset. Currently, this is not the case for students with S2 backgrounds; they must often work very much harder than those who speak Finnish as their first language,” Tervola says.

Tervola, who teaches in the Finnish Language and Culture study module, works in the Talent BOOST project, which aims to get people with S2 backgrounds, meaning Finns speaking Finnish as a second language, to study in higher education in accordance with skills and propensities and gain access to professions.

The project is part of the action plan of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment. The part that the Ministry of Education and Culture is co-coordinating is considering ways to make international specialists feel comfortable and find employment well in Finland. Tervola’s work focuses on the linguistic accessibility of university studies.

“In higher education sectors in particular, Finnish language competence is relevant, as university professions are often societal and therefore have a high language requirement. In the project, we are focusing on students admitted to higher education for whom Finnish is not the strongest language. We are mapping how they are doing in their studies,” Tervola mentions.

Language skills determine how students succeed in their studies – teachers play a significant role

The number of students with S2 backgrounds in Finnish-language higher education programmes is steadily increasing. In Tervola’s view, the teaching staff may not be aware of how language skills should be considered in lectures or have no means to consider it.

“It would be advisable for teachers to principally assume that the courses have students whose native language is not Finnish. Lectures should be automatically sufficiently clear, and this should not have to be requested separately. All teachers should be aware of linguistic accessibility and be interested in developing it,” Tervola points out.

“If students have gained entry at a university with B2 language skills, it means that they are in the right place, fully justified to be here and entitled to education and support so that they are able to cope with their studies. This must be understood as a starting point at the entire university level,” Tervola emphasises.

Together with Doctoral Researcher Mari Honko from the University of Jyväskylä, Tervola is collecting longitudinal research material that describes the experiences of language requirements among university students with an immigrant background. The first replies were collected by a survey in 2022.

The research specifically explores the experiences of students with S2 backgrounds at Finnish-language degree programmes and their coping at learning events conducted in Finnish. The study is currently being peer-reviewed.

“We also asked what kind of support students receive from their teachers. Linguistic support may include, for example, speaking clearly, providing clarifications or permission to use English for essay answers. One way is to give students key words and concepts in advance so that the lecture is easier to follow,” Tervola summarises.

Graduating students are expected to have excellent language skills

Tervola is concerned about the lack of clarity of the concept language of education. Many higher education institutions define persons who have completed their matriculation examination in Finland and received a good grade automatically as Finnish speaking, even if that is not their native language. This is also the case at Tampere University.

This means that excellent language skills at C2 level are also required in the maturity test. If the matriculation examination has been completed with a lower grade, the language of education is not Finnish, and excellent language skills cannot be required in the maturity test.

In addition, there are major differences in the application of legislation between educational institutions. In some higher education institutions, the language of education can only be Finnish when a student has completed the matriculation examination with Finnish as the native language.

Tervola wonders who is responsible for ensuring that language skills can actually develop from level B2 to level C2.

“How do we ensure that the students’ language skills do indeed evolve, and we do not notice only when the student is graduating that the maturity test or thesis fails due to a lack of language skills? Information on language requirements should be clearly determined and available at the time of applying to a university because it is difficult to be aware of them as an upper secondary school student. They should also be an integral part of the personal study plan,” Tervola notes.

Counselling on language skills is available for teachers and students

Tervola has just begun to work as S2 Counsellor. It is a particularly important part of the project work for her.

“I can provide concrete counselling for eg essays and theses and can come to lectures to assess whether the teaching is clear enough for students with an S2 background. I am happy to provide case-by-case and personal guidance and feedback and support on a wide range of language skills issues,” she says.

Tervola wishes to be contacted by both students and teachers.

“I hope we can do this work together. With these contacts, we will be able to specify the situation picture of where we are at the moment, what we already have and what else do we need. This will allow us to build and develop our services,” she mentions.

Tervola teaches in the course unit Development of Teaching in Multicultural Learning Environments, which will be organised for the next time in autumn 2023. She also plans to implement a small guide material that would provide the basics of the course.

“My goal is that the content of the course becomes part of the basic knowledge of teaching staff. It is extremely important to identify this bias in our structures. We should avoid conflict situations where we have admitted a person as our student, but he or she does not pass the courses because of insufficient language skills,” Tervola says.