Nobody works in Finland (during July)

Doing business in Finland is great. Don’t even try during July or early August though. Many companies move at a slower pace and normally busy workers head to the lakes.

Not so at SuloNorth. Don’t worry, we’re still enjoying ourselves of course. Smells of strawberries, sweet peas and seagull shit (those famous Helsinki seagulls) have filled our noses, while we’ve tasted fresh ice cream and cold brews.

Soon life will be back to normal. In the meanwhile here are some interesting summertime facts:

  • Finns are the biggest ice cream eaters in Europe, on average a Finn eats about 13 litres in a year. 
  • In 2018, there were 40 ‘heat days’ (days when temperatures reached over 25C) between May-August period (measured at HEL aka Helsinki Vantaa Airport). This makes it the hottest summer in capital area since measurements were taken by the Finnish Meteorological Institute (year 1959).
  • While beer is still the most popular cold alcoholic beverage in Finland it has lost popularity while Finnish Lonkero (long drink) has gained market share, according to statistics from The Federation of the Brewing and Soft Drinks Industry. Cheers!
  • In 2018 traveling by train in Finland increased by 1.8 million passengers from 2017. At the same time air traffic increased by 2.3 million passengers. 
  • There are more wasps around now than earlier in the summer since the hives are full, baby bees everywhere. So be on the look out for these stingers!

education finland Politics

Work to Study, or Study to Work?

Photo: Student housing in Helsinki.

University students in Finland are demanding more money. In 2017, financial aid was cut to EUR250.28 per month. Today, students are demanding a EUR100 increase in financial aid from the new government that would bring their support to around EUR350 monthly.

Unfortunately for students a rise in financial aid seems doubtful. Earlier this month Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo (Green League) stated on Yle’s 8 minuuttia programme that a hike is unlikely, though that had been one of her party’s main campaign promises during the election earlier this year. The new government has agreed, however, to link the amount of aid to the cost of living. Also more affordable houses and living have been promised to students.

Keeping students happy in a country that faces an aging population may be important, but increasing financial aid would be difficult given an already optimistic government budget.

GoNorth! Outlook
Finnish university students will have to keep up the pressure for the
long-term (we mean years) to see their financial aid increased.
The current government is unlikely to agree to a direct increase in
support …sorry students…

Why might Finnish students turn down work?

This year, Finland’s student financial aid program hits the graceful age of 50. University students don’t pay for education in Finland and receive government financial aid to support themselves. The idea is that young people are enabled to focus on their studies and not have to worry about working at the same time. Therefore, they should be able to graduate faster and become tax payers, which is what Finland needs, especially given the demographic challenges mentioned above.

Here’s the catch: accepting financial aid substantially limits how much a student can earn by working. Yet few companies will hire a graduate with little work experience. Currently, if you study nine months out of the year, and you take out financial aid during those months, you can earn up to EUR11,973 annually.

Summertime blues

The income limit was set because the Finnish state didn’t want wealthy students who were able to independently support themselves also receiving financial aid.

It’s not exactly easy to survive in expensive Finland with only financial aid, especially if you want to enjoy your university years, which every sane person does. What’s tough is that even if students don’t get financial aid for the three summer months (unless they study full-time during the summer), the income they earn from a job during this time is calculated into the whole year’s earnings. A student who succeeds in getting a well-paying summer job and continues part-time work during study time can quite easily go over the earnings limit.

For example, if you make EUR6,000 between June-August, you’ll only be able to earn EUR5,973 the rest of the year. This would mean EUR664 per month. This limit is quite low especially if you, like many students do, work on weekends or nights and earn extra for unusual working hours. For example Sunday work pays double the usual salary.

Tax the students

A January 2019 study from the Labour Institute of Economic Research recommended that the earnings limit be increased to about EUR18,000 per year for students who study nine months out of the year. This would have a positive impact on students’ well-being and increase the government’s net income tax revenue by EUR5.9 million annually, the report found.

At present, the risks of earning too much are real for students. Finland is the only Nordic country that requires students who earn over the limit to pay back the financial aid they received that year in full. That’s right. Go over the limit. Pay it all back.

In comparison, in Finland’s Nordic neighbor Norway, students who earn more than they are allowed only have to pay a greater amount of tax. In Denmark, only the amount earned that’s over the limit for students receiving financial aid has to be paid back.

Finnish social service agency KELA says about one in ten Finnish students ends up exceeding the earnings limit. In fact, the latest statistics show that the number of students who earn too much while receiving financial aid has increased. In 2019, KELA requested 40,000 students to repay financial aid from 2017. This was an increase from 34,800 in 2018 (a payback request from support given in 2016).

Cuts and Loans

Student financial aid without housing support is currently EUR250.28 a month. It used to be EUR336.76* before the previous government (2015-2019) brought it to the cutting board in 2017. Chop.

That government, led by Juha Sipilä of Centre Party (Suomen Keskusta), increased the amount of affordable government backed loans offered to students instead. Now students can take out loans of up to EUR650 per month. On top of that a student can get an up to EUR400 per month housing allowance, depending on how high their rent is and if they live alone or not.

This lower financial aid was put to place in August 2017 and already now it has increased the amount of debt that students take on. According to the Bank of Finland students took out EUR15 million more in loans in January 2019 than they did in the same month a year ago. In total, the amount of loans given to students in January 2019 was EUR285 million. The median interest rate on these loans was 0.48%, according to Bank of Finland data. This is a very low interest rate and some students even use the loan or part of it to invest in different assets. As of August 2014, if a student takes out a loan, 40% of the amount borrowed above EUR2,500 can be ‘forgiven’ (up to EUR6,200) if they complete studies within the amount of time Kela estimates it should take them, becoming an educated, full-time tax payer on schedule.

*For students at university and college level. Lower level students were already receiving only EUR250.28 per month before August 2017.

finland health

Healthcare in Finland – A Personal View

Finland’s healthcare has a pretty good reputation globally. Medical journal Lancet’s study The Global Burden of Disease ranked the country’s healthcare among the best in the world in 2018. Still there is always room for improvement.

Local health centres vs big hospitals

In fact, Finland’s new government aims to reshape the country’s health sector. According to the government, the Northern European country’s weakest link when it comes to healthcare is primary care at local health centres which are often underfunded compared to big hospitals and don’t attract the best medical talent.

Currently, for non-urgent care, these health centres are by law required to give an appointment within three months. The new government plans to decrease the waiting time to only seven days. The government’s programme reads: “The maximum waiting times for access to primary healthcare will be shortened so that access to non-emergency care must be arranged within a week (7 days) of the assessment of need for care.” This is yet another ambitious goal that the new government has on their agenda. You can read more about their other ambitious goals on our previous blog post.

The National Institute for Health and Welfare has estimated that bringing down the maximum appointment waiting times in Finland would require 1,600–2 ,600 more health centre doctors. The government is hoping that 1,000 will be adequate enough and estimates the cost for this to be €50 million. Apparently 1,000 new GPs will suffice since the newly improved health centres will be better managed and use more digitalisation (will going digital be the answer to every problem?). In the government’s own words, they plan to create “multidisciplinary health and social services centres that harness the possibilities of digitalisation and modernise division of work to make better use of different professionals’ skills and of specialist consultations.”

Counties to receive more funding

Another big step the government is going to make in terms of the health sector is the health and social service reform that seems quite similar to the one that the previous government had set the groundwork for. This means that the responsibility for health services will be moved from municipalities to 18 autonomous counties. The counties will be run by elected councillors and there will be five collaboration areas for specialist healthcare between the counties. Citizens are free to choose which county’s healthcare they want to use. The public sector will dominate in providing the care but private healthcare will also be used when needed.

“The counties will receive most of their funding from the central government. We will reform the system for financing health and social services so that it is structured on needs based criteria” the government programme reads.

Making an appointment

I have experience with healthcare in five different countries and I have given birth in both Finland and UK. My experiences with Finnish public healthcare has been mostly positive. Having two small children I usually have gotten care pretty fast and haven’t had to queue for long. The longest I ever had to queue when visiting a health centre without an appointment was for about an hour and 30 minutes. But usually I have only had to wait for about 15 minutes.

In Helsinki, if you need to visit the doctor on a weekday you ring a callback service for your local health centre to make an appointment. The nurse will call you back the same day usually within two hours and assess the urgency of the situation. Is he/she thinks you should be seen the same day they will first try to make an appointment for an exact time. If all appointment times are taken then you will have to go to the health centre for a walk-in appointment which requires some waiting, depending on how many people are there on that particular day. It works on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. I usually ask the nurse on the phone to tell me what the walk-in situation is so I can estimate if it is worth it to go and wait or if I can hold off and make an appointment for next day.

If you are lucky you might only have to wait for 5 minutes for your walk-in appointment, but some days it can be closer to two hours. This is how it works on a regular week day, on weekend you would have to go to your closest hospital’s emergency care unit.

These appointments at the health centre and the hospital have always been completely free*. However, prescription medicines are not free. They are subsidised by Kela but you still pay some out of pocket. What also costs money is giving birth which I will go into in the next segment of the article.

Giving Birth in Finland – the cost

I have given birth in Finland and in the UK. Both times I received high quality care but at what cost?

In Finland, giving birth in a public hospital is not completely free. This came as a surprise to me since I had never had to pay for any public health services in Finland before this. The cost varies depending on how long you have to stay in the hospital. I stayed only one night and the total cost came to €130.50. On top of the care this included meals, diapers, formula milk and hospital clothes for me and the baby.

Meal time at Helsinki’s Naistenklinikka Hospital

In the UK I stayed at the hospital for five days and the total cost of labour was €0. You read that right. In the UK giving birth at a public hospital is completely free. This also included meals. However, you were supposed to provide the diapers, formula milk, clothes for baby and yourself.

Meal time at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, UK

If I had stayed five day in the public hospital in Helsinki it would have cost €244.5. The daily fee for the hospital stay is €48.90 in Finland. The fee is double if your spouse stays with you but he/she will also get meals and a bed included in that fee. The maximum you would ever have to pay is €683 even if you have to stay in the hospital for a longer time due to serious complications. My fee came down to €130.51 because I also had to bring the baby for an additional check-up due to my early release. The check-up cost was €32.70.

The bottom-line on giving birth (in Finland)

The bottom-line is that giving birth in Finland and UK is not going to make much of a dent in your wallet. Another story is all those American parents. On average giving birth is US costs about €8,900. Parents who are blessed enough to have insurance are usually left with a bill of about €2,700 for vaginal birth. This doesn’t include pre- or post-natal care.

How about safety then? UNICEF’s report on infant mortality rates published in 2018 ranked Finland as the fourth safest place to give birth globally. According to the report Finland’s newborn mortality rate is 1.2, the UK’s stands at 2.5 and in the US the rate is 3.7.

*Free means that these services are paid with tax income and no private insurance is needed to receive care.