Proposed changes to the tuition-fee regimes in Finland and Sweden could see both nations compete more aggressively in the lucrative market for international students.
Currently, students from outside the European Union are not charged to attend universities in either country, where they make up only a small proportion of their student bodies. But Finland and Sweden have tabled plans to introduce tuition fees for all overseas students, a move that could create the conditions for an explosion in their numbers from 2010.
Both countries are keen to explore what they see as a growing market, with their sights set on attracting students from Russia and Asia in particular.
"There are resources in the international student market that we are missing out on. If (we) could gain access to these funds, opportunities for strengthening our competitiveness would increase," said Lars Leijonborg, Sweden's Minister for Higher Education and Research.
It is also thought that charging fees could raise the status of their universities among wealthier foreign students, who sometimes assume that if education is free, it is of an inferior standard.
While the US, the UK and Australia have established themselves as the biggest players in the overseas market, partly because their courses are taught in English, other countries' universities are offering programmes in English, too. Finland and Sweden want to get in on the act.
Last year, Helsinki University offered 19 international programmes, with plans to increase them to 30 by the end of the year. Rebekka Niskanen, enrolments director at Helsinki University, said its aim was for international students to make up 5 per cent of undergraduate and 15 per cent of postgraduate numbers.
|Aiming higher: Finnish and Swedish universities|
|Institutions ordered by position %3Cbr /%3Ein THE-QS World University Rankings 2008||2007||2008|
|Uppsala University Sweden||71%3D||63|
|Lund University Sweden||106||88|
|University of Helsinki Finland||100||91%3D|
|Chalmers University of Technology Sweden||197%3D||162%3D|
|KTH, Royal Institute of Technology Sweden||192%3D||173|
|Helsinki University of Technology TKK Finland||170||211|
|Stockholm University Sweden||246%3D||239%3D|
|University of Turku Finland||237%3D||246%3D|
|University of Gothenburg Sweden||6%3D||258%3D|
|Stockholm School of Economics Sweden||3%3D||280|
|Umeå University Sweden||299||299|
|Kuopio University Finland||267%3D||313%3D|
|University of Tampere Finland||319%3D||336|
|University of Jyväskylä Finland||374%3D||391%3D|
|(Source: The Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings)|
And Finnish reforms to facilitate internationalisation, due to become law in August, will grant universities independent legal status to allow them greater operational flexibility, including charging fees for non-EU students and recruiting academics from overseas.
Thomas Wilhelmsson, rector of Helsinki University, said: "For a university among the most successful European research institutions, our share of foreign staff, in particular at professorial level, is still too low."
He added that he was interested in the cultural benefits of having more foreign students. "We want to increase their number because in a modern university, we need to. We want to give every Finnish student the chance to feel international at home."
But concerns have been raised in a number of online discussion forums for international students that fees may push them towards native English-speaking countries, where graduate employment prospects are better. At the moment, getting skilled work in Finland or Sweden is extremely difficult for candidates who do not speak the local language.
Some university marketing departments in the Nordic countries have also questioned the wisdom of trying to compete with the formidable advantages of prestigious Anglo-Saxon institutions. In this light, Finland's strength in IT, biotechnology and natural sciences could see its universities adopt a faculty-led marketing approach.
Focusing resources on promoting leading departments may prove more successful than advertising institutions as a whole.
UK role models
Finnish and Swedish universities are also looking to the UK to help form their strategies.
They have been encouraged by the fact that post-1992 universities have successfully attracted overseas students, despite lacking the international reputation of their more established rivals.
But a big concern is that international students from less wealthy nations will in effect be barred from Finnish and Swedish institutions by the introduction of fees.
At present, those from developing nations make up one fifth of the international students at Helsinki.
However, charging tuition fees to students is likely to be left to the discretion of individual universities.
In Finland, fees of between EUR3,500 (£3,200) and EUR12,500 have been proposed for international masters programmes, and in Sweden, a figure of about EUR8,000 has been suggested.
If this becomes reality, postgraduate fees in the Nordic countries would be significantly lower than those charged in the UK, offering an advantage in an increasingly competitive market.