At first glance the student unions of Finland are no different from their contemporaries around the world. Concerned with the welfare of their constituents the unions here arrange parties and social events, manage media platforms, as well as coordinate dialogues and career-specific networking sessions. By law every university student is a member of a student union, and there are considerable expectations because these students assume that their representatives – at the very least – are capable of organising events regularly.
Yet the unions in Finland do not merely focus on endeavours within their own schools, and have also organised successfully at the municipal and national level – independently.
And it is this independence that characterises the union’s responsibilities in student advocacy, rights counselling, and the providence of union services. The student union works with the Finnish Student Health Service for affordable healthcare services, campaigns for concessions, subsidies and financial aid, and secures various discounts on the Lyyra student card.
“Active, Cognisant, and Critical Citizenship”
The independence of the student union takes two forms. Its independence from the university administration encourages challenges to the status quo, while its financial independence ensures sustainability and expands its scope of undertakings. The student union, described in Finland’s Universities Act, should promote the “societal, social, and intellectual aspirations [of students]”, and prepare them “for an active, cognisant, and critical citizenship”. The involvement in school-based welfare and co-curricular activities should not overshadow the broader aim of student representation and influencing decision-making in Finland.
Few would disagree that the student unions have been collectively prominent. Lobbying for meal prices to be capped in student restaurants was a notable achievement. At the moment, a student pays 2.60 euros ($4.60) for a meal worth 4.75 euros ($8.35). The student unions have claimed credit for legislation guaranteeing student financial aid (such as study grants and hostel supplements) and subsidies for public transportation. Specifically Mr. Pietari Keskinen, Board Member (Academic Affairs) in the Aalto University Student Union (AYY), reveals Aalto University and the AYY have “gotten victories in the field of public transportation”. On a regular travel card an adult pays 1.95 euros ($3.40) for a single trip within the Helsinki municipality, and a student union member pays 0.98 euros ($1.70).
This exertion of power on the municipal or national stage is refreshing and impressive.
Students and student unions in Finland have been well-organised historically. “Since the 1940s, the students of the tertiary educational institutions in Finland had organised themselves in individual students’ unions, under the common umbrella of the SYL” . Founded in 1921 the National Union of University Students in Finland (SYL) represents its members at the national, regional, and international level. The 21 membership bodies of the SYL facilitate student deliberation of socio-political issues in Finland and contribute to the discussion of national legislation. Polytechnic students on the other hand are not obliged to become members of their student unions , but they have similarly congregated under the Union of Students in Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences (SAMOK).
The presidents of SYL and SAMOK are rallying against a parliamentary motion to impose tuition fees on foreign students from outside the European Union. The former explains that “[j]ust looking at the other Nordic countries and the Finnish tuition-fee trial serves to show that tuition-fees lead in quite the opposite direction”, and the latter concludes that it is “best to face the facts … tuition fees and Nordic education are essentially incompatible, period”.
Two Forms of Independence
SYL is helmed by an executive board and a representative council. As an exchange student in the Aalto University I am a member of the AYY, one of SYL’s 21 membership bodies. As a student in the School of Business I am also a member of the Association of Economics Students in Helsinki (KY), which is under the AYY. However each student organisation remains independent, and the hierarchy facilitates decision-making at the national SYL-level.
The first form of independence – independence from university – might be frowned upon in other universities across countries, with the presumption that conflicts could be more commonplace and destructive. Yet Mr. Keskinen’s reply tells a different story. While the student unions are completely independent from the university, which has “no power over [the union]”, the university administration is still seen as the most important cooperation partner, because “[the] goals are often similar and it is wise … to work together”.
Collaborations do extend to municipal partners, where the AYY works with the city councils of Espoo and Helsinki in issues of city planning. Fundamentally this freedom from control empowers the student council to form its own opinions, to engage the university authorities in active discourse, and to actually take tangible actions when disagreements persist. In other words, the student union and the university administration engage on equal terms.
The second form of independence, the financial independence of the student unions, cannot be understated. The Student Union of the University of Helsinki for instance is a public corporation, “with a long and glorious history that gained a high status in Helsinki’s civic society” . Financed by membership fees – 50 euros ($88) for an exchange student studying for a semester – sponsorships, hostel rent, and other means of financial support, the AYY owns about half of the apartments in the district of Otaniemi in Espoo and the KY has thousands of square metres of valuable space in the Helsinki city centre.
Unions remain transparent, and are held accountable by thousands of student members.
It is said that the student unions sit on vast amounts of cash, which are managed prudently and used resourcefully. Mr. Max Mononen, Board Member (Corporate Relations) in the Association of Economics Students in Helsinki (KY), reveals that the KY-Foundation offers over 750,000 euros ($1.32 million) of support to economics students in the Aalto University School of Business every year. The sum is offered not only to student projects, “but also to people travelling abroad as exchange students”. KY has an office staffed by 15 to 20 employees at the service of the student members.
The Way Forward
Taking past successes for granted is not an option. Mr. Mononen believes KY can improve the targeting and quality of its communications, for student members to be “more aware of the opportunities on offer”. Mr. Keskinen explains that inner tensions within the organisation must be diffused, especially since the student union is relatively young (AYY was formed in 2010 following the merger of three universities and their student unions). The student union system “gives a lot of responsibility to the students … [who] are free to do a lot without restrictions”, he says, and ultimately they determine the success of the student union.
An ordinary student union rarely looks beyond the boundaries of the university, celebrates its event-and-welfare-organiser tag, and embraces the status quo with governance proposals which make marginal differences. A great one does not neglect these duties, but it understands its more meaningful ability to make an impact in the community and the country, cherishes and fights for its independence, and is consequently valued for its contributions. And by most measures, the student unions of Finland have done a great job.
 Soiri, Iina and Pekka Peltotla (1999). Finland and National Liberation in Southern Africa. Nordic Africa Institute.
 OECD (2003). Reviews of National Policies for Education Reviews of National Policies for Education: Polytechnic Education in Finland 2003. OECD Publishing.
 van den Berg, Leo and Antonio Palo Russo (2004). The Student City: Strategic Planning for Student Communities in EU Cities. Ashgate.
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