Case study: what we can learn from Aalto SU?

Probably our favourite video on the Wonkhe SUs European Study Tour was this intro to the SU at Aalto University.

It’s a remarkable bit of marketing that focuses on emotion and identity – and sums up much of what we saw at the fairly young university in Finland, just outside of Helsinki – a result of a multi-university merger just ten years ago. “Aalto University is a new multidisciplinary university, where science and art meet technology and business” says their strapline, which focuses like much of their marketing on modernity – where in the UK our universities seem obsessed with their age.

There were several aspects of Aalto SU which many of us found impressive, not least their huge student accommodation business and their rentals scheme which allows students to hire out saunas in vans. But here I’ve tried to set out some of the more interesting aspects that relate to student representation.

The big societies

The first thing to note is quite how developed and important their academic societies were. Like much of what we saw across the Baltics and Finland, academic societies are vital at Aalto and have “special status” in the constitution – “offered special benefits to ensure close cooperation between AYY and these associations in advocacy matters”.

There’s no weird split between the course rep system and academic societies here as happens often in the UK. These are societies, supported by departments of the university, that combine representing students and coordinating student reps with careers, social events, new student welcome and concern for pedagogy in their subject.

Take a look, for example, at Aalto Economics – a description similar to the other 27 academic societies:

Networking with company representatives on career nights and company visits! Learning more about economic issues through panel discussions. Enjoying a summer picnic with amazing students. Feeling the international vibe on study trips around the world. This is Aalto Economics – a student organization taking care of economics-minded students’ interests, well-being and future career paths.

Aalto Economics is proud of its connections with the Department of Economics and with leading economics-oriented companies. The goal is to offer the best contacts, knowledge and experience without forgetting to mention about all the fun and exciting student activities. Most of the events organized by Aalto Economics are held in Finnish excluding the study trips and some company excursions. Our board is chosen at our second annual meeting in December.

Almost every student at Aalto is a member of one of these.

Representation

This is not an SU which spends forever training and coordinating every course rep. There are standards for student representation and partnership across the university, but how this is supported, delivered (and to some extent structured) is down to subject groups, and often coordinated by the academic societies above.

What’s fascinating about the system is that this means that the central SU’s student representation efforts are concentrated on supporting the academic societies (not course reps directly) and effective student representation and student experience policy work on other university committees.

And on most of those bodies, it’s not about a sabb rushing from meeting to meeting – impossible given there’s about 250 of them. The SU recruits them as volunteers to countless boards, working groups and committees. It’s less “lots of SSLCs” and more “lots of actual decision making bodies” and details can be found here.

Democracy

So how does the SU itself work? Like in many SUs in the UK there’s a union council, but a closer look reveals that it’s no normal council.

Instead of positions being divided up (you know the sort of thing, 2 for every department, 2 for each club and society, the officers and some liberation reps) it’s a cross campus ballot for about 50 places, where about 300 people stand and just under half of the student body votes!

It means that the key democratic event of the year that involves students isn’t the election for a handful of sabbs – it’s an election involving hundreds of candidates that are much closer to students and results in a council that people have really fought for. To protect student, political and student diversity there’s a quota system that kicks in during the count, and a list system that allows student groups (some political, some just focussed around interests or disciplines) to stand as a block and transfer votes to each other. It’s an extraordinary system and details are here.

Officers and policy

So who then “runs” the SU? It’s not the cross campus ballot that elects the key officers – it’s that council. Instinctively it feels “less” democratic to us in the UK, but appears to just be more of a “scrutiny” democracy than a “popularity” democracy. Candidates have to set out their plans and their intended teams of volunteers and get interviewed – you can see an interview panel here. Is it compatible with the Education Act 1994? Only if we defined “major union officers holders” as the council – not as daft as it sounds.

All of this means that the council itself doesn’t suffer from a lack of content or attendance. Their meetings (usually 4 hours long and focussed on officer and project scrutiny) also don’t really discuss what we would call “motions”. Instead a semi-permanent booklet of SU beliefs is occasionally updated by resolution, and means that students, new staff and officers always know where the SU stands on a range of key issues – instead of constantly telling students how to “write a motion”.

Would or could any of this work in the UK?

The key comparisons here were that the traditionally separated fields (often thanks to staff specialism) of “student activities” and “student representation” were very much combined here thanks to big academic societies. And the “scrutiny” democracy with the election focus on the council appears to create officers more focussed on working together and a democracy that feels closer to students and their issues rather than big personalities.

Despite endless rebranding, UK students’ unions have basically been the same for years – with the same basic structures. That might be because it works, or because we’re too afraid to change some of the radical things. Shouldn’t we look to examples like this more often to develop how we represent students and run empowering, constructive democracies – particularly if students involved in UK SUs will go on to positions of influence and power in communities and the country?

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