Everyone has a right to a cheap hot meal

If you’ve just spent three days in the Baltics, one of the things you are primed for as you leave the “ice breaking” ferry from Riga to Helsinki is the cost of things to suddenly rocket now you’re in Scandinavia.

Day four of the Wonkhe SUs study tour saw the group land in Finland, and we’d all been briefed to save up for a pricey couple of days. So imagine our surprise when we get off the coach at Turku University to find coffee for 30 cents – and a delicious hot mean for just 2.30 Euros.

The “student hot meal” at a regulated price is guaranteed at universities across Finland – partly subsidised by the government, and delivered at Turku by an SU owned cafeteria. And that price is set by the equivalent of NUS Conference. It reflects a desire not only to fund students’ costs, but also keep the prices they face low – an approach that would help in the UK.

Somewhere to live

The other big cost for UK students remains accommodation, and here we found another fascinating model. Some 9,000 bedspaces at Turku are owned by an organisation 49% owned by the SU and 51% owned by the municipality – the local university isn’t involved at all. Prices are low and standards are high. If only we could get that kind of vision going somehow in the UK.

It wasn’t the only model of student accommodation we saw. Some of Helinki’s “student nations” owned not just housing but social space for students. This concept of “third space” – somewhere shared to hang out, talk and “be” that’s other than work/study and home is increasingly missing in the UK student experience but appears to be very important for students and their experience in the scandis.

Healthy cultures

Student health care is a bit of a mess back at home – local NHS services are often not geared around the fairly specialist needs that students face in relation to mental and sexual health, and the line between university services and NHS services is increasingly blurred and fraught as blame passes around for students being let down.

So we were amazed to learn that in Finland there’s a national student NHS – integrating a range of student-focussed specialist services that are delivered by an organisation with student involvement at all levels, including its board. It’s an inspiring model that looks like it really works to support learning and “joins up” prevention, care and support – and might even be possible in, say, London, Wales, NI or Scotland – or perhaps Manchester where regional devolution is developing.

More democratic?

Finland was another country where the student leaders weren’t elected by cross campus ballot, but by a council of students. We tend to swagger around thinking that the UK system is “more democratic”, but at Turku turnout in the election for the council runs at a perfectly healthy 40% and you get the sense that the sabb election is less “popularity contest” and more “tough scrutiny”. As we run into endless, term-long campaigns in the UK to encourage people to stand and vote, Finland’s system also doesn’t dominate and “push out” other messages in the way the UK system does. Maybe we need reform of the Education Act 1994.

We hear a lot in the UK – particularly from proponents of fees – that they have somehow caused students to take their studies more seriously, drink less and work harder. But there may be a correlation/causation issue here – they’re reporting the same issues with student lifestyle changes and mental health in Finland where education remains free.

Professionals matter

As in the Baltics, student representation here is a serious business. At Turku the underpinning governance model of the university is tripartite – all committees feature a third academics, a third professional services staff and a third students. It’s a model which promote cooperation, effective solutions and respect for everyone that works at the university to make it a success, and an interesting answer to the question often posed in the UK – “who is the university”.

It’s also a country heavily into climate campaigning – and one way in which that manifests is a focussed programme to reduce waste. Students here can go to their SU to rent almost anything – from skis to bedding, from cutlery to study materials – making student life less expensive and wasteful and generating some much needed additional income for the SU as a result. It’s a model well worth exploring in the UK.

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