Once a year we sing our hearts out

In my filter bubble at least, nationalism is a pretty dirty word – associated with petty “little England” people, pro-Brexit views and shades of racism. But here on day three of the Wonkhe SUs Baltics and Finland study tour, we got a different perspective.

In Estonia – which only reclaimed its independence in 1991 – it was students and young people that led its “singing revolution” in the late 90s, when hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly to sing revolutionary songs they created in an effort to end decades of Soviet occupation – a very Estonian non-violent struggle for freedom.

Today it has a population of just 1.3m that is both ageing and falling, and that means a desperate attempt to hang on to national identity and traditions that give the country some pride. It encourages equality and liberalism, with a popular commitment to the ideals of the welfare state, discouraging disparity of wealth and division into social classes. The Protestant work ethic remains a significant cultural staple, and free education is a highly treasured institution.

A smaller student body

But that falling population has a big impact on HE. Many students study elsewhere in Europe and never return, and the sector has faced major drops in its student numbers over the past decade – placing a major pressure on university budgets and causing a contemporary row over the potential introduction of tuition fees. Institutional mergers are on the cards, reforms to governance are being encouraged (in a country where VCs are still elected) and strictly enforced outcome agreements often mean a mismatch between government funding that needs graduate skill “bang for buck” but through institutions whose academic autonomy has been guaranteed in law for centuries.

As in the UK, student funding is a real issue. The maintenance grant hasn’t kept pace with inflation, and the “parental contribution” for anyone under 25 is used to determine entitlement. It means – and this is real problem – that every year thousands of students get married to escape the regulation and generate entitlement to grant. The “kissing students” statute in the second city of Tartu is not just a bit of old iron.

The evils of the market

One of the things that appeared in the melee of industrial action in the UK before Christmas was this contribution from a UK academic on the ills of marketisation:

“We are summoned to attend endless, interminable meetings where we hear the latest idea from management for improving “student voice”: we must “embed” opportunities for student feedback on the quality of our teaching into the teaching itself, surveying students on their satisfaction levels not only at the end of a course — the normal practice until recently — but also throughout the course.

There’s barely a hint of marketisation in Estonia, and Tartu was a university where student feedback and voice is taken so seriously that mid and end of module feedback is published openly for all in the university to see. It’s a powerful reminder that better pay and conditions for staff (which Tartu’s SU were campaigning for last term) and better rights for students to influence their education are not mutually exclusive.

It’s not all good news. Some lecturers sue students for poor feedback, and plenty of students sue the university over grades. But it all appears to be part of the fun in Estonia. “Have you even finished your Law degree unless you’ve tried to sue the university”, quipped the talented SU President – a postgrad whose understanding of student rights, influencing and change was deep, despite there only being three part time student staff members to assist him in that role.

Round the houses

One strength of the Batic system we’ve discussed already this week is the extent of faculty and school based student organisations, and this was evident in Tartu. “If you have a proposal for Senate and it already has been approved in the faculties, it happens even if the management disagree”. SUs in the UK tend to operate very centrally, making often impossible demands on central university managers that are keen to maintain a decentralised model of leadership. But across the SUs we’ve seen there’s something in the slow and deliberate process of securing approval for institutional changes faculty or department by faculty or department that we should think about carefully.

That faculty and department rep model also changes the basics around student representation. Most UK SUs support hundreds of reps to sit in staff-liaison committees where mid-ranking academics listen to student concerns but are powerless to change anything. At Riga Uni there’s no SSLCs – just 150 reps on the big school and faculty committees putting thoughtful proposals and feedback direct into the decision making structures, supported by what are effectively large and powerful academic societies that handle individual and collective advocacy as well as social events and welfare issues.

I’ll be back

We’ve also been treated to regular tales of SU alumni support and involvement – not in the formal sense of being on a board, but in the sense of offering time, advice and contacts in the fields they go on to. Those that have been student officers in the UK often regard their time in SUs as crucial to their development, and we think there’s some collective work we can do in the UK to harness that passion in ways that could really benefit today’s student organisations.

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