We must be able to make it possible for students to build a fairer world now and in the future

On the face of it, the University of Helsinki’s SU – the final one that we visited on the Wonkhe SUs European Study Tour – is familiar.

At HYY there’s 26,000 members, 60 people on its representative council, 250 clubs and societies and some officers that sit on all the big committees.

But scratch a litte, and things start to reveal themselves. This is an SU that has assets in property of almost $0.5bn. That all started when students fundraised to get their own building on a bit of bog land near the university in the 1860s. Today its subsidiary “real estate and financial investments” business owns and rents out property and runs student restaurants across the city, turning over €33.5 million in 2018 and delivering a net operating result of some €7.6m.

A poke around YLVA’s website, along with its unicafe, well cafe and hostel bub brands, is quite astonishing. These are huge businesses doing ethical investments, ethical business practices and really driving sustainability work in the city. But they’re still highly student focussed. In a city that’s not known for being cheap, unicafes offer healthy food at dazzlingly low price for students. How have we let services like this slip though our fingers in the UK?

Leakage

HOAS – the “Student Housing Foundation of the Helsinki region” – is just as impressive. It all started when 16 students from the Helsinki region gathered any capital they could find in 1969 and took out a loan. What is essentially still a student housing co-operative now turns over €70 million and runs about 10,000 homes for students. We’ve somehow let the income and profits from student number expansion in the UK leak out of the sector – we probably shouldn’t make the same mistake in the next wave of expansion over the next decade.

That role in the City manifests itself in other important ways. Several of the SUs around Helsinki collaborated on a “Student City 2019” research project and have ambitions to become the world’s best city to be a student through a related project. SUs all around the UK could learn lots from approaches that put “place” front and centre of their lobbying and campaigning efforts, with inspiring work on living, transport and community facilities replacing the tired “town gown” rows seen at home.

Simulation games

Finland isn’t really a country where “campaigning” means we often take it to mean in the UK, but that doesn’t mean their focus on influencing (with “taking to the streets” as a last resort) isn’t devillisly effective. Last year at HYY they developed a brilliant little student life simulator, which they sit and play with politicians and civil servants when they meet them to get decision makers to understand the realities of student life today. They credit the tool with a number of wins for students.

Not only do you get the sense that the student movement has a better relationship with its past – the Finnish NUS runs an interesting national and local student leaders alumni association that helps gather the skills of those now in industry and politics – but also that students have a much better relationship with the rest of society. Maybe the project work helps. SYL has roughly the resources that NUS UK will have in the future, but a few years back still found the volunteer resources to pull together an extraordinary partnership to “give an unforeseen gift to Finland”.

“Young world changers” involved in SYL decided to develop an international learning event (“Dare to Learn”) where people can share, question and create the future of learning with a focus on lifelong learning, partnership and pedagogic creativity, which has now become a self-sustaining charity.

What is it good for?

That’s not to say that the culture wars haven’t crossed these shores – just in a different way. HYY’s work on “immigrant students” closely matches some of the debate around BaME students in the UK, with some resisting dedicated work focussed on an objectively disadvantaged group on the basis that “everyone should be treated equally”. And just last year HYY had to boot out a society that describes itself as the “nationalist flame in the globalist darkness of the modern university community”, although it’s a strain of politics not yet manifesting itself in a government whose structures are designed to promote co-operation.

That focus on consensus building was evident at Aalto University’s SU too. Here as in the other countries we visited, the central student leaders are chosen indirectly from a council of 45 students, the council elected by a cross campus ballot where over 400 students stood and form groups and parties focussed around issues, departments or even political parties. Here at Aalto – a proudly modern university, formed of three others and whose branding looks to the future rather than desperately trying to fabricate a past as is the case so often in the UK – student get academic credit for volunteering and there’s a strong programme of “Fresher Education” where the university and union’s values are properly taught rather than being handed out on a leaflet.

The force is strong with these ones

And their range of academic societies are quite something. Each is strong – arguably the strongest strand of student societies – and offers a mixture of social activity, careers work, concern for pedagogy, as well as coordinating academic representation at the course level – leaving the SU able to focus on cross institutional representation and policy work.

Their comprehensive policy document is a living, permanent part of their core governing documents – updated regularly by the council – and provides a way to induct officers and staff who then focus on plans of action instead of passing resolutions for “yes no” votes at meetings. The whole system might have its roots in Finnish political society, but if we’re serious about SU representation and democracy being an educational experience, there’s lots to learn from here given the number of people involved and the focus on creativity and consensus that it embodies.

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