Women are more important here

“I don’t want to drink coffee and speak about literature. I want to fence”

One of the stranger phenomena we came across on Day 2 of the Wonkhe SUs Baltics and Finland study tour was student “corporations” in Latvia. Following traditions similar to those found in Germany, multiple strictly gendered fraternities and sororities belong to an old academic tradition which dates back to the 14th century, when university students came together on the basis of geographic or national principle, and later, according to common interests or study specialty.

The fraternities came first with the first Latvian male corporation founded in Riga (Selonija), founded in 1880 at the Riga Polytechnicum. The first female corporation (Daugaviete) followed in 1921 and after a period of not running during Soviet occupation, today there are 23 fraternities and 13 sororities with about 10,000 members in total – impressive in a country whose population is under 2 million. Not all students are impressed, though – the President of the University of Latvia’s SU turned up at the first meeting, saw that unlike the more physical fraternities the sororities “just sit drink coffee and speak about literature” and instead decided to get involved in student leadership.

Power and responsibility

This is a young country but one whose student representation is very grown up – they take student leadership very seriously. SU funding is guaranteed at 1/200 of a university’s budget. As in Lithuania, students have at least 20% of the seats on university committees. Last year the Government funded two major national campaigns, run through local and national SUs on student rights, representation and influence. Students are directly invited to comment on all government matters and decisions. And the student reps have the power of veto on all matters discussed by committees that relate to students.

With great power comes great responsibility, of course – it’s a nuclear button rarely used but it does mean that students are taken seriously, and the (part time, rarely paid) student members put in a lot of effort to make their contributions and proposals thoughtful and credible.

Latvia has a rare system of governance for its universities – whereas in the UK we split academic matters from corporate matters between an academic board/senate and a university council/board of governors, Latvia has traditionally only had a “senate” structure. Many in sector and government have been concerned about the lack of external perspectives and slow pace of decision making. If they go through with reforms – watering down student representation in the process – they might find that all the changes really do is strengthen the hand of university managers.

Who gets to go?

Across the Baltics the population is ageing and student numbers have been falling – but high non-continuation rates and tightening national budgets still mean that there’s concern about who does and doesn’t get to go. Just as the UK kicks off two admissions reviews, Latvia is looking at the issue with some proposing a minimum grade threshold at A level equivalent to go to university. It’s the impressive (largely women) student leaders at Latvijas Studentu apvienība (Latvia’s NUS) that are leading the fight against – pointing out that many are let down by their schooling and that if applicants have to be screened it should be on academic potential, but blunt signals of “merit”.

To assist with access work – which as much about shoring up dwindling student numbers as it is about quality and class – there are fascinating schemes. Every year for example thousands of students volunteer in a “step in the shoes of a student” programme, where youngsters shadow a real student for a week to get a proper taste of student life. There’s clearly more work we can do in the UK to get current students – and alumni – involved in this agenda.

With universities still comparatively small and more commuters around, he other thing we noticed was comparatively less focus on traditional “clubs and societies” and much more focus on projects. Students can apply from most SUs for project funding to run a single event, a trip, a community initiative or a get a small business going.

It’s a model of extra-curricular activity and support that loses much of the “commitment” needed to make a society a success and trades it for diverse involvement, creativity and fascinating events. Maybe instead of making students find fourteen friends that have the same “interest”, UK SUs should be funding students to smash frozen bananas.

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