You do have to pass a test

“If you don’t pass it the first time, you can re-take it again the following week. If you fail it then, you have to wait six months.”

That might read like a particular type of assessment policy at a university, but in fact it’s in the rules for becoming a student representative or committee member (and i’m not just talking academic) at Vytautas Didžiojo University students’ union in Kaunas, Lithuania.

The test covers lots of ground – student rights, university history and procedures, even the governance and strategy of the union itself – and it means that over 10% of the student body at the university know probably as much about the university as the average sabb in the UK does by the end of an average summer.

What goes on tour

It’s just one of the extraordinary things we’ve seen and discovered on Day One of the Wonkhe SUs study tour around the Baltics and Finland. Right now there’s 35 officers and staff napping on a coach as we hurtle from Kaunas to Riga, and although we only started 22 hours ago we’re already exhausted from the visit.

We kicked off the trip meeting the Lithuanian National Union of Students (Lietuvos studentu sajunga – LSS) who gave us a glimpse of some of the big issues students are facing. Mental health is a real issue – and there LSS has funding from the department of health to provide counselling staff in major cities where the services are inadequate (“because some students have to wait over a week”). It’s just one of lots of projects funded by both national and local government where student organisations are supported to provide student led solutions to problems.

Course quality is a big issue too. Academic staff are amongst the most poorly paid in Europe, and LSS has a major campaign running to ensure that academic staff are appropriately skilled and trained in both teaching and pastoral support – as well as improving their pay. There are interesting reflections for UK SUs where we have tended to support lecturer pay campaigns but are a bit more shy on their training and quals.

Shutdown

The country’s politics is remarkable – there’s over 20 major political parties that often pop up and disappear – and it does mean HE has lacked some policy focus for some time. At Vilnius University the VC got so upset at the funding situation just before Christmas that he symbolically closed the campus for a couple of days – only the second time in its 500 year history. It does mean that both LSS and the VU students’ union itself have close and direct access to politicians and decision makers, where the focus is very much on influencing and “assertive” partnership.

Within VU there’s a guaranteed 20% of student reps on every university committee, and the union is very much built up from strong bodies within each of the faculties. There may be fewer clubs and socs, but much of the representation, social activity and SU governance is based around faculties and as a result the central bodies don’t tend to be dominated by one “type” student. We’ve met far more STEM officers this week than the average student movement event provides, with an interesting set of perspectives as a result.

VU SU is worried about student accommodation – the private sector is circling and it’s keen to find investment into its own halls, which are 49% owned by the union. It means a strong focus both on the student experience and resolving issues if they go wrong – and also means a decent room can be found for 50Euros a month!

Carry on camping

At Vytauto Didžiojo University, the SU runs some fascinating events. Their Freshers’ summer camps attract hundreds of students to take part in teambuilding and games – and cleverly involve both “residential” students and local commuters. It means that students arrive at the university with an additional, cross departmental friendship group to that provided by course or accommodation – and they know plenty about the union as a result too.

Across Lithuania, Presidents tend to be elected by student councils or parliaments and then get to pick their own team. It may well be less democratic (and none of these are sabb positions) but they all report close working relationships with their team to work on their projects and agendas, which they tend to set out separately from their manifesto and CV.

At Kaunas University of Technology SU, they’re gearing up to be the European Capital of Culture in a couple of years time – where they’ll build on their annual student festival that showcases student talent and contribution for the whole city. There’s little trace of town gown tensions here.

They’ve also just changed their mission to “Every KTU student is an active and creating citizen, responsible leader of society” to underline the idea that they are trying not to do things for students, but create students who are more powerful. They’re creating materials and workshops designed to support this this year – not least so that students are aware of and prepared to use their rights – and we’ll keep an eye on where they get to.

Read the others in the series:

 

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