Euro visions: Aalto people forever

Jim Dickinson continues his tour around Europe and finds a a ton of student spirit that you can't buy in bottles in Finland

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

There’s not much that moves me to tears these days – although the bit in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga when Rachel McAdams’s character sings Husavik absolutely does render me into floods every time.

It’s the twin ingredients of place and human connection that send me off – something that the best Eurovision openers also achieve.

I was reminded of them when, a couple of years back now, our SUs coach tour around the Baltics and Finland rolled into Otaniemi just outside Helsinki – and having crammed into a little meeting room in the students’ union at Aalto University, the lights were dimmed and we were shown this.

Maybe it was the nervous exhaustion, or the sleep deprivation, or the usual dose of wanderlust one gets on these sorts of trips – but I was inexplicably briefly in floods at the idea of the “Aalto spirit”.

There’s obviously been a lot of discussion post-pandemic – partly driven by us here at Wonkhe – about higher education and belonging, and its importance both to student wellbeing and their outcomes.

And for me, some of the worst examples of attempting to instil or promote a “sense” of belonging are those where you can’t move on campus for marketing billboards that tell you belong here – which if not backed up by actual activity, only make those who don’t feel they do feel even worse.

But here it felt real – and perhaps even magical.

So the question once I’d dried the tears for the student leaders at Aalto was simple – is it real? And on the basis that bottles of “Aalto Spirit” weren’t actually available in the campus gift shop, what exactly was it that was being done to cause students to feel like that about their university?

There’s been a merger

After all, it shouldn’t really work.

Back in 2004, a working group led by the Finnish Ministry of Finance had concluded that Finland had too many universities and associated institutes of tertiary education, which it said should be consolidated for efficiency reasons.

In England the big idea of the past fifteen years has been “competition” and a long tail of validated and franchised providers that skimp on student support to deliver profits for their owners. In Finland, the idea was bigger universities, not hundreds of them.

As a result of the governmental nudge, the VC at the University of Art and Design Helsinki at the time proposed a merger – and soon enough had persuaded the Helsinki University of Technology and the Helsinki School of Economics to come together to create a unique interdisciplinary university, whose purpose was to create new and innovative thought, and which was to have values of responsibility, courage and cooperation.

There are obviously plenty of universities that have a history like that and would tell themselves (and their applicants) a story like that. But what marks Aalto out is the way in which it worried about that merger making it too big, and so has been purposeful about interdisciplinarity and student belonging, driving the adoption of its values to make them real, since that merger in the early 00s.

Taking deliberate steps

Take entrepreneurialism. On the visit, we heard about the Aalto Design Factory – a “physical and mental working environment” to build sustainable products and solutions. The Start-up Sauna kicked off in 2009 as an empty warehouse with a few entrepreneurs who wanted to express their ideas, and is now a focal meeting point for international leaders and investors.

The university is also a partner of the annual international Slush event, which seeks to connect founders with researchers to build a “new, inclusive, and more purposeful” culture of entrepreneurship.

Then there’s housing. Otaniemi hosts a huge student community concentrated in several blocks of student housing called Teekkarikylä, about half of which are owned and operated by the students’ union, and half operated by the Foundation for Student Housing in the Helsinki Region (Hoas) – a non-profit student led foundation that was founded to relieve the shortage of student housing in the capital area.

Students are fiercely proud of the community spaces they have built and operate for each other and compete hard to get a bedspace in one of these developments.

The students’ union helps too. As in other Scandinavian universities, students take part in huge and well resourced study associations which build spirit in their subject. Hundreds of students apply to be “tutors” that look after new students and build intercultural bonds. Every association asks students to wear brightly coloured overalls and take part in team building activities, and almost all of them get them involved in huge “tempaus”, carnival-like charity fundraising events.

Take a look, for example, at Aalto Economics – a description similar to the other 27 academic societies:

Networking with company representatives on career nights and company visits! Learning more about economic issues through panel discussions. Enjoying a summer picnic with amazing students. Feeling the international vibe on study trips around the world. This is Aalto Economics – a student organization taking care of economics-minded students’ interests, well-being and future career paths.

Aalto Economics is proud of its connections with the Department of Economics and with leading economics-oriented companies. The goal is to offer the best contacts, knowledge and experience without forgetting to mention about all the fun and exciting student activities. Most of the events organized by Aalto Economics are held in Finnish excluding the study trips and some company excursions. Our board is chosen at our second annual meeting in December.

Almost every student at Aalto is a member of one of these, and academic departments are charged with working in partnership with the central SU to nurture their local association specifically because of the role it plays in building spirit.

Trust me

The point is that to the extent to which community, belonging and “spirit” is desirable or even possible, it’s only really deliverable through concrete actions, deliberate projects and investments, and trusting students (and staff) to build supportive connections and relationships themselves.

There’s a lot of doing things for students in the UK – and maybe some of that hand holding is what delivers the continuation, completion and progression metrics that universities are being held to.

But the sheer volume of students and staff at Aalto that speak of being proud of, caring about, even worrying about others in their community is striking – and really ought to give the UK’s higher education sector pause for thought about what it and its people really care about, and why.

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