We make tomorrow by fostering responsibility, courage, and collaboration

Reflecting on a week in the Baltics and Finland with SU officers and staff, Jim Dickinson and Livia Scott try to understand what's stopping UK universities from trusting students with responsibility and power

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Livia Scott is Wonkhe's Community and Policy Officer

We hadn’t actually planned on meeting up with the University of Helsinki’s Chancellor, let alone doing so in a noisy beer hall in the Finnish capital.

But our chance meeting turned out to be one of the most illuminating in a week where the big question was often “what’s really going on here?”

Kaar­le Hä­me­ri had overheard some of our group discussing the things they’d come across on our SUs study tour – where forty or so students’ union officers and staff have spent the week visiting countless students’ unions, councils, guilds, nations and corporations across the Baltics and Finland – and couldn’t help getting into some engagement with us on the state of the sector.

It wasn’t quite like bumping into one of the ceremonial celebrities that fulfil the role in the UK – here the Chancellor is an elected academic who, separate to the (elected) Rector, is put in charge of promoting science and scholarship and the university’s community relations, as well as overseeing the university’s interests and activities.

And given that under the country’s Universities Act he has the right to be present and speak whenever the government considers matters that have a bearing on the institution, if anyone knows what’s going on, it’s Kaar­le.

Visiting other countries’ universities in recent years has often involved initial pride at the comparative sophistication of our campuses and courses, followed by shame when we realise what’s going on once we’ve got past our ingrained sense of British arrogance.

Despite Brexit, Kaar­le was pretty effusive about UK higher education – regarding our sector as a recognised leader around Europe in groundbreaking research, innovative pedagogy and equality and diversity practice for both students and staff.

He had, however, noted that the funding balance for universities in the UK was markedly different to that enjoyed in Finland.

He was pretty proud of the way that students and staff are regarded as part of the same active community across its endless boards and working groups.

And he was tacitly quite critical of a UK model that has drifted into viewing students as passive consumers of the education that its universities “provide” – celebrating students as citizens where rights and responsibilities go hand in hand:

The students are absolutely not our customers… You have to have an ongoing communication all the time to make the barrier very low, to really let the students who come and go let them feel that they are part of the community, even if they stay only a few years compared to us.

The question for us, as ever on these trips, was about nature or nurture. Is it that the country’s tax system, social contract, size and general regard for education produces people like Kaar­le and the student leaders we’d met all week?

Or is it that deliberate choices made by the likes of Kaar­le and his colleagues over the years have helped create and sustain the sort of sector we all thought we’d like to see back home?

I’m a human not a stone

We’d started the week in Vilnius, where the law (re)creating universities after Soviet occupation saw students as citizens from the start.

It guarantees 20 per cent of the seats on pretty much every university committee, places duties on universities to fund both student representation and student activities, causes mini SUs to established in each faculty, and gives students both the right to a “decisive vote” (veto) over university decision making, and more often the ability to force a reconsideration of a decision adopted by the management bodies of the higher education institution if students’ interests have not been properly taken into account.

Even if the “nuclear button” of veto is rarely used, it was obvious that students are taken more seriously there as a result.

At the University of Latvia, a study modernization plan aims to deliver a better student experience by aligning it with the latest trends in European higher education and science, LU’s strategy, and student interests.

Unlike anything university management teams would say in the UK, it’s explicitly framed an agreement between students and the university – because it was developed that way.

And nationally, we met student reps who’d been able to use similar state-mandated influence to cause a new agreement between the government and universities on international students.

Most of Europe seems to be keen on partly paying for massification with non-EU student recruitment, but here instead of waiting for a scandal to emerge or for an issue to emerge in a league table, a deal has been struck where all universities will provide language courses for all international students, organise training for all staff on intercultural communication and cultural difference.

It also mandates that universities interview a sample of international students (picked by the SU) to both identify and fix problems they have encountered, and test whether the agent that recruited them had been lying to them to get their fee.

It was one of hundreds of examples that we came across of where students’ presence and participation had caused things to happen that universities would never have agreed to on their own in a pure market model.

Building up a world of bridges

In Estonia, “voice” has always been important – its “singing revolution” in the late 80s and early 90s saw thousands of citizens gathering to sing songs banned under Soviet occupation.

Now it has embedded itself into student social activity both literally (we now have several songbooks in our luggage) and into democratic culture more broadly, with its SUs avidly taking part in the country’s annual Opinion Festival to drive change to what had been stagnant student grants, the struggle of working students to focus on their studies, and the heavy workloads of staff.

In Tartu, its “student days” takes 35 core student volunteers and hundreds of event-specific volunteers to organise all sorts of huge social events across the city – from quirky sports competitions to concerts and cultural nights – that have the same underpinning benefits as a UK graduation ceremony. And in Tallinn, it’s student subject associations that do the hard hards on careers and employer engagement – exposing employers to the skills and talents of student volunteers in the process.

Even large chunks of these countries’ access and participation efforts are student-run – with associations taking responsibility for schools engagement, taster days and mentoring programmes designed to get whichever part of the population doesn’t engage into the system.

Whenever we saw this sort of thing, we first asked about compliance, risk, metrics or health and safety, betraying our immersion in a culture that doesn’t trust ordinary people. And we couldn’t believe that students could afford the time or had the inclination to make them happen – until we realised that when students are seen to be leading, new students will always want to follow in their footsteps.

Associative and communitarian culture helps across the four nations we traversed – a thread of nationalism in the student groups we met and the national festivals they mark is obviously less associated with a fascististic dislike of foreigners, and more about people being proud of the country they know they are helping to create for themselves.

And the dazzling array of subject-based student associations, combining both social activity and student representation in a way that builds both belonging and influence in way that the UK’s atomised “course rep” systems and SU sabbaticals often fail at, are clearly key to both better decision making inside universities and in wider society – where anyone who’s anyone in business and politics (of all political stripe) had been involved in running something devoted to making others’ lives better when they were a student.

Was it the dangerous things you do

In Helsinki, we’d earlier met up with the university’s strategy unit. They’d been involved in a strategy review over student influence – taking immense care to create the conditions for confidence in students when contributing their expertise to the university’s boards, councils and working groups.

As it stands the country’s Universities Act has long pretty much guaranteed that hundreds of students undertake roles contributing to policy, strategy, curriculum development and project management, adding to the thousands more that run a student nation, association, project or activity – very little outside of teaching and learning is done for students, because they’re supported to do it themselves.

Now under their new policies, all departments have to create a plan to support student reps, students won’t be expected to know everything about other students’ views, students will be rewarded both with academic credit and payment for their efforts on committees, and will have guaranteed involvement in the development of proposals rather than the fait-accompli that often presents for their UK counterparts.

The “how” caused all sorts of scribbles in the notebooks – pretty much universal peer “tutoring”, for example, is run by SUs across the country, building belonging and bonds early in a way that sets social norms around the role that students should play in their community from Day One.

But the “why” matters too. All four countries reference student rights in their HE legislation, regulation of their activity is about supporting them to succeed rather than finger wagging, and in Finland in law student groups are recognised as playing a pivotal role in students’ societal, social and intellectual aspirations – as well as being charged with the part of the educational mission of the university that’s about “preparing students for an active, informed and critical citizenship”.

This icy shell is something I have to demolish

It’s easy to be spellbound by wanderlust on these types of trips – the lack of sleep, the camaraderie of the coach, and the pride on offer from the multiple hosts generates a sense of possibility that often seems elusive in the tough circumstances of the UK context.

It’s also easy to be struck by our national decline – the public transport, the state of the streets, the quality of the political discourse and the way in which these countries build ambition for the future is palpable every time we go.

There’s no doubt that economic conditions, political systems and centuries-old traditions make importing some of the things we’ve seen hard to do at home.

And in some ways, all we’re experiencing is modern manifestations of the student-led model of Bologna and its spread to Northern Europe, contrasted with the academic led masters’ model of Paris, Oxford and Cambridge – as those wallowing in England’s glorious past refuse to question notions of elite excellence that are tied up with social exclusivity, scarcity and authority.

But whether universities (and their SUs) want to improve their influence on society, protect their funding and support, or want to make real their strategic objectives on wellbeing, community and citizenship, there’s much to learn here.

Resisting the temptation to do things for students, distributing leadership, and putting in place the scaffolding for them to take responsibility for their university, their subject and other students, they are choices – that senior people (in universities, SUs, regulators and government) all have form on deciding not to take every day in the UK.

Whether we were talking about open student kitchen facilities or city-wide student festivals, not once on the trip did we hear that students won’t do it, can’t do it, or that there’s a regulation that says they’re not allowed to do it – and nor did we hear if they do do it they might mess it up or do it dangerously.

It was the reminder we needed that we’re not the greatest HE system in the world – but if we trust students, we could be.

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