The crisis of education is a societal issue – Speech by Selmi Holopainen, Chair of the Student Union Council, at a demonstration organized by TYY on 6.5.2024.

Many people remember the massive cuts in education by the Katainen and Sipilä governments and Marin's "just try to hang in there" level of encouragement in the midst of the corona crisis. This time we are brought here by the decisions of Orpo and Purra, which put the last remains of the Finnish education system and student welfare at risk.

The government's latest idea is to transfer students back to the student housing supplement, which would mean a drop of up to 150 euros in a student's monthly budget. Add to this the index freezes and other cuts already made, and students will have up to 2500 euros less money per year to spend in the future. We can - or must - take out more loans than ever before, and with the Euribor still high, we will soon be paying interest on our debts well into our retirement years.

Ben Zyskowicz, Member of Finnish Parliament, recently wrote in Helsingin Sanomat (24th April) that student poverty is isolated poverty caused by personal choices. The description is actually quite accurate, because students are often treated like that in our society. Isolated. The poverty or distress of students does not really matter, because they have a guaranteed job and a high income in the future.

It is true that many students are doing quite well and are able to cope with lower incomes when they have faith in the future. However, this magical group of  'many students' is shrinking at an alarming rate. Currently, as many as one in two university students need help with their mental health problems. Or should I say isolated problems...?

Isolated poverty, isolated problems and isolated illnesses that bleed into working life and, in the worst case, affect the rest of one's life, don't seem so isolated any more, do they?

Just because something is temporary doesn't make it easy or acceptable. Years of poverty and accumulating debt have a negative impact on one's confidence in the future, their ability to study and work, and their physical health. Many people also enter higher education from already low-income backgrounds, meaning that for many, student poverty is just a continuation of the old.

Nor do these problems disappear the moment you graduate. Unfortunately, higher education no longer guarantees a smooth working life and a high income level in Finland, and the income gap between graduates is wide. As a generalist student and the child of a long-term unemployed PhD graduate, I am also quite worried about my own future after my studies. There can be more than 500 applicants for just basic internships and entry level jobs, and getting a paid job as a researcher is as likely as winning the lottery. So it is misleading to talk about student poverty as always being temporary.

So, how about getting into higher education?

Finland wants to raise the level of education, but at the same time the conditions for studying are being weakened and it is becoming more and more difficult to apply for higher education.

I myself went to upper secondary school less than 10 years ago. In many ways, it was a fun and enjoyable time, but it was not easy. I paid for my books and my computer with social benefits, and the matriculation exams themselves were also very expensive. At the same time, my friends at the vocational school had to spend hundreds of euros not only on textbooks but also on equipment, such as knife sets for chefs or work clothes for practical nurses. 

In those days, the secondary school student organizations had long been working hard to ensure that everyone could go to secondary school and get a profession or at least a preparation for higher education. Even a welfare state like Finland was and is not immune to the segregation of education by income and wealth, and the passage of free upper secondary education was a huge deal for the whole Finnish education system. Until the budget negotiations came along.

As a result, the government will cut 100 million euros from vocational education, and upper secondary school students aged over 18 will no longer be eligible for free education. This is despite the fact that free education has already been proven to reduce educational inequality in just a few years. 

All this also has an impact on access to higher education. It is in everyone's interest that anyone can apply and get into higher education regardless of their background. We also need to ensure that people have the courage to accept the offer to study without fear of being unable to change their field of study. At the same time, our whole working life is constantly changing, which increases the need to support lifelong learning and career changes for those who are already in or out of work.

Developing a more lenient and rational approach to student selection would help to address this problem. However, the new funding model for higher education institutions now under development will only increase the significance of the first-time entrant quota. This will not help universities, applicants or students.

Without education we have nothing

Less than a week ago, I was talking about the importance of education at the statue of Lilja. I fear that at any moment our grip on education will slip. Fortunately, much can be done at regional level too.

I would therefore like to remind the University of Turku's campus cities of Turku, Rauma and Pori, as well as Varha and Satasote, that a lot of good things can also be achieved locally through urban planning, well-resourced services and investment in education. FSHS is an important service provider for students, but many services are not available from the FSHS and it is therefore important for the welfare regions to work closely with the student healthcare system. By investing in student housing and culture and in upper secondary education, campus cities can in turn ensure better conditions for more people to study.

I also appeal to the University of Turku and to both the retreating and the new Rector: listen to the students and their concerns. The university must provide a support network with as low a threshold as possible when studying becomes difficult or impossible. A graduating student is most often the result of a huge amount of quality guidance and teaching, and I encourage the university to be bold in speaking up for science, staff and students in the public debate.

Student lobbying is largely a rather thankless job. It feels like these things have been said a hundred times and a hundred times they have been ignored. It gets frustrating and it gets angry.

We need hope and a sense of community alongside the feelings of frustration and anger. The student community is our greatest gift. I for one am really empowered by the fact that students across the country from both higher and secondary education are rising up to oppose the cuts to education and social security. So thank you again for being here today.

Finally, I would like to remind you that without students there are no universities. And without universities there is no independent science, without free science there is no education, and without education we have nothing. So let us hold on to them all.