When I started my journey in the university student movement, I wondered why all the background material, as well as advocacy and communication material, included an entry on free education. “Don’t we already have free education? Surely Finnish people know how to appreciate our free education system”, I thought. I was wrong.
It is naive to think that just because prime minister Sanna Marin’s government programme includes an entry on free degree education, that it means that the discussion has ended. Fees sneak into our education system and turn into ostensibly reasonable, economically justified, rational choices. Like dust balls that silently gather on top of the bookcase if you forget to dust there.
Fees emerge almost yearly, always taking a new form. Sometimes they are about the right of open universities to award degrees, sometimes about the open university route, sometimes tuition fees for second degree studies and sometimes the tuition fees themselves. Time after time during this government term, we have witnessed commendable efforts by ministers blocking various tuition-based forms of education. The government deserves our gratitude for this, but the work continues.
The fees keep sneaking in, taking some other form. The role of the open university route as the route to student admission is being strengthened. Universities justify the fee-based open university routes by them being expensive to arrange, but they forget that up to now, student admissions have been possible without mandatory fees. The most glaring example of this comes from the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Vaasa, where the completion of 180 study credits of fee-based open university studies practically guarantees a bachelor’s degree in administrative sciences. All of this is in accordance with legislation, but in truth, it is nothing but fee-based degree education.
The fact that students from outside the EU/EEA are charged tuition fees has been discussed at party conferences this autumn, but the proposal to abolish them did not gain traction at the party conference of The Social Democratic Party of Finland. A similar proposal is awaiting to be processed by the party delegation at the Centre Party conference. It seems that free education is only defended in case tuition fees give no economic advantage. If free education had the respect it deserves, we would not even need to discuss tuition fees. We would be understanding enough to bear global responsibility by offering free high-quality education also for international students.
Today, on 22 October, the university student movement celebrates The Day for Free Education. We wish to remind the reader of the significance of free education for Finnish society. Free education adheres to the values of Finnish society: education must be accessible to everyone, regardless of background, and there must be no dead ends along the path to education. When education does not pose a financial risk in principle, anyone can truly be anything. Free education has hitherto been the greatest act for education accessibility in Finland. We have to hold on to that. It promotes social mobility and prevents inequality. A decision of which Finland has had a reason to be proud for decades.
Even if the decision has been made once, it must be made again and again, every time the education system faces reform. Only then can vi truly foster free education. In addition to the government programme, free education must also be included in the report for education policy and the higher education accessibility plan. We have to actively promote free education in the development of student admissions. Tuition fees for students from outside the EU and EEA must be abolished immediately. Free education is a choice we must make again and again.