The autumn semester is about to begin with yet another class of students starting their studies amid an unstable pandemic. Gatherings will be moved outdoors. Strict limits will be set on the number of persons in lecture halls and other study spaces. Organising contact teaching is fortunately the goal for 1st and 2nd year students at least, but the fate of older classes depends on the university.
However, one thing has not changed: the polarisation of students’ coping is increasing, while general wellbeing continues to decline. Our statement on the perpetual right to study, published in the summer, rekindled the debate about the intensive pace of studies, insufficient income, and exhausted students.
There is surely not a single political decision-maker in this country unaware of the students’ situation.
The amount of student loans taken out this year has been higher than ever before. About 70% of students take out a student loan for their living costs because they cannot make ends meet otherwise. Since the 2017 student financial aid reform, the student loan stock has doubled in just four years. According to the latest Eurostudent study (2019), the median monthly income of students has plummeted by EUR 238 since 2017. As a result of the Covid pandemic, 40% of students feel that their livelihoods have deteriorated further.
In 2020, FSHS mental health services were sought out by 26% more students than before. According to Helsinki GSE Situation Room, a research group focused on economic analyses of Covid-19, appointments to mental health services have been steadily increasing among both higher education students and other representatives of the same age group since autumn 2020. Unfortunately, this was not a surprise either, as students’ mental health symptoms have been on the rise throughout the 2000s. The number of diagnoses has tripled. Mental health grounds have also become the most common reason for disability retirement.
When considering how it would be possible to extend careers and strengthen the workforce, a stick instead of a carrot is often resorted to in politics. Remedial measures were expected from last spring’s mid-term budget framework session following a long string of tightened policies, but sadly the only thing left to celebrate was that there were no further tightening.
Policy-makers have expressed their sympathy and concern, but no action has been taken. What on earth must happen to these statistics for something to really be done about this situation? Students’ income and wellbeing challenges, not to mention university funding, are chronic and structural problems that cannot be fixed with a band-aid. It is incomprehensible that readiness for remedial measures is still lacking.
It is also ridiculous that cuts in science funding are actually being considered, and with the blessing of the Ministry of Education and Culture of all things. Dear government, do try to make some sense in the budget discussions. Regardless of the framework budget interpretations, you can also take a stand if you really want to.
The solutions we offer are familiar to politicians. A decision worth EUR 3.5 million to abolish the two-stage nature of student financial aid could be made in the budget discussions, thus preventing thousands of students from losing their financial aid in the middle of studies. EUR 30–40 million could be used to give back to students the seven months of financial aid taken from us by the previous government. You could implement the therapy guarantee, make psychotherapy training free of charge and start bridging the gap in the core funding for universities, or fund new starting places according to their costs. If there is will to do so.
We shall see. Clearly, we students are not doing poorly enough yet.