International students make up approximately eight per cent of university students in Finland, so we are talking about roughly ten thousand people! Despite their numbers they are rarely visible within student unions or associations; instead Finnish and international students end up living in separate bubbles.
During a recent seminar on tuition fees for students from countries outside the EU and the EEA, we heard a thought-provoking address from a fee-paying student, who spoke about their experiences and those of their peers. The parents of some students have had to sell their house to enable their children to study, while others have no time to learn the language or get to know the Finnish culture as their studies take up their whole lives. All of us, but particularly those of us working in student advocacy, need to hear more of these experiences – even though they are sometimes hard to listen to. To quote a Danish colleague, “how can we advocate for international students without international students by our side?”.
We at SYL also have to take a look in the mirror here. This is largely a structural issue, as the student movement is like a ladder, and climbing it takes time. Often a person who for example sits on the board of a student union has spent several years gaining experience in various delegations or their student association. International students, who often only stay in Finland for a short period of time, do not have the same opportunities to gain key positions within the student movement. So, some kind of structural solution is also needed for this problem. Next year, SYL will be piloting an International Committee, which aims to make it easier for international students to take part in the activities of the student movement on a national level and have an influence on issues that affect them, such as tuition fees.
The issue of international students’ involvement will of course not be solved by simply creating a new body; we need an ongoing change in the culture so that students from different backgrounds genuinely can participate in the student movement. Multilingual and accessible communication must be our default approach so that we can demand the same from the government, municipalities and civil services. It is not, however, enough to simply translate the Finnish material into English; we must also pay attention to meeting the needs of the target audience in a comprehensive way.
Equality and internationality are some of the most central values of the student movement. We have to live by these values and continuously improve the participation of all groups of society so that every student’s voice can be heard in our movement.
SYL board member