Students are in a tight spot all over northern Europe

Nordic cooperation has played a central role in SYL’s activities ever since the 1940s, back when Nordiskt ordförandemöte, a.k.a. NOM, was founded. The original members of NOM where the national student unions of the Nordic countries, and in the 2000s the Baltic countries also joined. NOM has two important purposes: to act both as a reference group within European Students’ Union (ESU) and a cooperation network for Nordic and Baltic university students. In many ways, the Nordic and Baltic countries are very similar politically and culturally, so we will naturally gravitate towards each other in any situation.

NOM meets twice a year before ESU’s Board Meeting. At NOM’s latest meeting in Reykjavik 7–9th April we particularly focused on discussing the student benefits systems in different countries and the social dimension of higher education. During the meeting, we discussed the benefits that university students receive in the different NOM countries. The benefits systems vary from loan-based systems to benefits-based systems, but a common trend is that students everywhere are struggling financially. In each of the countries students are left in the red at the end of the month, and in each of the countries students end up in debt. Out of all the poor groups of the population, they are the very poorest. This makes it more difficult to progress in their studies as students in many countries have to work to guarantee an income. The constant financial worry has caused a huge spike in mental health issues. This probably sounds familiar to us in Finland. Unfortunately, these issues are also very familiar to our colleagues in the Nordic and Baltic countries.

In addition to discussing basic subsistence at the meeting, we also aimed to find solutions for making higher education more accessible to groups with special needs, such as students with children, with an immigrant background or facing challenges relating to learning or mobility. Free education is not the same thing as accessible education. During the path through higher education students can face a variety of challenges before they even get to the application stage. Attitudes in the study guidance in comprehensive and secondary school, a lack of support from the family, or students with learning difficulties not receiving sufficient support are everyday occurrences for many people.  And these difficulties will not necessarily vanish once they get into university. The academic community does not always recognise people’s differing needs and particular situations to a sufficient degree, which means that the burden that studies place on some students is heavier than it is for others. Studying is a very different experience for a childfree single person straight out of secondary school than it is for a middle-ages single parent.

This autumn at the next NOM meeting in Lithuania we will move on to the topic of the structural development of universities. In Reykjavik, it already became clear that some sort of structural development of universities is taking place in all NOM countries. The best part of the NOM cooperation is realising that the issues which are closely related to students, e.g. the structures of higher education or the benefits system, are not only national, but they also have a strong, international context. It is important to realise that the student movement is struggling with the same issues in our neighbouring countries, even though they have different decision-makers. Countries do not act in a vacuum, so neither does the student movement. It is worth keeping an eye on what is going on next door as Finland has a lot to learn from others in many areas.

Sometimes you will hear it stated in Finland that we do not need the European Union, as we could just replace it with Nordic cooperation. This is a complete illusion; one of these has no meaning without the other, and it makes no sense to curl up in a little Nordic ball. Without the European dimension we could not build things like the Bologna Process which improves student mobility in an extensive way throughout European higher education. The Nordic cooperation can only strengthen these progressions. The most important thing that I took away from our trip to Iceland was realising what the importance of the Nordic and Baltic cooperation can be at its best: understanding that we share the same problems and that by working together we can change the world.

 

Veera Ala-Huhta,

Board Member, International affairs, Development cooperation

SYL

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