Wanted: Student Peacekeepers

I was wrong.

Reflecting on, breaking down and evaluating your own work is a big part of expert work. During the past few months, I have come to the conclusion that our assessment of the situation was wrong. Now is no time to make excuses; we must correct the assessment and start looking for better ways to navigate in this new advocacy situation.

The student unions decided at the 2015 SYL General Assembly that in order to secure the livelihood of students, the support for the students’ biggest item of expenditure, living costs, should be moved away from the turbulent force of the student financial aid. The student unions saw that the continuous cuts and adjustments made to the student financial aid for years will not end with the cuts entered in Sipilä’s government platform, but that we must be prepared to secure the livelihood of students in other ways than clinging to the student financial aid.

Our idea was that by moving students under the general housing allowance, we could transfer the low-income students from a benefit paid to a special group under a general benefit intended for all low-income Finnish citizens. Of course, the level of the general housing allowance was also higher, students could receive it all year round, and it secured the livelihood of the lowest-income students in higher education cities with high housing costs, but the underlying idea ran deeper and was based on the principles of student benefit advocacy work: the more general, the better.

No politician in their right mind would propose taking away a quarter from a benefit received by all low-income citizens, as has been done with the student financial aid, right? Under the general housing allowance, students would be part of a larger entity and thus better protected from the most audacious proposals for cuts made by the government. If the rumours I have heard are correct, we were wrong not only about the fact that the general housing allowance would protect students better from cuts, but also about the assumption that the government would not dare to propose massive cuts to the general housing allowance. After deciding to transfer students under the general housing allowance, I have heard that the government has contemplated on making a 15% cut to the general housing allowance.

A recap of the timeline: the government made a decision in principle about transferring students under the general housing allowance in the framework negotiations in 2016; the draft law was passed on in the autumn of the same year; the government bill was ratified on the last days of the year on the 29th of December 2016; and the law officially entered into force on the 1st of August 2017. Before the students had received even a cent of general housing allowance, two proposals directly affecting the housing allowance for students had already been suggested. The first proposal was made in March when the Ministry of Finance’s group for incentive traps suggested that student loan should be considered as income when granting the allowance. A little over a month later, the government made a proposal in its mid-term policy review to bring back the cap on square meter prices when granting general housing allowance.

The latter proposal was sent to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health for preparation. In practice, all parties from Kela to economists and interest groups opposed the cap, and the Ministry finally stated that it would not be sensible to make the cap a part of legislation. In its budget session, the government decided to replace the rejected cap with the standard for shared apartments, using the traditional Hail Mary approach: something had to be done, so something was done.

The standard for shared apartments is now the third proposal that directly focuses benefit cuts specifically on students. I will not even mention the other changes proposed by the government, such as the index changes and freezing of the maximum housing costs, as they are focused fairly evenly on all beneficiaries.

So, it turns out that I was wrong in many regards.

The most peculiar thing about the discussion surrounding student benefits is the complete lack of the overall picture when preparing these things. When preparing the bill for moving students under the general housing allowance, MPs and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health were very worried about the change in students’ housing habits. What if all students want to live only in studios in the future? How could we keep shared apartments an attractive form of housing for students after the transition to the general housing allowance with its better benefit level?

These concerns seem to have disappeared completely when the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health has been preparing the standard for shared apartments during the last few months. The standard will reduce the amount of housing allowance granted precisely to the people living in shared apartments. The most troubling example of the Ministry’s reluctance to see the big picture of the livelihood of students is that it did not even ask the Ministry of Education and Culture for its opinion on the draft of the law regarding the general housing allowance when the proposal was circulated for comment. The Ministry of Education and Culture decided to voice its opinion without being asked to, issuing the following closing statement to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health:

“The Ministry of Education and Culture is grateful for the possibility to comment on the legislative change. The Ministry of Education and Culture has expertise regarding the circumstances and conditions of students, and the Ministry hopes that this expertise would be used also in the future when reforming the housing allowance.”

As the young people say these days: burn.

The student union movement is now keeping its fingers and toes crossed, hoping that the Parliament would be prepared when the proposal on the standard for shared apartments is referred to the Parliament in the coming weeks.

As a Social Policy Adviser responsible for student finances, I cannot fall into cynicism.  The fact is, however, that the unplanned tampering with student benefits has been going on for a long time without any notion of assessing the effects of the constant legislative changes. I do not need a separate evaluation team to see that the students’ consumer protection is very low: when applying for a school, a young person cannot be sure what their situation regarding livelihood will be like during their studies. It goes without saying that this kind of uncertainty causes anxiety for low-income students and, at worst, the deterioration of their well-being and study ability.

In the midst of all these political ambitions, it seems that the main objective of the benefit systems has been forgotten: to support the livelihood of full-time students. Now we really need student peacekeepers who would bring these issues back to the centre of the changes made to students’ benefit systems.

Silja Silvasti, SYL’s Social Policy Adviser

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