Today, as I write this, the UK leaves the European Union, but at the start of January, I joined 30 other SU Officers and managers to spend 6 days travelling across the Baltic states and Finland on a SUs study tour organised by Higher Education policy company Wonkhe.
We kicked off in Vilnius visiting the Lithuanian National Students’ Union (LSS) where they told us about a Mental Health project being rolled out that was paying for psychologists within Higher Education Institutions, funded by the Government’s Department for Health.
At Vilnius University, we learned that Lithuania are well ahead of us on how policy makers view the student voice; written into Lithuanian Law is a requirement that 20% of members of a decision-making committee within Universities have to be student representatives. We also learned that the UK is about 20 years ahead when it comes to conversations about liberation and inclusion, reassuring us that those often tiring and frustrating conversations we have day to day in that area are a necessary part of progress.
At Vytauto Didžiojo University, we were told that students get fined 15 cents if they swear at Student Council, and at Kaunas Technological University, as the President recalled a situation in his tenure where there had been bad decisions resulting in turmoil, he added “you should know a lot about this because, you know… Brexit”, reminding us that we are in fact a bit of an international joke right now.
In Latvia, we visited the Latvian University of Life Sciences in Jelgava Palace before moving on to the University of Latvia outside Riga where we met the University Students’ Union officers and representatives from the National Union who, unlike all the Presidents in Lithuania, were women!
From the National Union we heard about their ability to veto committee decisions on issues relating to students, and how at least 0.5% of a Higher Education institution’s budget goes to the Students’ Union. We also heard about some familiar priorities for them; University governance, accessibility and widening participation.
The University of Latvia President told us more about Latvia’s Fraternities and Sororities, the latter of which just “sit around drinking coffee and speak about literature”. She also explained that declining student numbers had led to ever more desperate marketing techniques from Universities, such as ‘sales’ on fees if you apply to University early.
At the Estonian University of Tartu, the student representatives introduced us to the concept of e-Estonia, the country’s ‘digital society’ which streamlines all civic services and is a real example of how technology can benefit a country.
Moving onto Tallinn University where we heard from the President of the National Union. We heard about the student drive to protect their free education from the newly elected right-wing government. But despite the move to the right, there was a hopeful optimism in the air: “if the state doesn’t act nicely, at least the people will”.
Over the Baltic Sea in Finland, the University of Turku Students’ Union showed off its impressive catering business providing students with affordable hot meals, boasted of its student NHS service focussing on dental, sexual and mental health and how sustainability modules constitute compulsory credits on courses. When asked whether Finland’s Universities have ‘town/gown’ tensions, the student representatives looked back at us bemusedly and replied “people like students because we are the future”.
In Helsinki, the National Union of University Students (SYL) hold seats on government committees, secured 30,000 euros to mobilise students for the European Elections (for which one party’s slogan was “we don’t Brexit, we fix it”) and launched an internationally renowned educational conference. Aalto University Students’ Union followed suit by showing us a ‘student life simulator’ that University staff and Politicians play to better understand the student experience. Aalto exemplified the real value of a strong sense of community, belonging and collaboration in in institution.
And finally, we wound up at the University of Helsinki Students’ Union, the richest in Europe with assets amounting to $0.5billion. They run a student housing federation providing affordable housing to over 18,000 tenants with support from the government and have plans to convert their ‘student house’ building into a luxury hotel to provide the money to reduce their compulsory membership fee and provide more affordable housing for students.
In just 6 days, I learned so much from our European colleagues. But it wasn’t just about how their student elections work, how much a meal is in the canteen or whether assessment feedback was an issue for their students.
It was about connecting with peers hundreds of miles across the continent who have chosen to do the same thing as you, are facing the same challenges as you, and with whom you can support and learn from. It was about seeing how functioning models of government engagement and lobbying work, seeing a world where it is possible for collectivism to triumph for the good of those involved.
I’ve come back to work in Bath, rejuvenated and inspired from what I saw on the tour, and will be using those new ideas and projects created by our European friends in committee meetings with the University to improve the lives of students on our campus.