With all due respect to the Student Union

Text: Keshia D’silva

2nd November, 2016

It’s late in India and I should be asleep, but I’m in need of a good bedtime story. Remembering that the outcome of the HYY Representative Council Elections would be out by now, I make a few hasty clicks, hoping to find results made of the same stuff of my favourite childhood tales. In those stories the underdogs, in this case international candidates, always come out on top. A link directs me to a results page entirely in Finnish and around the same time, I get a text from a friend that tells me me no candidates from Tsemppi, the organisation for international and internationally minded students at the university made it into the representative council. Seeing the page entirely in Finnish drove home the implications of the results even harder.

The Underdogs

Adam Mackie, a Tsemppi candidate who stood in the recent elections tried to soften the blow. “Tsemppi has only once, in 2014, managed to acquire representation in the HYY student council, yet, there is a long history of international students studying, integrating and achieving. The failure to gain a seat will not deteriorate the status of international students.” Ran Goren, one of the Tsemppi candidates victorious in the 2014 elections was not as optimistic.

Goren had been made conscious of the difficulties that came with not being Finnish during his tenure, but like water on a duck’s back the sentiment rolled off. He was secure in the knowledge that he had gone further than any foreigner before him in obtaining the coveted seat. Nevertheless, having attended a recent HYY meeting where everyone spoke almost entirely in Finnish, perhaps with the awareness that the international members would soon be out of the council made him realize the brevity of human memory: “Once we’re not there, they’ll stop considering us.” His milestone achievements include changes in HYY’s language strategy, a legacy that will remain past his time in office, but risks stagnating on paper if actions do not live up to words.

It would be all too easy to frame the issue in terms of the powerful majority, limiting the participation of the suppressed minority. Out of over 35,000 students at the University of Helsinki 2,100, which is 6 %, are international. No insignificant amount by any means, but still undeniably qualifying for the status of a minority. Yet, majority of the people who voted for Tsemppi candidates in the 2014 election (an election that won them two seats) were international students. This seems to indicate that size does not matter, but rather how well one is able to use what they are equipped with. Goren was able to do so by the sheer force of his determination. His drive won him not just international but Finnish votes as well. “When you are campaigning in the street and you see a Finn, you can either say, okay, he’s a Finn so I’m not going to bother or you can decide that okay, I’m going to stop him and try to convince him personally why I think he should vote for me which I did,” he explains.

Finns have a vested interest in the university becoming more international-friendly. It pushes up their university’s ranking and creates a melting pot of cultures, enhancing the flavour of university experiences. International candidates this year did not lack an agenda that would curry favour with Finns. Their stance on addressing the cuts in education, increasing courses in English and improving internship opportunities would have gone down well, had it been accompanied with the spirit with which their predecessor ran his campaign.

As unfair as it would be to blame the Finns for failure of international candidates to get elected, it would be equally unfair to lay blame wholly upon the candidates themselves. Students on international Master’s programmes are obliged to become members of the student union by paying a 100 euro fee. One of the benefits this entitles us to but that isn’t advertised enough is the right to vote. However, such compulsory membership is not enforced on international students doing an exchange at the University of Helsinki. Thus, the success of an international candidates’ campaign depends not only on their own efforts but the efforts of HYY in promoting their membership to exchange students as this indirectly influences the amount of international students eligible to vote.

Furthermore, international students often do not have the luxury of staying in university for over two years, and as two years is the tenure of office on the council, this is enough of a deterrent for internationals not to apply. Those brave enough to do so either have to prolong their Master’s or walk the tightrope between studies and council duties. The imposition of tuition fees will put an added pressure to finish degrees faster, reinforcing this structural barrier to participation.

All is not lost

Karmela Liebkind, a Professor of Ethnic Relations once talked about the clash that often arises between the goals of equality and diversity, a message that sinks in only now, after contemplation of the aforementioned considerations. The issue of international representation could be solved by reservation of seats or a different length of tenure for international candidates which would protect the interests of diversity, but violate the principle of equality.

With the council overseeing areas like the student budget and HYY’s constitution, it is important for international students’ interests to be represented. Luckily, there are many other avenues open to them apart from formal representation. Alliances with many parties currently on the board and Laura Luoto, the former international affairs officer of the university who is now the newly elected chair, suggests that all is not lost.

And as Ran said, “With all due respect to the student union, the most effective way for internationals’ voices to be heard is by creating a direct channel of communication with the university.” One such channel he recommends is the use of a feedback system where students could give their inputs on a range of services, also enabling consideration of views of exchange students who are only around for a semester and do not have the time to get involved in student organisations. For those that have the time, there are plenty of opportunities available in different student committees and organisations like Tsemppi and CISSI. However, somewhat ironically, the best measure of progress and attainment of equilibrium between equality and diversity is when organisations like Tsemppi are no longer needed because the needs of international students are so institutionalized into student services that they do not require international representatives to fight on their behalf. Perhaps, this should be a new way to recruit new members: “Join our suicide mission.”