Helsinki U. Seethes with Student Unrest, First Since the 60's (The Chronicle of Higher Education 12/12/90)

 Student loans, university budgets, and campus governance are issues.

For the first time since the late 1960′s, the University of Helsinki, Finland’s flagship institution of higher education, is seething with student discontent.

While the previous wave of unrest focused largely on allegations of elitism against the university’s student union, these days the chief points of contention are university budgets, student loans, and campus governance — issues that fall mainly within the purview of academic and political leaders.

In essence, today’s students want bigger university expenditures, more student aid, and more influence in campus decision making.

‘Part of the Solution’

“In the ’60′s we were seen as part of the problem,” says Saara Sokkeli, a sociology major who heads the Student Union of Helsinki. “Now I would like to think that students see us as part of the solution.”

The student union was the organizing force behind a major demonstration here this fall after Finnish banks raised the annual interest on government-guaranteed student loans to 9.75 percent from 8.75 percent.

Some 4,000 students and recent graduates of the university, joined by supporters from other Finnish colleges, staged a boisterous demonstration in front of its administration building in the capital’s Senate Square.

The protest, which came as the university was celebrating its 350th anniversary, followed a controversy last winter over the cancellation of some future classes because of a cutback in government funds for non-tenured lecturers.

The cutback came at a time when overall government financing for the university was rising, however, and officials at the Education Ministry said the cancellations could have been averted by better planning on the university’s part.

For their part, university officials blamed the government for the dispute, which led to a three-day student occupation of the administration building in February. That demonstration, involving about 1,000 students, also was led by the student union.

“Students are really afraid of what will happen to teaching here,” says Jukka Ruukki, a graduate student who works as an official spokesman for the University of Helsinki.

Protests Over Governance

Last winter’s demonstrators also demanded a change in the university’s faculty-dominated system of governance so that students and non-academic employees would be represented on the institution’s Small Senate and Great Senate, its principal governing bodies.

In addition, the protesters called for assurances that instructors could choose the content of their courses, and for the creation of an impartial board of appeals to rule on a broad range of issues, from disciplinary procedures to faculty appointments.

Some of the demands have since been addressed in a bill being considered by the Finnish Parliament. At the same time, the government has been moving toward granting more autonomy to the country’s 20 institutions of higher education, including the University of Helsinki, whose freedom from government oversight is less than that of many other institutions.

The change will end line-item budgeting by the Education Ministry, says Timo Esko, the university’s director of administration.

“The air is to allocate funds in bulk sums to be used at the universities’ discretion,” explains Ole Norrback, Minister of Education and Science.

The institutions, in turn, will be “expected to evaluate their performance and show results,” Mr. Norrback says.

‘Needs of the Students’

Beneath some of the students’ complaints at the University of Helsinki is a feeling that the institution is indifferent to their concerns.

“The faculty talks a lot about the importance of research,” says Timo Erikainen, secretary-general of the student union, “but it seems to forget about the needs of the students who have to do the bulk of the research.”

Helsinki’s basic academic program leads to a master’s degree after six or seven years of study.

Students say another indication of the university’s attitude toward them came last summer, when officials failed to consult them ahead of time about an offer to rent the main campus building for a 1992 conference on international security.

Some of the tensions at Helsinki spring from an expansion of Finland’s higher-education system in the 1960′s, says Matti Klinge, a history professor who recently completed a three-volume profile of the university.

“There are simply too many colleges in Finland for a country of our size,” Mr. Klinge says.

Finland’s population is about 5 million.

With some 27,000 students, the University of Helsinki today has about 25 percent of Finland’s total higher-education enrollment. The university’s share of all higher-education spending, however, is much smaller than it used to be.

While the university itself may need more money, its student union is remarkably well-heeled, with assets of more than $50-million and an annual income of about $5-million.

Property Is Source of Wealth

The organization’s unusual wealth results primarily from real-estate holdings. When it was founded in 1870, its first building was erected on land that was far from the city center; today the land is part of the capital’s main commercial district, encompassing a complex of stores and theaters that all pay rent to the student union.

All students are members of the union. With 800 employees, it is the university area’s principal realtor and caterer. Its business interests include travel, computer software, and publishing, with an emphasis on prices that the average student can afford.

Ms. Sokkeli, the organization’s chief executive officer, says it is mainly “a trade union dedicated to furthering our members’ interests.” Its greatest challenge, she adds, is “translating our economic power into real student power.”

Correspondent Burton Bollag contributed to this article.