Four student representatives tell us about their current concerns for student related issues

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Finland demonstration This picture shows a demonstration in Finland earlier this year. Photo/SAMOK

The European Students Union on the International Day of Students 2013 decided to focus on current threats students are facing. In fact, in recent weeks, several of ESU’s member unions have faced difficult situations in a climate of crisis and austerity carried out by most governments. Today, Luiza Abrahamyan from ANSA (member union from Armenia), Yana Vanglelova from NASC (member union from Bulgaria), Mikko Valtonen from SAMOK (member union from Finland) and Ines Sanchez from CREUP (member union from Spain) have accepted to tell us about the fights they are carrying out at the moment, related to ESU’s actions on the International Day of Students.

The economic crisis and austerity measures preached as the solution to the crisis created situations where students see every time more of their rights being violated. What students rights are most violated in your country?

Yana Vanglelova: In Bulgaria that would be the right of students to express themselves freely without censorship and consequences.

 

Luiza Abrahamyan: Like in Bulgaria, Armenian students cannot always speak freely and do face consequences for the actions they undertake. However I would say that the right that is being violated the most is the right to equality for all students.

Mikko Valtonen: In Finland, there are several rights that are being violated to a smaller or larger extent but there are three major violations. First, the threat to inclusive, high quality free of charge. Second, there are serious problems with regard to accessibility. A lot of this stems from the culture of addressing diversity and a diverse student body from the point of view of problems rather than possibilities and resources. Third, the knowledge on the rights of students’ need to be more transparent, at the moment the institutions are not taking responsibility for their part on informing students about their rights.

Ines Sanchez: In Spain, the most violated rights are the right to have a free higher education and the right to equal opportunities in accessing higher education and participating in the Erasmus programme.

In 2013 we feel that the International Day of Student is particularly important as students rights have been greatly endangered and things that we thought were granted, are clearly not. Students rights and Human rights seem to be values only in prosperous economic crisis. How do you feel about that?

M.V.: It is not okay to adhere to principles of equality and Human rights only in times of economic upturn! The financial crisis must not, under any circumstances, be an excuse to practice discrimination, play with intergenerational equality and disregard the founding principles of equality that the Finnish society was built on.

L.A. : The economic crisis has really affected higher education in Armenia. The International Day of Students has to be celebrated, especially this year, I think it may remind once more to the government that we are here, we have problems, and we are ready to fight for our rights.

I.S: As far as we understand it, Human rights should be more defended and guaranteed during critic times because there is a higher probability of cutting them or not respecting them completely and in the end, this is the basics for a human to live. As for students, in Spain, we have the Students' statute where there is a list of students' rights. This statute is a law which was approved in 2011

Linked to the global economic crisis that we have talking about, what are the current threats and issues for the students in your country?

L.A:  Since September Armenian students have faced special difficulties with starting this academic year 2013/2014. Many students were not able to pay this year’s tuitions fees as they raised sometimes up to 50%. The tuitions fees students pay in Armenia are in complete disconnection with the salaries in this country. Students decided to protest and after receiving some attention from the rest of society and media, students had to end their actions as many student leaders faced consequences. Indeed, many students failed their exams without a valid justification from the examining team, were intimidated by rectors, received threats of exclusion from their higher education institutions. Sometimes threats went as far as to intimidate the family of the protesting student. So the main threat is the lack of freedom of expression.

I.S: In Spain, the situation is different and due to the severe economic situation, today the main threat for students is to see cuts in their grants or even the suppression of grants in general. Academic requirements have become more strict for students to receive grants. At the same time, the economic situation has gotten worse and these grants take into consideration the families income from two years ago. However due to the economic crisis, the economic situation of the family might have changed drastically. Another thing that has been questioned about this grants is that if a students does not pass a certain amount of ECTS with a certain average, they will, not only lose the grant for next year, but have to give back all the money.

Regarding mobility grants the budget has decreased in general. But last week created a real surprise when the Minister of education announced that Erasmus grants would be given only to students receiving ministerial general grants. This declaration received a lot of criticism and the European Union pressured the Minister to retract his decision. The minister withdrew his decision and decided to include all Erasmus students in the grant system but increased the budget to make sure that it was similar to last year. But we are still waiting for an official postition as for now there have only been announcements.

Y.V. : Bulgarian society has been mobilized for several months and syudents are very active the threats we are facing is not only for the students. It would affect all the young people in Bulgaria. There is a lack of opportunities in our own country. We feel that we are missing our chance to rightful citizens of Bulgaria. The protests now are an inevitable result of the social and economic situation in the country. There is no political moral left; we do not trust politicians’ anymore; not significant changes in the educational system. Meanwhile the students’ society as a symbol of change does not sit still, but expresses itself like the universities occupation for example. What is happening in Bulgaria could lead to the change we need so desperately only if the society unites and if it is constant on demands. It is important who has the leading role in our government that must be the society.

M.V.: The topic of tuition fees for international students has been a recurring theme for several years now. In 1992 there were discussions on implementing tuition fees for all students and in 2005 there was a proposal for the introduction of tuition fees for international students made by a ministerial working group. The discussions emerged again after a few years and 2010 saw the establishment of a tuition-fee pilot scheme. The pilot proved what we were fearing regarding tuition fees: the implementation of tuition fees will result in the disastrous fall in the number of non-EU students. But the topic came back on the table over Christmas holidays of 2012. 119 MPs signed a law proposal calling out for tuition fees for non EEA-students.

With the economic decline and the fall of the IT sector, which has been a major employer, Finland is looking for new export sectors, being a very export heavy country. The HEIs and the politicians seem to believe they have found salvation in education export (transnational education & charging fees from international degree students). Since 2007, it has been possible for HEIs to charge fees on degree studies from non-EU students, provided that the students themselves is not charged. Thus this means that according to the legislation, it is possible for a HEI to educate for example 100 engineers in Indonesia to a full degree, as long as that education is paid for by e.g. Indonesian state, a private company or for instance World Bank. With the current hype on the possibilities of export of education, hailed as the new Nokia, several politicians, labour market organizations and the private sector have called out for taking down the principle of no fees from the laws on higher education, to allow HEIs to compete for international students on the degree market.

At the end of September, and with the change of Minister of Education, the Ministry of Education and Culture established a working group which set out to “find solutions” for enhancing education export. The working group suggested the following  concrete actions:  
*    full-cost tuition fees for non-EEA students (in practice from 8000 e and up)
*    allowing tuition fees for home students in overseas locations (e.g. Finnish HEI located in the US, would be allowed to charge fees from students)
*    proposing  that development cooperation funds be used to fund students from developing countries

All of these actions are completely counteractive to the aim of increasing the number of international students in Finland. SAMOK and SYL stated that the use of development cooperation funds to fund individual students is against ODA-criteria and morally rather dubious: using development funds to fund Finnish higher education institutions while at the same time claiming that we want to keep the students in Finland after graduation. What else is this but averting development funds to fund Finnish institutions and society under the cloak of compassion and graciousness. 

What did you do to fight these measures your governments took and that harm students as well as society as a whole?

Y.V.: We disagree with any decision that is affecting our everyday life and our educational rights. We explain and inform students and other actors of society about how decision can affect them. Information and knowledge is our strongest weapon.

I.S.: We adopted two sets of measures. Firstly political measure and lobbying. We lobby to get the conference rectors and the international commission of the rector’s conference to stand for us and support our points as well as our national agency for international education programs. We also work with ESN to be able to show all the added values that the Erasmus program has for, not only students, but society itself. The second set of measures are directed to students directly by providing them all the information they need, giving them voice in the media and helping them to coordinate protest.

M.V: We have been actively lobbying on the issue, along with the political youth and student organizations, on the issue. I cannot tell you how many statements, blogs, social media commentaries etc. have been released in the past year. In addition, SAMOK and SYL established their own shadow working group on export of education which discussed the possibilities of export of education without sacrificing the internationalization of education and international students. The group met with a number of actors in the education export field and drew their own conclusions and suggestions. The publication came out before the official working group report and received a fair amount of publicity. There will be a further written report to accompany the publication which is coming out Monday the 18th.

L.A. : Our actions consisted mainly in training students to give them the necessary knowledge and means to defend themselves. We also carried a lot of consultations with students that helped us write a policy paper and present it to relevant authorities and state our arguments founded on research and emanating directly from the students.

As student representatives, you also fight for the future and the students who will come after you. What are the future fights or issue that you are afraid will affect students and expect will come for 2014? And how can we prevent for some issues from coming back on the agenda?

M.V.: It is fairly sure that the topic of tuition fees in Finland is not going away for some time. If the proposal fails to be pushed through in November’s political talks, then the issue will surely emerge in the elections and government program negotiations in 2015. Finland has, in this case unfortunately, followed closely in the footsteps of other Nordic countries and the decisions made by Denmark in 2006 and Sweden in 2011 have been definite milestones in the tuition fees discussions.

There is a lot of political pressure and the financial crisis has a definite impact on the discussions. We have tried to steer the discussion into the evaluation of the contributions that international students make to the Finnish society already. These kinds of calculations have been made in the Netherlands and in Denmark, to name two and they have proven, especially in the Danish case, that international students, apart from the intrinsic value they bring to the higher education community contribute to the society also financially, even with no tuition fees at all, all throughout their studies and after graduation. For instance, approximately 75 % of international students’ stay in Finland after graduation, 73 % of them are employed and the rest are important ambassadors of the Finnish society abroad.  

L.A. : In Armenia, tuition fees will also stay on the agenda. But for 2014 I think that one of the main priorities is students with disabilities. Nothing has been adapted for them in Amrenia and many cannot access higher education by the simple fact of their condition. Also society is not very acceptant towards disables people. So we need to tackle this issue and improve our programmes, facilities and work on tolerance.

I.S.: Mobility grants will continue to be a topic for discussion and disagreement. As far as we see the situations, actions are clear: keep lobbying, ask for a complete study of social dimension of students so that measures can be correctly designed and justified and defend the public university as an active value of any society.

Y.V: The students and the society both will be affected the most by the unstable political atmosphere in Bulgaria. In 2014 the struggle for political change in Bulgaria will continue. More students in decision-making levels of the government may be part of the solutions.

There are many challenges ahead of us and our fights will continue. But on this special day, the International Day of Students, it is important to look back and the fight we won for students’ rights. What were your biggest achievements in the fight for students’ rights?

I.S.: For CREUP, the biggest achievement has been the approval two years ago of the Students’ statute. Now we must fight to ensure compliance of everything that is stated in it.

 

Y.V: NASC has made many achievements which to be proud of but unfortunately, there is a lot more to fight for. The thing I am the most proud of is that we managed to create a great team in NASC that will not back down, no matter what it takes.

M.V.: We had a great threat towards our student financial aid as a whole that we fought off during this year. The student movement, both students in higher education as well as secondary education and we marched to the parliament with the message of ‘keep your hands off your student grant system’. As a result of this action and active political lobbying, we managed to keep it as it is with only minor changes. Tuition fees has also been a suggestions that has been discussed several times over the past 15 years and we have been able to avoid tuition fees to this day, even for students outside of EU/EEA

L.A.: I can consider that the biggest recent achievement for ANSA is the social package for students that government gave recently. This is the one consent from the government that we obtained in our fight against tuition fees.

As we are finishing this interviews, tell us how you are going to celebrate the International Day of Students.

L.A.: Local Student Unions in Armenia are organizing different events to celebrate International Students Day. On that occasion also, this year for the first time ANSA is organizing a “Student National Award”. And most importantly, we will award the “Best student of the year”.

I.S.: CREUP will have a national campaign of students demanding that their rights be met. We will have special videos, pictures and all sorts of slogans. Right now, it is difficult to get people involved in massive events due to the fact that there are massive calls to claim for different rights.

As the International Day of Students is mainly about remembering and fighting for Students’ rights, which is your favourite student right?

Y.V.: My favourite students’ right is  “All students have the right to co-governance in all decision making bodies and fora relevant to their education directly or through democratic representation”.

 

I.S.:  My favourite right is that « all students have the right to have equal opportunities, without discrimination, in access to university, admission in institutions, permanence in higher education and exercise of their academic rights »

 

M.V.: I cannot choose one so my two favourite students rights are “ Everyone has the right to an inclusive, high quality education free of charge » and that « Everyone has the right to free access to adequate means of support in order to take up, progress through and complete their educational programme ».

L.A.: Like Mikko, my favourite student right is «Everyone has the right to an inclusive, high quality education free of charge».
 

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