Subsistence – protecting or neglecting students?

19.03.2019



This text is a part of a blog series in which members of the Student Union’s Board discuss their thoughts on HYY’s three main advocacy themes for the parliamentary elections.

Justifiable poverty? 

Poor income levels during studies are perfectly understandable, are they not? After all, it will all be compensated later, when the higher education graduate is racking up millions to their bank account. Besides, young people must grow up and learn to survive in our cold, hard world.

It is a regrettably widespread belief that poverty during higher education is justifiable. However, this thought process is rarely taken to its conclusion. Future millions offer no comfort to a student who cannot buy the medication they need due to a lack of money. And when your bills go into debt collection, talk of ‘an investment in your future’ sounds like you are being mocked. The standard of living and quality of housing in Finland have generally speaking increased in recent decades, but students have been left behind. Students have been the biggest losers of this decade’s economic policy. At the same time, people who are now thirty will earn less than the previous generations, and higher education no longer guarantees a permanent job.

Students are the only group of people forced to get into debt for their basic subsistence. In practice, students are not entitled to social assistance – the last-resort financial assistance guaranteed by the Constitution of Finland – without first having taken out the full amount of student loan. In fact, even if the student decides to buy the medication they need, they are likely to be paying for it with borrowed money. Students are currently getting into debt at a record rate, and an increasing number of students can look forward to being 30,000 euros in debt at graduation.

It is unsustainable to believe that being a student makes suffering in poverty justifiable. Studies have proved that financial difficulties affect both physical and mental health. 70% of our students report that financial difficulties also affect study progress: working – which most only do to secure their basic subsistence – slows down study progress. There is a young generation studying in our higher education institutions that will be exhausted, disillusioned and in debt when they graduate and enter working life. Is this truly the recipe for making Finland a global pioneer?

Demanding better together

Student circles often share an annoyance towards the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, Kela. Trying to calculate the permitted amount of earned income with Kela’s calculators, sending explanations on study progress and figuring out whether you are now entitled to social assistance can make even the hardiest navigators of the bureaucracy maze frustrated. Even though Kela could also improve in many ways, the majority of complaints should be addressed to Arkadianmäki. Decisions on the major policies concerning the actual foundation of students’ subsistence are made in the Finnish Parliament – not in Kela. And these policies have not been painting a pretty picture for students lately – around half of the students of the University of Helsinki live under the poverty line because of them.

In the 2019 election spring, HYY and the entire student movement are demanding better together. With the reform of social security being among the major goals of nearly all parties, the time is ripe for a discussion on the status of students’ subsistence. Finland’s social security system was created during a very different time. There is a pressing need for a comprehensive reform, and students are at the forefront loudly demanding it. We need a reform of social security, and we need students to be included in it. In the long term, only a gratuitous basic income can genuinely answer the needs of citizens in today’s world – with studying, working life, entrepreneurship and light entrepreneurship, parental leaves, sick leaves and numerous other situations in life blending together, and the need for a stable, secure foundation of subsistence increasing.

But as the latest mess with the social and healthcare reform has proved, large changes do not happen quickly. Students, however, cannot afford to wait. Each day we wait translates into fewer euros in students’ wallets. For this reason, our short-term goal – with ‘short term’ here being equal to ‘at this very instant’ – is to increase the level of the study grant by one hundred euros per month. In the end, this would only be a moderate increase to the study grant compared to its level before the cuts of 2017. The general price level is increasing, not to mention the level of rent. Would it not be reasonable to include the study grant in this trend.

At the same time, we wish to remind everyone that general housing allowance, which now covers students, too, is a household-based benefit – which is contrary to everyone’s sense of justice. The housing allowance must be updated to the 2000s: we must acknowledge the fact that roomies do not add their incomes into some big collective pot. The new parliament must finally make general housing allowance personal.

Stable and sufficient subsistence provides students with a foundation on which they can build their life. It is the most important thing society can offer the future experts of Finland.

→ General housing allowance must be made individual-based so that the income of the people you live with does not affect the amount of allowance.

→ The study grant must be increased by 100 euros per month.

→ Students must be involved in the comprehensive reform of social security.

→ The best way to reform the social security system is to move to gratuitous basic income.


Anna Lemström
Member of the Board in charge of subsistence issues


Read more about the subsistence situation of the students of the University of Helsinki and the Aalto University here.

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