Should membership to student unions be automatic or optional? In its party conference on Sunday 12 June, the National Coalition Party, one of the parties in the Government, will vote on an initiative that calls for the abolition of automatic membership to student unions. Currently, university students are automatically members of their own university’s student union, paying a membership fee to their student union when registering for attendance for the academic year.
However, the initiative put forward by the Youth League of the Coalition Party and the Student Union of the National Coalition Party (Tuhatkunta) features certain questionable assumptions. HYY’s Board hopes that discussion will not be built on these assumptions. This does not mean that opposing – or defending – automatic membership could not be meaningfully justified. However, the abolition of automatic membership would decrease both the autonomy of university communities and the democratic power of decision held by student communities – something we hope is not the goal of those pushing for abolition.
How does HYY spend students’ membership fees?
Students at the University of Helsinki pay 48 euros per academic year to HYY as their membership fee, along with the obligatory FSHS payment, 55 euros per academic year. Altogether, HYY received 1,274,893 euros in membership fees in 2015. HYY uses this money to cover the tasks defined in the Universities Act. These statutory tasks include nominating the student representatives for the administrative bodies at the University. In addition to this, the Universities Act defines the purpose of the student union as acting ‘as a link between its members and to promote their societal, social and intellectual aspirations regarding studies and students’ status in society’. In practice, this means that student unions are both the only advocates of students’ interests and responsible for the preconditions for student life and culture in all Finnish universities.
Besides membership fees, HYY uses its own business operations to finance its activities; HYY’s annual budget is around 3.5 million euros. However, not all student unions have such a solid financial standing – their operations are almost entirely based on income from membership fees.
Do student unions really do work that does not belong to them?
Contrary to what is said in the National Coalition Party’s initiative, student unions’ tasks are not limited to those ‘especial duties’ separately mentioned in the Universities Act. The student unions are also assigned with tasks that are within their own power of decision: particularly advocating students’ interests at the University and in society at large and keeping students’ own organisational activities alive by offering premises, financial support and training on responsible organisational activities. All of these tasks have their basis in the Universities Act.
The prerequisites of student life in Finland are in the hands of student unions. In many other countries, the settings for student life and culture are funded and organised by universities. The Finnish student movement is both exceptionally active in society and a notable representative of students when compared internationally. At times, student unions even provide their members with services that the public sector does not offer to students. For instance, HYY provides childcare services to its members with a family, while also providing its members with legal advice with the help of its organisations. Student unions have also traditionally been exemplarily active and skilful actors in development cooperation.
However, student unions do not do anything that could not be questioned by democratic means in terms of the necessity and justification of the activity. This can be done by influencing and pleading with the members of the student unions’ representative councils, by becoming a candidate and by voting.
The fact that the majority of university students do not feel the student unions’ activities important enough to themselves that they would vote in representative council elections is unfortunate. It is, of course, also a sign of the student unions’ failure. We have not managed to make our work visible and relevant to all students – or make being involved in the student movement and student politics meaningful to the majority of students.
On the other hand, student unions also do their work so that every student would not have to become interested in student politics during their time at the University. Automatic membership guarantees the existence of student unions’ services and advocacy work at all times for those that need them – while also guaranteeing that student unions can represent all of the students at their university when needed.
We hope that the public discussion on automatic membership will get all students interested in the activities of their student unions and in how their membership fees are used. The next Representative Council elections at HYY will be held in late October and early November 2016, and the Board of the Student Union hopes that the discussion on automatic membership only gets stronger among the students of the University of Helsinki – and that this shows as a clear increase in voter turnout.
Why do only university students have to pay an obligatory membership fee?
For students at universities of applied sciences, membership in student bodies is optional. Automatic membership in these student bodies was last discussed in the Constitutional Law Committee of the Finnish Parliament in 2014. At that time, the committee did not see grounds for automatic membership. However, the tasks of student unions and student bodies were defined as being the same – and in their initiative, the Youth League and the Student Union of the National Coalition Party now consider this as grounds for the abolition of automatic membership in student unions, too.
Even though the statutory special tasks are the same for both student unions and student bodies, the complexity and scope of the tasks have considerable differences. Student unions advocate students’ interests on a significantly larger scale in their universities, in city and municipal politics and in national politics.
Student unions are also financially entirely independent from their universities, which allows them to represent all of their students as a group and to look after students’ interests without fearing that their funding would end. Above all, student unions can take care of their statutory task of nominating student representatives completely independently without universities being able to influence it or stop it by cutting off funding.
By contrast, the student bodies of universities of applied sciences often receive the majority of their funding directly from their institution, not from membership fees. Universities of applied sciences the share can be as high as 50–70%. This funding is based on a contract, and the universities of applied sciences can focus it directly towards their preferred activities – or cut off funding entirely if they are not satisfied with the way the student body acts.
In the end, the influence students have at universities is based on the fact that student unions can autonomously represent all students of their university. The level of success that student unions achieve in this, on the other hand, is something that can be influenced with all possible democratic means.
Chair of the Board
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