Today, 15 September, is the International Day of Democracy. Even though democracy is heavily associated with the state, it is also a good model for other communities and organisations. Wherever we make decisions on collective issues, decisions that affect everyone, everyone must have equal opportunities to affect the decisions. Constant debate surrounds the concept of university democracy, but what significance does a democratic university have for students?
Transparency is the foundation of university democracy
Many decisions that concern all members of the university community – students, professors and other university personnel – are made in universities. By law, the key decision-making bodies at universities must have representation from these three groups. The representation of the three groups is referred to as the tripartite principle. One of the cornerstones of university democracy is equality of the members in decision-making processes at the university. The historic decision to realise the tripartite principle with equal representation in the University Collegium that the Board of the University of Helsinki made at the beginning of the year is an important step for the realisation of equality. Equal tripartite representation is thus an act of democracy that not only shows the value of each member of the University community but also improves the different groups’ opportunities to influence matters that concern them.
To achieve university democracy, we need transparency and accessibility in decision-making processes. In these processes, a significant part of influencing matters takes place before the meetings themselves. For this reason, the accessibility of documents and the opportunity to take part in preparatory processes are among measures that would increase the accessibility and democratic nature of decision-making. The University audit, an impartial evaluation of the University, found out that it may be difficult for students to get their voice heard at the University. It would be important for members of the University community to be able to influence matters throughout the decision-making processes.
Students are involved in university democracy outside meetings, too. Through course feedback, for instance, students can concretely influence matters at the University. Students also actively influence matters in their own subjects and faculties through organisations. Organisational activities form an important link between students and faculty staff. The participation of student organisations in the University’s operation is important not only for decision-making but also for the development of communality.
University democracy is demanding but, above all, rewarding
The realisation of university democracy is not simple and does not happen by itself. Functioning democracy requires members of the University community to spend their time on it and to take action. Participating in decision-making processes requires them to familiarise themselves with the matters being processed and attend the meetings as well as have an understanding of the operating conditions and form an overall view of shared goals. For students to be able to participate in decision-making processes on an equal footing with the University personnel, university teaching must also provide flexibility. It is important to have the input of student representatives acknowledged through study credits and remuneration, for instance.
As a University community, we must create opportunities for the different groups to meet one another. These encounters spread information and perspectives that are important to understand as we continue to build our University democracy. A good example of this are the regular meetings held between organisations and faculty staff.
The University cultivates culture and education within society by educating students who will change the world. For the University to succeed in this mission, we – as the people supposed to change the world – must be provided with opportunities to practise influencing matters and managing changes in our own community. Communality is also one of our University’s values, and having democratic influencing opportunities encourages it. For this reason, promoting university democracy is a moral act and an investment in the future.
Members of the Board in charge of educational policy