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SYL: Fear, frustration and betrayal over education cuts

David Mac Dougall
SYL: Fear, frustration and betrayal over education cuts
SYL: Fear, frustration and betrayal over education cuts
As education cuts begin to bite, what effect are they having on students, universities and Finland's international reputation? This week on Newsmakers, Alviina Alametsä from the National Union of University Students (SYL) talks with HSTV’s David Mac Dougall about the impact of the government's decision to slash hundreds of millions of euros from education budgets.

Students in Finland feel betrayed and frustrated about government cuts to education, and are fearful about the future, according to SYL, the National Union of University Students in Finland.

Speaking on HSTV's English-language current affairs show Newsmakers, SYL Executive Board member Alviina Alametsä says "it seems that Finland is not going forward, but rather going backwards" after the government cut hundreds of millions of euros from education budgets since taking power last spring.

"Students are angry of course" says Alametsä. "There is a lot of frustration, and also fear about the future".

Alametsä was speaking ahead of a press conference where Education Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen (NCP) announced new proposals to make further cuts to student support grants, while at the same time increasing the amount of state-backed money students can borrow each month.

"It seems like the goal of the government is to somehow lower the level of Finnish education. You don't want people to educate themselves any more. That is the incentives that the cuts give"

SYL argues that students from poorer families will not want to take out loans, and could then find themselves priced out of the higher education market. But Professor Roope Uusitalo of Jyväskylä University, who authored a new report for the government about student grants and allowances, said in a Tuesday press conference that this was not the case - that studies show there is no socio-economic divide separating those who take student loans, and those who do not.

Education Minister Grahn-Laasonen repeatedly called the student cuts "repulsive" during Tuesday's press conference. Her party leader Alexander Stubb was one of those politicians who held up signs before last April's election, promising to make no cuts to education. However after the election, Stubb became part of the coalition government, and along with Finns Party's Timo Soini and Centre Party Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, forged ahead with swingeing cuts to education.

SYL's Alametsä says she was surprised by the broken campaign promises on education, calling it a "weird situation" for Finnish politics.

"This is very frustrating and it seems like a betrayal" says Alametsä. "There was a clear sign that education should not be cut".

Finnish students will stage a demonstration next week, to protest against the ongoing cuts. But Alametsä concedes that the 132,000 students her organisation represents have been "rather reasonable" in their opposition to cuts.

"We are not burning cars or whatever, we are trying to make an influence in a more diplomatic way" she says.

While government plans to reform labour laws and working conditions have been scaled back after union unrest, there has been no wholesale roll-back of cuts to education. The unions have shown how much power they have to influence the government, by threatening to hit the country's industrial output and transport infrastructure: in stark contrast to how little relative power the students wield.

"That's the problem in the Finnish system" says Alametsä. "Those people who are in the worst situation, those that are poor and don't have the political influence, there is nothing".

Turning to the specific issue of allowances, grants and other financial support for students, Alametsä says she can think of no areas of education which could be trimmed to save money, but later accepts that merging some universities and colleges to streamline staffing and services could be an option, even if it means some job cuts.

Instead, the SYL Executive Board member says there are other areas, outside of education, which could more easily offer up budgetary saving for the government, without the need to make such deep cuts to education.

"The cuts are a choice based on values" says Alametsä. "There are many options for cuts [...] I don't really understand why the government hasn't looked at those options, because there is actually a lot bigger cuts to be made".

Finns have, for years, taken pride in how their education system is viewed by other countries. But Alametsä says that could all change thanks to the cuts the government is now imposing.

"Nobody will know exactly what will happen, but I don't think the consequences will bring us better education".

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