Cheering is no longer enough – higher education students need concrete solutions

“Lack of the sense of community and social contacts, distance learning and financial uncertainty are strongly affecting the well-being of higher education students. We are disappointed in society that does not seem to care about us”, writes Board Member Tiina Pajukari.
Tiina Pajukari
AYY's Board Member Tiina Pajukari.

On Tuesday, 2 Mar 2021, the Finnish Government held a press conference for students. Instead of concrete measures and solutions, Prime Minister Marin, Minister of Education Saramo and Minister of Science and Culture Saarikko who attended the event offered only poorly prepared speeches with the key message that students should just “try to cope”.

We are not coping; we have not coped for a long time. Already in 2016, Student Health Survey showed that one third of students had mental health challenges with a clear link to livelihood, social life and the progress of studies [1]. According to a recent study by the University of Helsinki, even the majority of students feel that they are either completely exhausted or at risk of exhaustion [2]. According to the University of Turku, more than half of the respondents felt that the corona situation had a decreasing effect on their general ability to study, and almost two-thirds of students felt that their study motivation, study routines and ability to concentrate had decreased [3]. In a survey of the University of Tampere, just over a quarter of the respondents said that restrictions on campus facilities caused a great deal of loneliness and more than a third said that the restrictions caused quite a lot of loneliness [4]. According to a survey by Helsingin Sanomat, more than a quarter of students said that their financial situation had become worse during the past year [5]. And the list goes on [6).

Higher education students falling between two stools

The Q&A session was disappointing for us. Questions concerning higher education students were answered with solutions made for upper secondary education and one of the arguments was that the situation is difficult for others as well. We, higher education students, are frustrated because we fall between upper secondary students and the working age population. In principle, attempts have been made to keep upper secondary students in contact teaching for the past year, and the Government has been very concerned about the upcoming three-week remote period. Elsewhere, higher education students, some of whom are only one year older than upper secondary students, have been in distance learning for a year now, and there will be no change until the whole society is opened.

Students who started their higher education studies last autumn are in a particularly poor situation. Many have moved to a completely new city to their first home and were forced to start their studies almost or entirely in distance learning. Even in a normal situation, the beginning of studies is a major turning point and a stress factor for many young people. Now they have to experience the situation without getting to know people face-to-face and their sense of community is limited to Zoom and social media. Why is the Government not as concerned about higher education students as it is about upper secondary students? Before the pandemic, the social circles of students consisted of fellow students in the same courses, company over lunch and hobbies. Students have established friendships and experienced the sense of community in events and guild rooms. When we do not have genuine human contact, lasting relationships cannot be formed, and we are left alone in our small apartments.

Distance learning for young adults is not the same as remote work for the middle-aged. Most of us do not have separate rooms for work, family in the same apartment or money to invest in home exercise equipment. We live alone in a studio with less than 25 square metres, which you can basically only exit for lunch on campus – and those doors will soon close as well. It is impossible to divide a rectangular studio into different spaces for study, leisure and exercise. All public facilities and sports services have been closed for a long time, and we cannot assume that low-income students could afford to buy a coffee table for studies or a membership from a private gym.

We need genuine help

The lack of community and social contacts, distance learning and financial insecurity are strongly affecting the well-being of higher education students. We are disappointed in society that does not seem to care about us. Students’ exhaustion rates are increasing at an alarming rate and there is a long queue for the FSHS services as students at the universities of applied sciences are covered by the FSHS as well and there is an increased need for help. Distance learning is challenging and working hard on your own is not motivating [7]. And the best that the Government has to offer are cheering messages and a reminder that they trust us to be the generation that will lift Finland up after the pandemic. Student organisations, associations and our student union have all been inventive and have done their best to help their members, but our means are beginning to run out. We need genuine help.

Students can apply for additional months for student financial aid if they can prove to Kela that they were unable to study because no courses were offered or it was impossible to complete studies remotely. Thus, students cannot receive additional months due to illness or exhaustion. Last year, the credit requirement for financial aid months was slightly eased, but the same practice has not continued this year. In practice, students should study at the same pace as before the pandemic, and that is by no means reasonable. We do not only need flexibility for student financial aid – it is imperative.

The Finnish Government, we are asking, demanding and needing more concrete solutions. Additional months for student financial aid, extension for the target time for student loan tax deduction and additional resources for FSHS are possible immediate solutions to the situation. An increase for the study grant, immediate access to therapy and raising the basic funding of higher education institutions are actions that would really help us to cope and complete our studies in the long run as well. Do not leave us alone.

Tiina Pajukari

Board Member

Social policy, elections, well-being and sustainability

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