“Active students as societal influencers!” address at the Get Organized seminar

The University held the joint event Get Organized on Wednesday 2 October for the staff organisations and the Student Union of Tampere University. The morning seminar was simultaneously viewed on video at the Hervanta, Kauppi and City centre campuses. We heard addresses concerning advocacy, student activity, University community influencing and getting organised at the seminar.
Read more about the event at Tatte’s (The Tampere University Association of Researchers and Teachers) homepage here

TREY’s address at the event

Active students as societal influencers

This event provides a great framework for discussing student activity. In my opinion, each community is best defined by how it treats its members.

We each have our own roles, which work as our eyes when we look at this community. All of the different groups of the University community are represented here today. The teaching and research staff, other staff and students are all here as equal parties. Our roles determine how we view the community. Therefore, I would now like to focus on the student viewpoint and tell how we students operate as societal influencers.

Being a student is a unique period in one’s lifetime. Of course we are studying for a degree, but our goal is not to rush through our studies. During this period, we gather a wide set of skills and create important, life-long relationships with other people. Studies are a time of learning, making mistakes and finding one’s own path. It is a time of growing into operators within our society.

The active, committed and bold student community that supports the students in their studies is also unique. Over 160 student organisations operate within the Student Union of Tampere University. Each of them shares the same mission: to bring their people together, create meaningful experiences and provide people with skills and knowledge which will benefit them for the rest of their lives. As for TREY, the student union encourages students to engage in various kinds of organisational activities and influence the University community.

The student union’s legal duty is, as per Section 2 of the Universities Act, to prepare students for an active, informed and critical citizenship. The Student Union of Tampere University came to be in the beginning of 2019 as the student unions of Tampere merged together, with a mission to promote themes that are meaningful for students. Our core message is “We students” and we operate while keeping in mind our value: The student is at the centre of everything.

As the Universities Act Section 46 defines it, the student union’s purpose is to “promote its members’ societal, social and intellectual aspirations and those relating to studies and the status of students in society”. Encouraging students to be active citizens and have an impact on society is one of the top priorities of both the University and the student union.

As for the student union, it means that we represent and advocate things that are relevant to our students and that are linked to students’ well-being, culture and status – not only at the University, but also both locally and nationally.

Our activities include educating student activists in advocacy work and supervision of interests. An example of our operations is the #sunratkaisu (#yourdecision) campaign in which we supported students in bringing forth their solutions regarding climate matters. And this fall we took part in the Hunger Day collection and the charity event Nenäpäivä (“Nose Day”).

Most of the job relating to students’ advocacy work is done by the so called “hallopeds”, or student representatives on the Board of trustees. The student representatives exercise great steering authority and contribute on their part to that the students’ voice is heard in the University’s decision-making. Influencing gives students versatile competence and teaches them about the responsibility that’s related to making decisions. For many student influencers, the student representative body is their first chance at practising collaboration with different parties, at developing their argumentation, interaction and communicating skills as well as at how to act in meetings. Besides teaching vital working life skills like cooperation and communication, this task is democracy education at its best.

Student influencing is, however, beneficial for others than students, too. Students’ involvement in decision-making promotes the University’s diversity, which has been researched to improve the quality of decision-making. Moreover, being a part of and having a dialogue between the different groups and the executive level of a professional community creates a sense of meaningfulness, and it commits the parties to the community and its values.

Still, the societal influence of student organisations’ activity can neither measured by the ups nor the downs. Influencing can, after all, be boiled down to how well an individual and their ideas are accepted as a part of the community. Each new encounter, study project, or the joys and challenges of learning are meaningful when the whole community is a part of them. That also makes the decision of joining the activity an easy one.

According to the Research Foundation of Studies and Education Otus’ research on the successfulness of studies, the sense of belonging to the student community can compensate poor study skills and motivation, decrease the probability of drop-outs. It can also have a positive impact on the study ability and results of depressed or discouraged students with the improvement of up to six more study credits each year.

A special characteristic of student activity work is its high turnover.

The careers in organisational work are short, since the composition of the active positions changes each two or three years. This movement is, above all, a resource for us students: with the help of the new ideas and energy of new active members, the student movement stays operational and has its finger on the pulse. Nevertheless, due to the cuts in the student allowance and the shortening of the time for studying, being active is clearly not self-evident: the number of active students is constantly declining. As students feel an even greater pressure of graduating faster, all activities that hinder full-time studying are discarded.  We have already witnessed the declining numbers of international student exchanges after the new restrictions on study months and the study allowance dropped to approximately €250 per month. It is no wonder, then, that many students are careful to engage in any kind of voluntary work because of their limited possibilities. The mounting pressure and demands concerning one’s time of studying is visible as the organisational careers grow even shorter.

During this time of year, there is a lot of discussion over who might be interested in applying for the next term. I would personally like to encourage each active member to inspire other members to take up new, different positions. It would be sensible to motivate the more not so visible members to become influencers along with those who already are active. The greatest challenge in achieving the next generation of influencers is the members’ motivation to learn and improve. The feeling of not being left alone with the job is paramount, even if it feels difficult. The more experienced activists can act as makers of a safe and supporting network, where presenting unrefined thoughts and ideas is effortless. This way we can ensure that the new activists will not be left alone, and that they have the opportunity to develop their knowledge.

Dear audience

Societal influencing is all about being active, willing to act and to think boldly, and wanting to change the current course of action. Having said that, it requires a lot from a student. We along with other student unions, HYY, ISYY and AYY, have come forward with supporting the active citizenship of students. As a part of this, we created our recommendations for the institutions of higher education at kansalaisnoppia.fi

How a higher education institution encourages students to societal interaction is significant. Does it recognise student organisational work? The University should reward its students’ work with credits. After all, the University not only benefits from students’ involvement, but also the recognition gives students’ the feeling that what they do in the society and the University community has an effect. Of course, credits should not be given for any kinds of activities, and the system should have clear-cut rules. Student representatives’ involvement can be supported via training, meeting fees, the opportunity to compensate for absences from mandatory teaching by attending meetings, and emphasising the importance of student participation in communications. Organisational spaces further promote the development of safe, accessible and communal premises. Additionally, various monetary aids for organisations and active students give greater leeway for creating brand-new student projects.

Active students promote the societal dialogue and enforce communality by contributing to civic activity. The active students within the University also integrate to the University community, which again promotes studying and well-being. When a student is active and participates in networking outside of the University, it advances their employment and widens their world view. Finding ways of supporting students’ societal impact is, therefore, beneficial for the whole University community.

Paula Sajaniemi, Chair of the Board of the Student Union