From 6th - 10th of January your VP Education, Millie, joined a coach full of SU staff and Sabbatical Officers from across the UK to take on the freezing temperatures of the Baltic's and Finland on an intense and informative trip organised by Wonkhe.
Visiting a total of four countries and 14 national and local Students' Unions. The focus of the trip was to understand more about the running of their Student Unions in terms of student representation and democracy, the main issues they're tackling and the involvement from their universities.
Here is Millie's account of what she discovered during the trip:
Lithuania - You have to pass a test
"Yes that's right, to become any type of student representative your knowledge of the university services and campus as well as the Student's Union is put to the test. Course representatives were not a thing here and students were empowered to solve smaller course issues by themselves, bigger issues were taken to 'Faculty Student's Unions', similar to our school reps but involving more students. If necessary the issues would be taken to the Student's Union and would be discussed within the relevant committee. These committees would include international, academic affairs, social affairs (welfare, housing etc), finance, HR and public relations, each committee lead by a voluntary officer. The people in these roles would all be chosen by the president, elected by the student council, who would have to get his team again approved by the council. The reason a number of the committees seem something that a member of staff would usually be doing is because Lithuanian SUs did not tend to have staff. They were also separate from sports clubs and societies, they only dealt with representation and the running of some events to engage students and raise funds alongside their grant from the university. All of this while the students were still studying!"
Key priorities: housing quality and price, sustainability, lack of student loan, mental health, many student dropouts, alumni connection, international inclusivity.
Latvia - Who run the world? Girls.
"The girl power was strong in Latvia and so was the passion for student representation. The countries history of war has left them with more women than men, and these women do not lack confidence, let me tell you. In comparison to Lithuania, which was most often a male president surrounded by females, Latvia was a woman president surrounded by more women, with the occasional man. It's possible that the men were more interested in the fraternities due to the strong brotherhood and patriotism as well the the fencing. In one of the SUs in Latvia the president wasn't interested in the sororities because she didn't want to, as she put, 'drink coffee and talk about literature' and was jealous that she couldn't get involved in the fencing.
These strong women were not short of power, legally students would have to make up 20% of all university committees and they would have the power to veto on matters relating to students. Also mandated by law was that the SU would be allocated 1/200th of the universities annual budget, I still need to work out if that would be better for us or not, but at least it's a guaranteed income.
In terms of the officer positions, they were similar to Lithuania yet students would more likely get a small scholarship from the university to help with costs of studies. There would also be a small number of staff involved in the SU including an Executive Director.
I felt truly empowered after leaving Latvia and continuing our coach journey hurtling towards Estonia."
Key priorities: housing quality and price, lack of student loans, mental health, many student drop outs, alumni connection, international inclusivity.
Estonia - Education is free but students aren't staying
"One key issue in Estonia, the land of free education, was surprisingly the decline in student numbers as they travel to study elsewhere. The National Student's Union however appear to be fighting to keep it free as recent discussions with the government have hinted towards them implementing fees. If fees were to be put in place it is likely that the student loan system would need to be improved as currently, similar to other Baltic countries, it is too low and rarely taken up by students, who will likely end up working instead. Often leading to students prioritising their jobs and dropping out of studies. An alternative to get a better student loan is to get married, happy wedding I guess!"
Key priorities: sustainability, mental health, maintaining free education, low student loan, alumni connection, less promotion of alcohol.
Finland - Everyone has the right to healthcare and a hot meal
"Finally we get to the futuristic country that is Finland, a country of free education, free student healthcare provided by the SU, cheaper meals, cheaper housing and incredibly independent Student's Unions. The unions here seemed much more familiar to our own with full-time, paid officers and members of staff, clubs and societies being a part of the SU, as well as owning commercial outlets. The differences here however were in their representation systems and their income. Let's start with income, the Unions we visited were very much autonomous, all of them would have investments, mostly in property which they would provide to students. It is also mandatory here for students to be a member of the union, however it isn't without a cost. Unions could charge between 50-200 euros a year which meant they could provide meals at around 3-5 euros and much cheaper housing than private companies. This income also means that they can hire specific staff to help students with inductions, housing and so on. The student representatives themselves would run services such as advice centres where they could signpost others. These representatives would be elected by a student council that would often be made up of chairs from clubs, societies, faculty unions, student political parties and elections would be more like a scrutiny than a popularity contest. The officers would not run for a specific role but would but would be assigned the role later on. These often included a student organisations officer (clubs and societies), housing and real estate officer, academic affairs, international affairs, social affairs, environmental, events, finance and more."
Key priorities: sustainability, mental health, alumni connection.
"Overall, it was incredible to see in all organisations the responsibility given to students, the most impressive being the control of such large budgets and the ability to have such great inputs in not only their universities but also in government, even when the officers are only part-time and still studying.
Something all unions had in common was their connection with their alumni, often they were involved in training of new officers, they could be called upon throughout the year for support and would be invited to an event to celebrate them by most SUs every year.
For me, this trip has shown that we need to review the way we do things in the UK. One thing I think we could implement is the sub-committees of the Student Union Council, giving students a chance to discuss important issues and come up with solutions to make in year changes. This would definitely give them more of a voice as currently groups are represented by one individual at Union Council. I also like the idea of changing the way officers are elected, as well as their roles and remits, but this will require a bit more thought to see what is possible.
All in all students are in fact the world leaders of the future and can certainly be trusted with more responsibility and should be empowered to speak up, challenge, debate and be heavily involved in the running of their union."
Millie Green, VP Education
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