Helsinki Uni occupation. Photo: Viena Pentikainen
Helsinki Uni occupation. Photo: Viena Pentikainen

Edmund Schluessel, CWI in Finland

A wave of student activism has swept Finland as the Conservative-led government prepares to impose its first, austerity-led budget. Student groups have launched sit-in demonstrations at most universities, several technical colleges and upper secondary schools.

They have a common list of demands against cuts to student housing benefits, opposing the proposed introduction of tuition fees for international students, and for better mental health support. The students have also stated opposition to the broader problem of the government’s racist and anti-immigrant policies and connections to the extreme right.

Students could lose effectively €70 a month if the government’s austerity plans advance. The government plans to stop cost-of-living adjustments to student grants, even though the past two years have seen inflation higher than four times the normal rate.

The first occupation began on 18 September at Helsinki University, the largest and oldest university in the country. Students have set up tents and banners in a ‘speaking area’ of the university’s main building, with dozens taking part at any moment. Support from the community has been broad and sustained, and the university has stated it intends to let the protest go on undisturbed.

One theology student and occupier who spoke to us said: “I’m relieved my generation, millennials and Gen Z, has the fight in us and we aren’t as apathetic as we’re depicted. One of the themes that constantly comes up in our daily meetings is the struggle against apathy, so at this point I personally see it as an anti-apathy movement as well.”

While numbers are smaller at other university occupations, CWI supporters report the activists organising the protests universally show determination and are in good spirits. Several high schools have been drawn into the occupation movement, as well, with students at Finland’s arts schools particularly mobilised.

An important feature of the demonstrations is the willingness to connect with other movements in solidarity. Students from Helsinki University’s occupation joined in the nurses’ union’s demonstration against cuts to healthcare, and arranged for the Elokapina (Extinction Rebellion in Finland) demonstration taking place on the same day to visit. They have also been very welcoming to guests and speakers.

A spark?

The student occupations could be an important spark for sustained, broad action against the government and its neoliberal, racist agenda. While the summer following the election was highlighted by several very large demonstrations against government racism, they have so far failed to coalesce into a sustained movement, in part due to sectarianism by the demonstrations’ organisers. But these student demonstrations are coming as the largest Finnish trade union confederation, SAK, has already announced coordinated strike action by its member unions against government proposals to push back union and workplace rights.

SAK’s leadership has denied it is currently planning a general strike. But students and young workers could, by advocating for such a demand to unite the diverse sectional struggles against the Petteri Orpo government, provide a counterweight to the backpedalling, ultimately management-friendly union bureaucracy.

Spontaneous walkouts, most recently by support workers at Helsinki Airport over the sudden and non-negotiated withdrawal of access to cheap airfare tickets as a staff benefit, show that many workers are more ready to take action than their leaders. The government’s popularity is already tumbling as it faces scandal after scandal over hate speech from its ministers. A general strike, Finland’s first since 1956, could easily bring it down.

The question then posed is, what should follow it? A return to rule by the Social Democrats, or more likely a National Conservative-Social Democratic coalition, would be less overtly racist but would continue the same programme of spending cuts and attacks on unions, albeit at a slower pace. Parliamentary parties to the left of the Social Democrats, meanwhile, have already shown themselves too willing to cover up their own politics and follow along with a programme of cuts to try to make themselves acceptable to the rich.

Finland needs a new, openly socialist mass party, bringing together students, workers, the unemployed and all oppressed in struggle. Such an organisation could coordinate and sustain the fight against all aspects of capitalism and build the working class into a force to not just reform, but transform society.

Support and build on the student occupiers’ demands!

  • Increase, don’t cut, housing subsidies
  • No to tuition fees, now and forever
  • Guarantee mental health services for all who need them
  • Build solidarity in the university and across society with the movement against cuts
  • Oppose all racist government immigration policies
  • Living grants for all students, let every student focus on their studies