Finland: Students Defend Universities from Capitalism

Over 1,500 students demonstrated in Helsinki on 19 February 2009 against the proposed reform of higher education.  After the demonstration, the students proceeded to occupy the administration building of the University of Helsinki.  Students in Tampere, Turku, Joensuu, Rovaniemi, and Oulu also organized walkouts.

The new Universities Act proposed by the Finnish government, if enacted, among other things will:

  • make universities have independent legal status, allowing the state to replace civil service employment by contractual employment;
  • have a majority of the board members of each university be external members, who are not professors, students, or staff, threatening the autonomy of the university (only a third of the board may be outsiders according to the current law);
  • centralize power into the hands of the top administrators and diminish the internal democracy of universities;
  • give the Ministry of Education the power to set qualitative and quantitative targets for universities, thus threatening their autonomy;
  • provide inadequate funding for universities, guaranteeing funding for only their “core” activities;
  • subject universities to the state’s productivity program (despite an explicit promise to the contrary);
  • allow universities to charge tuition fees from non-EU/EEA students (currently, college education is free in Finland);
  • fail to guarantee the freedom of research and information.

The proposed bill will come before the parliament this spring.  The student protesters are especially concerned that, if passed, it will allow corporations to have more influence on their universities and therefore also on science, while paving the way toward privatization, making higher education unaffordable for many students who are already struggling with high costs of living, especially housing, and being forced to incur debts.

What is at stake, the way the students see it, is whether the knowledge that universities create will be harnessed to democracy or capitalism:

The new law is part of a broader project to reform universities, the project that has been and is being pushed across Europe.  Why do they want this reform?  Above all, it’s because information is the main source of profit for capitalism.  Hence the talk of “lifetime learning” for every worker.  Workers are to study and students are to work, for the benefit of you know whom.  Since data in commons are easily divisible, they can be easily commercialized.  To make profit, information is privatized and separated from its producers. . . .  The battle over the reform of universities is not a marginal battle.  The biggest question is how to free the producers of knowledge, as well as knoweldge production and dissemination, from control and exploitation.

Through their movement, the students — as critical of the old hierarchical model against which their predecessors rose up in the long sixties as they are opposed to the subjection of universities to the combination of the market logic and arbitrary bureaucracy — are seeking new ways to create free and democratic spaces that cannot be taken over by capitalism.  The next step of the movement is a nationwide strike on Friday, the 13th of March.

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