”The political atmosphere at Aalto University is sizzling.”
Winter 2015. The candidates of Greener Aalto distribute self-made tofu casserole to the students of Aalto University and patiently explain what is the Representative Council during the Representative Council elections. A large number of students does not know that the Representative Council is the highest decision-making body of their own Student Union which is comprised of its own students. This ignorance has manifested itself as low voter turnout in former elections: in 2013 under 30 percent of the electorate used their vote.
Spring 2015. Daniel Sazonov, who studies Industrial Engineering and Management as well as Law, senses how someone is staring their eyes peeled as he stands in slush next to the university wearing his Oxford shoes and holding cardboard cups and chocolate coins in his hands. Sazonov is campaigning for The National Coalition Party in the parliamentary elections. The one staring is the doorman of the university making sure that Sazonov does not cross the line political agents are prohibited to cross.
Autumn 2017. President of the Aalto University Tuula Teeri and Chair of the Board of the Student Union Milja Asikainen are discussing the societal impact of Aalto University at the opening ceremony of new academic year.
“Securing the information society, generating new information and demanding fact-based decision-making are all responsibilities of universities.” says President Teeri.
“Universities should take a stronger leading role in public discussion instead of just echoing it.” Asikainen continues.
The political atmosphere at Aalto University is sizzling. Different and contradictory aspirations are colliding in everyday life. Inside the university, others want to stay away from politics while others ask for commitment to it. Aalto University itself has defined societal impact an important factor in its strategy. It proclaims to raise change makers who are interested in great challenges in society and want to solve them eagerly.
In a sense Aalto has managed this quite nicely: for example, AaltoES and Slush have had great influence on society. Still many in the student body and among the teachers feels that Aalto has defined the means to societal impact too narrowly. An important way to influence society has been left with negligible attention: Aalto does not take part in societal discussion. Courses tell how to succeed, not how to criticise. Relatively few societal statements have been made by AYY. Politics have been sort of swept under the carpet and in many people’s minds Aalto lacks credibility as an influence.
Heikki Koponen is one of the worried ones. A student of Industrial Engineering and Management and the 2016 President of National Union of University Students in Finland (SYL) has had a prime spot to track the political atmosphere at Aalto. He does not shy away from provoking discussion. On the contrary he has ruffled some feathers by wearing red faux-pas shoes to the Presidential Independence Day reception and by declaring SYL a feminist organisation.
Koponen explains that students in Aalto want to make the world a better place by founding start-ups and by providing financial growth but other means to societal influence are seen as futile or even dirty.
“In Aalto it is somehow seen that societal influence or partaking in discussion is useless and doesn’t lead anywhere or then it is thought that there are a lot more effective ways of influencing the society.”
This policy allergy can also be seen in the Student Union among other things in the relatively low number of statements concerning everyday policy made by AYY when comparing to for example the Student Union of the University of Helsinki (HYY). Laura Euro has been active in AYY from 2010 and feels that many students in Aalto think that student politics and state politics should be kept separated. This line of thought rises from the automatic – or compulsory, as the critics say – membership of the Student Union and therefore every student being in the same political puddle.
“This is quite a sensitive subject but during Aalto the paradigm has shifted towards accepting more political messages.”
There have been no value-based lists of candidates traditionally in Aalto. Instead the alliances have been formed around subject organisations. This is different from for example HYY, where there have been value-based lists in addition to those formed from subject-organisations and nations. HYY’s tendency to partake more in everyday politics can be seen as a result of this.
In the Representative Council election of 2015 there was a major new development.
Greener Aalto is an electoral alliance that leans towards green values but is non-aligned with any political party. It made history when its candidates wrote a clear electoral programme in which they told what they were going to do in the Representative Council if elected. Before friends had mostly voted for friends from their subject organisations without a clear vision of the Student Union and how it should be.
“All of our candidates were writing the programme together.” tells Sameli Sivonen from Greener Aalto.
“It was the Student Union of all of our dreams.”
The campaign of Greener Aalto was different in other ways, too: they met and discussed the politics of AYY with students for two weeks. There was also a lot of talk about the Representative Council in general.
“There have been no campaigning culture in Aalto before. It has led to people not knowing there is some election underway somewhere. We had to explain what the Representative Council is to a surprisingly large number of people.” Sivonen tells.
Greener Aalto got six candidates to the Representative Council. With this amount of seats, they were in pole position of the election with Kylterirengas. Sivonen collected the most votes along with Joonas Kosloff from Kylterirengas. Voter turnout of the Representative Council election rose 2,4 percent but the number cannot be compared to the elections before as this was the first time an electronic voting took place.
Sivonen believes that the campaign will influence other groups when the next election comes. Perhaps value-based lists will become as prevalent as in the University of Helsinki, where the representatives for subject organisations also write their own electoral programme.
Many think that ideology should be also made visible.
“If the Student Union only distributed grants, it would be easy to argue that only subject organisations got represented. But the Student Union makes politics. It makes policy papers, it does urban politics, it does state politics via SYL. It is delusional to mask it as non-political.” says student and city politician Daniel Sazonov.
At the moment AYY is practising strong municipal politics among other things. One big question is building of student housing on the Otaniemi region. In order to get real estate to build on, AYY is cooperating with many different branches of government in Espoo. Other current issues are the livelihood of students and the position of Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS).
“I think it’s important we speak our minds.” Sivonen says.
“I was just looking into the policy paper of National Union of University Students of Finland that touches many issues: from tax evasion to the organisation of welfare state and the forms of taxation. Those things are not linked straight to student politics but still affect students – students do not come from a vacuum, we are a part of society. The student movement is one of the most vocal voices of the youth. If students do not say anything, the voice of youth is diminished.”
Both Euro and Sivonen are candidates for the Greens in the upcoming municipal elections. Euro tells that joining a party was a great mental process even though it has always been clear to her that her values in politics are green. Joining party politics still instilled a fear that being a party member could hurt her career, for example if she wanted to work as an expert in the public sector.
Euro’s disclosure is an interesting one because it is one telling about our contradictory relationship with politics. On one hand we have representative democracy in which voting is seen as a civil responsibility but on the other hand party politics are seen as somehow dirty and convoluted matters. This has given hold for a set up in which politicians and experts are against one another and a in which there is a silent contract that stipulates that politician cannot be an expert.
According to Heikki Koponen some students in Aalto think quite timidly that they do not have the abilities to partake in societal discussion as experts. This is a shame, since their skills can thus be left unused in for example politics.
At the beginning of this text student and city politician Daniel Sazonov stood in front of the university campaigning. It was a normal day for him. Sazonov says that he doing politics on all his waking hours. He admits that there seems not to be an alluring trade-off for the individual in politics. A politician trades in their money and personality.
Sazonov has got used to being turned down:
“For example subject organisations and organisations like AaltoES can easily get spots on fairs organised by university, but political organisations have hard time getting those spots. If I went to the hallway of the Undergraduate Centre to distribute coffee wearing insignia of the National Coalition Party, the doorman would tell me quite quickly to sod off. But if a subject organisation does the same, it’s a normal part of the student activity.”
The trade-off is a lot better in start-up scene: change the world and as a by-product make some 100 million euros by selling your company to a hedge fund investor. Also Sazonov thinks that the promise is a tempting one. He would like to take more part to the discussions of the start-up world.
“I would breathe that air with pleasure since it’s a really inspiring world. At the same time I wish that this was a two-way street in that those who are working in the start-up scene would also be present in the political discussion.”
Someone has to defend start-up in politics, says Sazonov. He is determined to campaign in front of the university also in the upcoming municipal elections.
“Those are the people I want to have discussions with and from whom I want to hear about for example how we should build a better Helsinki.”
Sazonov has to settle with campaigning on the street for now. Many see a disparity in Aalto’s will to raise change makers when at the same time political and religious groups cannot use its premises. For example, if students of Energy Technology wanted to ask experts to come to speak to an event where people could discuss energy politics this would be forbidden political activity an could not be arranged as such. And at the same time students are encouraged to make an impact in society.
Of course these limitations to the uses of universities’ premises are not specific to Aalto as there are similar restrictions at place in other institutions, schools and universities, too. These restrictions have their grounds on the idea of autonomy of science. Still many wish for a more physical presence of the political in schools. Can Aalto raise change makers if it cannot be one itself even when speaking about limitations of use of its premises.
Societal matters need to made easy to handle if we want students to be interested in them, Sazonov adds.
“There aren’t a whole lot of places where a university-aged people are and where they can naturally meet one another as students and political agents. The Internet is one place, shopping malls another. All this supposes the premise that policies matter.”
According to Sazonov we should “leave old traumas and overly politicised debate behind ourselves and free political activities in our schools.”
“I’m not sure, if an immense chaos would ensue and people become tarnished if I had an opportunity to walk into the hallway of Undergraduate Centre, start distributing coffee and discuss politics with students.”
At the moment is seems that Sazonov has some hope.
AYY has a joint project going on with the university concerning the regulations on the use of university’s premises. The goal is to make the rules clearer. The Student Union has discussed these matters with university’s government.
At the beginning of this year a principle of societal influence was written down in AYY’s strategy. This is a two-year trend, during which AYY seeks to become a more socially impactful organisation. Another large focal point is getting students more involved with societal matters. In practise AYY will be taking more societal themes into its communications. This can mean giving spotlight to societal discussions relevant to the subjects studied at Aalto.
AYY has also discussed adding a societal aspect to teaching with the university. Even though there are no social sciences in Aalto, courses could have a societal viewpoint for example by discussing the historical context of subjects. It is for the benefit of the students of Aalto and for the benefit of Finland that young professionals have the matters of their own branches in their own hands, after all. Otherwise someone cuts in. Politics are the best when not left to be done by those for whom it is their everything.