In this article, our aim is to outline how the Opiskelijatoiminta Network (Student Action, henceforward OT) began at the University of Helsinki during the academic year 2008-2009. We hope that this article will, in addition to giving a sort of “freeze frame” of the process and experiences behind the protests in Helsinki during that time, provide ideas and encouragement for those who wish to come together and take control of their lives and societies, independent of representative structures, at universities and elsewhere.
In this article we have used collaborative writing and interviewing each other as our methods. We have interviewed activists as broadly as possible: people who have been active in the network during different phases and in different ways, and also people on the sidelines of the movement. Through this, we hope to have reached the subjective experiences of individuals behind the movement, and to provide different viewpoints on our action.
The most central questions we asked were how we became organised as a movement, and what that felt like. We describe experiences of political empowerment but also make critical observations of the weaknesses in the organisation of the movement.
We have wanted to describe these experiences vividly in a wide spectrum of voices. Because the article is based on confidential interviews, we have not singled out individual answers or persons, but have tried to give our action a collective voice instead.
”I always felt the university was somehow a depressing place; i felt dispossessed or marginalised, like never really meet the demands. It felt good to find other people who didn’t like the tightening regulations. I found a new channel to talk with people at the university”.
OT was formed in autumn 2008 when a group of students occupied the university’s main building during the Night of the Homeless, an annual happening in Helsinki (17 Oct 2008). After the occupation, a mailing list was created, and a study circle was started which focused on questions of housing, livelihood and the University Reform. Those active in this phase were inspired by the university movements of Italy, Anomalia Sapienza and the idea of getting organised into a political movement through the university community.
During that autumn, the study circle’s purpose was to examine how changes in public space and the university affected students’ lives, and on whose terms these changes were being made. We also asked what kind of demands we have for creating possibilities for a better life, and what forms of protest should be organised in order to realise these demands.
A majority of students in Finland have been studying with the help of state student financial aid. However, during the last 15 years this financial aid has largely stayed at the same level although living costs have constantly increased, especially in Helsinki. As a consequence, part-time jobs are a very common way to earn a living when studying. At the same time, the Ministry of Education wants to affect the overall duration of studies by explicit limitations and by controlling the progress of studies via financial aid, which can only be obtained when completing a certain number of study points. This leads many students to the edge of despair when student financial aid requires full-time study, which is not possible because of part-time jobs that are needed for paying, for example, the high rents in Helsinki.
Many of us noticed that our individual experiences were in fact shared and not at all uncommon: frustration with student life, living conditions, and the university, especially the forms of (or lack of) democracy applied there. In our study circle, the frustration within everyday student life turned into demands for a better life.
In August 2008, the proposal for a new university law was published by the Finnish government. In our study circle we discussed the even more tightening regulations for studying and research that the proposal contained. The officials who had prepared the new law claimed it would be good for Finnish society by connecting the universities to the “national innovation system”. The explicit purpose was to turn the research done at universities into potentially commercial innovations, to accelerate so-called economic growth. This was not what we wanted to study for.
The University of Helsinki administration brought the University Reform openly into discussion as “the common project of the whole university”, with which we strongly disagreed. Also, many groups like the very established players such as Student Unions and the Finnish Union for University Researchers and Teachers protested against the law with public proclamations. Dissatisfaction with the proposal for new university law was widespread.
To attract attention to current social problems, the idea of occupying the Old Student House was put forward on the eve of the 40th-anniversary celebrations of the House’s occupation by Helsinki University students in 1968. This was done in order to turn people’s attention away from nostalgia and to the very problems that affect us at the university today. A replica of the official student magazine (”Vallankumousylkkäri” or “The Revolutionary Student Mag”) was published before the event. It included the manifesto of OT and various articles on educational policy, international student movements and a press release about the occupation. Around 300 students attended the occupation.
During the Science Forum held on January 7-9, 2009, we interrupted the opening ceremony in the university’s main hall with banners, and issued a statement about the state of research and teaching, which ended with a call for a general assembly of the university community on January 29.
Posters for the general assembly were ordered and flyers were printed out at the university and at the facilities of some activists’ employers; they spread through the campuses in the following weeks. In the posters we announced the event to take place in the main lecture hall of one of the central buildings at the campus. We were willing to occupy it by force if it could not be arranged otherwise. The university administration, however, let us use the lecture hall free of charge. More than 500 people came to the event and we finally found a common ground for action and discussion. The thin and scattered strands of criticism against the proposed university law were woven together, strengthened and united.
The idea of calling a general assembly spread to other university cities in Finland, and within a few weeks similar meetings were organised in Tampere, Jyväskylä and Joensuu.
On February 19, we organised a demonstration with the theme “Reform the university reform!”. After traversing the main streets in Helsinki’s city centre, the demonstration returned to our university and spontaneously occupied the administrative building at the campus — instead of taking the traditional route to the Parliament for listening to the lip service offered by the MPs. We occupied the building until the next morning and offered the incoming administrative officials morning coffee spiced with a statement in which we demanded restarting the university reform process on a democratic basis.
The new university law was passed in the Parliament in June 2009 with small changes to the original draft, which brought an end to the process of resisting the reform. The left, however, was a network of people who wanted to act autonomously working for a different kind of university, not forgetting the questions of housing and livelihood. Even though the law was passed, we know that without OT the critical voices against the reform might have not been brought together. Moreover, the resistance linked us together; we learned how to organise resistance and observe our daily lives from a political perspective.
OT is organised outside official institutions and decision-making bodies. Frustration with the current state of affairs at universities generated a will to start accomplishing concrete things instead of leaving politics to the few student representatives in the administration. In addition to acting autonomously and creating a new kind of student culture, we have tried lobbying within the representative system. Especially during the struggle against the university reform, OT was a connecting network that brought together separate critical voices, which were not always in unison. Instead of having particular goals set together, we rather had many separate goals: stopping the reform law and starting the process anew from within the university community, politicising the situation of students, creating a counter-culture at the university.
The informal organisation of the group is congenial to many people involved in OT. Instead of having a pyramid-like organisation hierarchy, its structure is more like a network. People can commit to the political goals they choose and work for them with others in a very concrete and active way. With OT, somebody throws an idea in the air and then we’re already doing it. There are no motions you have to go through before actually doing the stuff you want to do. As all action is planned and taken face-to-face, together with other activists, everyone can be truly involved in deciding what is to be done and how much responsibility they want. When people can do things themselves and not through other people, frustration is replaced by hopefulness.
The division between members and outsiders that characterises traditional movements does not apply to a network structure in which anybody can potentially be an active participant. The only things that set limits to the network are the goals and struggles themselves. Because the structure of OT makes it pointless to ask who is a legitimate member and who is not, the movement continuously redefines itself based on which goals it calls people to work for, how it presents itself and how it is publicly perceived. As we have not had fixed rules, OT has shaped itself by the action taken and who the participants have been. Making decisions in open meetings has made it possible for everybody to participate in the planning of the activities.
”Since participants in OT don’t have official roles, trust between them is based on knowing each other”. The network structure has made OT an open organisation but has also served as a hotbed for the growth of various kinds of inner circles. Some participants get along with each other better and want to act together. Because of the lack of official roles, these inner circles have been essential in the formation of the activities. On the other hand, the inner circles themselves have never been closed and immutable but have been ready to accept active newcomers.
The open network structure has also caused problems. “We don’t have structural means to solve conflicts (neither people nor conventions), just our own goodwill and willingness to discuss the issues”. Solving conflicts has been difficult because no institutions exist that could do the job. When everybody has an equal right to participate in defining the action, no single participant has the right to decide: the issues need to be settled by discussing them together. Reaching consensus has been difficult given that the participants have different views of political involvement, the university and of the kinds of action to take. “But if the action transformed into structures aimed at solving inner conflicts, the goal-oriented activities would die”. Disputes have surfaced especially when there has been disagreement about the message we want to send to the outside. Trying to subsume all action under a common message has led to collisions of different ideologies and ways of speaking.
Since OT is not an officially registered organisation, we have received no funding from the university or from any other direction. Financing is the problem with the free-form network: how do we get the money for the materials we need for actions? Since no direct monetary support has been available, the activities have relied largely on private persons. Banners have been painted on sheets from our own beds, flyers printed at the university or using employers’ facilities. Money needed to organise demonstrations was collected during the marches or donated by individual activists. In addition to this, some organisations supported OT by paying for printing posters, for example. We still owe money to some. The Finnish resistance to market- and capital-oriented reforms and attacks is still very fledgling for various reasons, and the lack of money and resources available to an autonomous network has been one front where this has become painfully obvious.
In addition to study circles, occupations have been an important form in organising the activity of OT. First of all, we got the space we needed for planning our actions — open spaces for students don’t really exist at the university. Moreover, occupations bring new people into the movement and force it to reorganise itself. As an action, an occupation is fun, inspiring and functional. People get to know each other through action and autonomous organisation. During our occupations, we have, for example, often established working groups according to people’s interests and goals. Occupation also symbolises taking possession of our own space. It is a means closing ranks, creating solidarity and consciousness of action — a means of questioning the status quo.
We have aimed consciously to use direct action to create autonomous space as well as tried to influence the situation through representative democracy. There are things the Student Union can’t say and OT can. This has created pressure, which has really helped our student representatives in their work. It has had an effect on how students and their demands are handled, all the way up to the University’s council, when students started to rally around and occupy buildings. However, concentrating on lobbying can take strength away from the core of the action. As one of our interviewees put it: “It can take the edge and effect away from the movement”. The interviewee also thought that we should focus on developing our own activities instead of lobbying. That is, first building a counter-force, then maybe entering into dialogue with the opposing side. So we should rather be saying “first give us what we want, then we can talk”.
We have consciously used publicity to further our aims. As an example, the feelings of nostalgia evoked by the occupation of the old student house were used to re-politicise the position of students. The occupations and demonstrations have involved talking to the public just as much as it communication for ourselves. They have functioned as places of organisation and networking, but also as a means to get publicity for our demands and bring wider audiences into the discussion. The attention given by the media to problems and issues defined by students themselves has empowered the movement. It has created the sense that as we come together we can change the space around us – not only physical spaces, but also the space of public discussion created by the mainstream media, into which we have managed to bring other types of voices, rarely heard within the mainstream consensus. “The media visibility created visible empowerment within the movement. On the other hand, it also made our adversary take the movement more seriously”. In the occupations we met to follow up on the reporting, and had collective experiences of satisfaction when we got our message through in the media and politicians were forced to react to our actions after hearing of them in the media.
When we used occupations to promote our demands, the attention of the media also protected OT from police interference. The general public in Finland is still so accustomed to viewing students as members of the academic community that when the University Administration in Tampere summoned the police to remove flyer-distributing students from its premises, the end result in the media looked ugly for the administration. OT has gained positive attention in the media especially due to the positive and distinctive status of students in Finnish society and the history of the student movement.
However, the most empowering moments of the occupations were experienced from independent messages coming from sources outside the mainstream outlets: the short Skype-call with the demonstrators in Tampere during the occupation of the administrative building; the message from the simultaneous occupation of New York University and the letter of support from the organisers of the previous university occupation (in 1990). When different groups within their own struggles connect with each other beyond the mainstream media, another world is not only possible: we are, in fact, living it.
Gender has not been overtly on the agenda of OT at any point. We have not tried to politicise gender in our manifestos or made it a prominent issue in our principles. However, gender equality and dismantling oppressive structures are, in practice, important goals for many of us.
Looking at who has done what, it is noticeable that gender has played a role. Male activists have ended up in more prominent roles in action, whereas female activists have done more of the practical jobs: work that is not necessarily visible outside but is indispensable to the functioning of the movement. Activists cite among other things making banners and taking minutes in meetings as examples of the kinds of tasks that women have ended up doing.
One female activist summarises her experience of the OT gender roles: “It’s a pity that the stuff boys do is more appreciated and the things girls do are looked down upon. The fact that both are missing something goes unnoticed. Within the movement we have tried to balance the gender roles when distributing tasks. When choosing chairs and speakers for meetings the prominence of both genders has been taken into account. This has not necessarily been the policy when distributing the invisible tasks: Maybe it’s like we’ve decided before that we try to emphasise the prominent roles which boys usually have but the invisible roles have not been thought about in the same way. We may want to guarantee that women get as much power. But why don’t we want to guarantee men as much time sewing banners? The stuff that boys do is given more weight”.
The means of taking action themselves feel masculine. They are related to displaying power and occupying space. The masculinity of the means used in trying to influence society is visible in movements of direct action and alternative cultures. In OT, it has been a matter of balancing two ends. Aggressiveness can turn actions into violent machismo. On the other hand, an academic tea party culture can water the movement down to an endless and invisible academic discourse. Does the movement have to be aggressive and militant in order to challenge the hegemonic political system and to be able to function outside the parliamentary channels of influence? Could other kinds of starting points for taking action be found? Feminine influencing could mean doing things together and having discussions within the movement, the kinds which might be hard to have in the current political culture. What could feminine influence on society mean? Maybe it is a tea party. It could be making ideas available — such that they first become visible after a while, kind of quietly boiling beneath the surface. It could work as influencing each other through discussions, but this does not reach other parties – except maybe by extending the tea party.
On the other hand OT has also been a place to break away from gender roles and expand the sphere of influence of an individual. A female activist recounts her experiences in OT: “During this year I’ve got a lot more courage to do things I don’t normally do, courage to take more visible roles. I’ve been encouraged to speak. I’ve also started to understand why it is hard to, for example, take the floor at the university, I’ve been like able to name the phenomenon. It has been an eye-opening experience”.
“Students have become a political force. When people have been activated, chances are good that the work will continue”.
We’ll continue to raise the question of the status of students and the university as a political one. Political awareness within universities must mean something more than just acting through representative institutions. The problems of housing, livelihood, and of the degree industry will become more and more critical as time goes on. We want to analyse these problems in terms of the situation of precariety and knowledge workers. For instance, the status of students in the labour market must be made a political question: how to find new alternatives for the current situation in which students form an inexpensive and unorganised but valuable reserve army of labour. What possibilities are there for the precariat to organise itself using the university as a framework?
Finding a place of our own for meetings and activities at the university would help us continue the work in practice. Research work could also in various ways be adopted to be part of OT activities: one of the interviewees is looking for a new kind of studying community that would question the dominant tradition of studying alone, writing and surviving. We could also use research as a political tool, for example in our struggles in the labour market and housing issues.
Our goal is to make more and more students not coming from political groups aware of the link between these questions and their own lives, and join our activities. University students in general don’t have a clear understanding of their own rights or a sense of being part of the university community. Due to the ever tightening degree requirements and study schedules their role will be either that of a “schoolboy” or a customer. We want to show that many of the problems at the university that look personal are often shared and have their origin in the present structures.
OT has radicalised university members and spread the experience of changing society through action. “People have gotten experiences of protest, and the effects of these experiences may eventually show up much later”.
We wish to end with a call for support and contacts to all the readers of transform! — our continued, worldwide resistance depends on shared resources and knowledge, on solidarity and creating space for resistance, love and friendship. Helsinki stands with you, with us.