From cabinets to streets and online – SYL’s advocacy work over the years

Ever since it was founded, SYL has looked after the interests of students in Finland, but it was only later that SYL’s role as an advocacy organisation was strengthened. Alumni describe how SYL has carried out its advocacy work over the decades and how changes in politics have affected SYL’s operations.

The 1950s and 1960s: the importance of good relations was emphasised

SYL has sometimes been called “the university of advocacy sciences” because a significant number of SYL alumni have entered politics and made a successful career in influential positions. Seija Silventoinen, a former long-time employee at SYL, agrees that this is an apt epithet for SYL: “Although you work there, say, for three or two years or even for one year, you learn so much about this society just by coming into contact with different people.”

SYL has cherished the idea that being on the Board or working at SYL for one year will open doors to Finland’s political arena and will make it possible to build networks. The late alumnus Kari Rahiala also stresses the importance of good relations and networking in SYL’s activities. Meeting people is the most effective way of influencing. “[Y]ou have to put in the work – you’re not granted them just because you are SYL’s Secretary General or SYL’s President, but you have to put the work in.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, advocacy work was largely based on good personal relationships between SYL and parliamentary groupings. Kari Rahiala describes how advocacy work was carried out at that time: “At my time, we didn’t demonstrate. Our approach was these organisations plus the Parliament [and] the Government.”

The 1970s and 1980s: from over-politicisation to professional advocacy

Close cooperation with the Finnish political parties had its pros and cons. The political turmoil in the 1970s was also reflected in the activities of the student organisation, and positions at SYL were often divided between the political parties. Many alumni still feel that the 1970s were a time when SYL’s activities were the most influential. The political parties needed new members and were happy to listen to SYL’s representatives. “It was all about a mutual interest because the parties were in a situation where they quickly had to bring about a generational change in their own ranks, and they needed it and both students and young people,” Jarmo Mäkelä sums up. “Some of us, or actually, many of us, had a successful political career.” Former SYL Board and staff members have become business leaders and even made it to the top in national politics.

SYL strengthened its influence with decision-makers by doing thorough background research. Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, who was on the SYL Board in the 1970s, describes the situation like this: “In general, SYL’s proposals were well prepared. They weren’t any made-up stories, but we had put time into them and done research. This also made it easier for decision-makers to accept our proposals.”

Marjo Timonen, who was the President of SYL in the 1980s, describes how SYL took a moderate line after the years of politicisation. SYL supported alternative movements of the 1980s but adopted a more moderate policy of carrying out its advocacy work. “And we also competed with each other to see who is best at getting SYL’s proposals through in their political group, party and parliamentary group, so it was multifaceted advocacy,” Ms Timonen sums up. 

To an increasing extent, SYL’s activities also included smaller positive events to attract attention to issues concerning students. “[S]ome student financial aid issue was advocated in such a way that one of the employees of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki, a tall man, was dressed as Väinämöinen. And he also had a kantele. The idea behind the character of Väinämöinen was to show how important education and culture are,” Marjo Timonen says. Since the 1980s, the role of communications as a tool for advocacy work has been emphasised and inventive smaller events have generated interest both in the media and among decision-makers.

From the 1990s to the present day: new forms of advocacy

Through the years, SYL has organised various smaller events. The student movement’s watches over the government programme negotiations and budget negotiations have almost become a trademark of the movement. SYL has drawn attention to these watches in the most imaginative ways over the years: for example, during the 2011 government programme negotiations, SYL and the University of Applied Sciences Students in Finland SAMOK took a sauna on wheels in front of the House of the Estates as part of their campaign to tie the student financial aid to an index. The campaign was called Opintotuki indeksiin. During the 2019 government negotiations, a few negotiators took a sauna in the students’ barrel sauna in front of the House of the Estates. Students also watched over the government programme negotiations in front of the Smolna building in 2015, but then they were dressed in purple gym suits and sang for the expansion of the Finnish Student Health Service (FSHS) to the tune of ‘YMCA’.

In the 2020s, the world of politics has become more professional and communications play a significant role in advocacy work. The social media is one of SYL’s most important tools for advocacy and taking part in the public debate. However, personal relationships and networking, which were already considered important in the 1960s, are also at the heart of SYL’s advocacy work today.

This text is part of a series of blogs that offers tidbits from SYL’s centenary book. For this series, we have interviewed SYL alumni and rummaged through the archives.