Strengthening the national and international student community

Membership of the European Union significantly changed SYL’s operating environment, but what were its international operations like before then? Our alumni tell us how international student movement networks have changed along the years.

Finnish student unions decided to organize in 1921. The National Union of University Students in Finland was founded to enable student unions to take part in international student activities, under the International Union of Students, in the aftermath of the Great War. 

SYL and other Nordic students’ unions joined forces early on. A joint presence in international contexts gave them more momentum. The Nordic Presidential Meeting (the Nordic cooperation body) is still alive and well, and has been joined by the Baltic countries.

However, the stories told by the alumni we interviewed highlight a world split by the Cold War.

Between a rock and a hard place: 1950s

“It was a period of intense student activities,” says SYL’s former Secretary-General Jaakko Iloniemi. “The entire field was highly politicized. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that international student activities were part of the Cold War.”

There were two international central organizations. Headquartered in Prague, the International Union of Students (IUS) covered the student unions of the Eastern Bloc countries, while unions in the West belonged to the International Student Conference (ISC). ISC was headquartered in the Netherlands. Some countries – such as Finland – were juggling between the Eastern and Western student unions.

When the Eastern IUS became more leftist, SYL resigned from it in 1956. “Students as such was the mantra, trying to get across the message that we were a student union that dealt with student issues alone. IUS was fighting colonialism, imperialism and America and so on,” says Iloniemi with a chuckle.

SYL’s policy was to put the divisive issues of the Cold War behind it.“This was by no means an easy task, because many countries had relatively authoritarian governments, wanting to convert student unions into youth departments of the governing party. Our position, however was that students must have the right to handle their own issues without state intervention.”

So SYL shifted its attention from the IUS to participating, alongside the other Nordic countries, in the activities of the International Student Conference. However, after about a decade it turned out that the United States was working in the background – and operations were actually funded by the CIA. So again, SYL resigned.

Towards a more political era: 1960s

The ‘students as such’ philosophy came to an end in the 1960s, when the union was taking more of a stand on political issues. SYL nevertheless maintained friendly relations with the Soviet Union, while avoiding any concrete issues. But there was one thing we were unable to avoid. The plan was to hold the World Youth and Student Festival in Helsinki in 1962.

“This was something that neither SYL nor many youth organizations were prepared to accept,” says Seija Silventoinen, long-time office secretary at SYL. Experience of the festival suggested that it did not serve SYL’s purposes. It was regarded as a communist festival, and although the themes were universal: peace and friendship – something which SYL could commit to – it was feared that the festival would fuel political conflicts.

Despite a number of objections, the festival went ahead in Finland. Faced with this dilemma, SYL took a neutral stand towards the hundreds of participants arriving from various countries, and the union also received guests outside the festival. But SYL did not take part in the festival that year.

1970s and 1980s in the spirit of the Finno-Soviet Treaty

By the 1960s, work had already begun to create a sense of European unity across bloc boundaries. SYL took an active part in facilitating a regular joint meeting, called The European Meeting. But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the European Meeting established itself as a genuinely unifying force for student unions. This was actually the result of a successful meeting hosted by SYL in Helsinki.

However, it was preceded by SYL’s decision to re-establish ties with the Soviet Union. SYL re-joined the Soviet-funded International Student Union, but not as a full member.

”The obvious problem was that we had to create this relationship, otherwise it would have been impossible to organize the European Meeting. Because if we hadn’t, unions from Eastern Europe would never have taken part. On the other hand, we had to manage this relationship in such a way that the Western European unions wouldn’t think that we had sold out to the Soviets,” says Jarmo Mäkelä, who was a Board member at the time. “We came up with a kind of ‘Finno-Soviet Treaty’ solution, with a clause inserted in the accession agreement stating that SYL is always in favor of Finland’s official foreign policy.”

”I would say that we were a highly respected national union at the time, internationally speaking. Both in the East and the West. The Western unions saw that no other country was able to operate like us. On the other hand, Eastern unions felt that we always approached matters in a constructive spirit,” says Mäkelä.

But the relationship with the Soviet-funded IUS was not without problems.

“I was faced with a crisis between the IUS and SYL, because in the previous year the IUS had invited a pro-Soviet student organization alongside SYL,” says Marjo Timonen, who chaired SYL in the 1980s.“We said it was not OK for SYL to be paired with a political organization.”

“We approached them with a statement on the subject, before the IUS congress was about to begin. I attended a preparatory meeting with a mandate that we had to have a written response to the SYL statement, recognizing SYL as the sole organization representing Finnish students.”

This was a prerequisite to continued cooperation between SYL and IUS, but it was not an easy task. “They threatened to declare me persona non grata and call Minister for Foreign Affairs Väyrynen.”

In the end, we got what we wanted and SYL was declared the sole organization representing Finnish students.

International focus shifting to Brussels

Once Finland joined the European Union, SYL’s international operations focused more on Brussels. European student issues are now mainly represented by the European Student’s Union (ESU), in which SYL takes an active part. SYL’s goal is to make ESU an increasingly effective and more strong lobbyist for higher education students in the EU.

Today, lobbying through the ESU is only one aspect of SYL’s extensive EU operations. SYL influences all international educational policy issues through organizations such as the international working groups of the Ministry of Education, for example. SYL is also influencing in Finland’s EU policies, cooperating with Finnish MEPs so that Finland and Finnish representatives can advocate EU issues that are important to SYL. In 2019, SYL actively communicated its European election goals and underscored educational themes during Finland’s EU presidency.

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.