Student financial aid, a hard-won benefit for students, is perhaps one of the best-known types of student income. The history of students’ social benefits shows how ideal solutions for student livelihoods have varied over time.
In 1948, a system of higher education scholarships was introduced, which offered either full or partial scholarships, or allowances for the purchase of study materials. It goes without saying, however, that the scholarship system as such did not ensure a level financial playing field for students. In 1959, a student loan with a state guarantee was introduced. In addition, students could borrow from a Student Loan Fund.
By the 1960s, the number of students was growing and their socio-economic background was changing. At the time, SYL commissioned extensive surveys to identify its social policy needs being created by the transition.
“In the current computer age, it’s amusing to remember using punch cards to input data, and punching and running cards on university computers, not to mention the writing work,” recalls Seija Silventoinen, who worked as an office secretary at SYL.
Fundamental and thoroughgoing research played an important role in SYL’s social policy activities. The research identified a major need for new solutions for financing studies.
The 1960s: “The foundations were dug for a student housing complex, but the building was never erected.”
SYL was already calling for better state financial support for students in the 1960s. However, the housing issue was perhaps even more acute in terms of student livelihoods. SYL had held detailed plans for the construction of a student village in Meilahti since the 1930s. However, its dreams of a student village ran aground later.
“The first student village was never actually planned, but an Olympic Village was, which would serve as a student village afterwards. What’s there now? It is now the site of the Skin and Allergy Hospital in Helsinki,” says Kari Rahiala, a recent Secretary-General of SYL. “The foundations were dug for a student housing complex, but the building was never erected.” According to this model, students would have been ‘winter tourists’ living in the student village during the academic year, with the apartments occupied by, say, ‘Olympic tourists’ in the summer.
As the 1960s progressed, SYL established its own working group with committees to consider housing. There was a lack of clear coordination in the construction of student housing. SYL began to resolve the problem at the end of the decade: soon, all university cities had their own student housing foundation established by student unions.
That’s right, the issue of financial aid was being promoted as early as the 1960s.
“We had to make progress with it, because there were only inadequate scholarships and loans,” says Päivi Elovainio, who worked at SYL in the 1960s. “All parties were receptive to financial aid. So it was going to happen, not right away, but fairly soon.”
The 1970s: Financial aid or student pay?
As the next decade approached, the ideology behind student funding had changed.
“With some amusement, I recall thinking how emphatically we believed that student pay should be established, and fast,” recalls Helena Raumolin-Brunberg of SYL’s Board in the 1970s. “That was the mentality at the time, at least at the ideological level. I, for one, believed that students were just ordinary people, and that once student pay was introduced, there would be no need for separate student discounts, student healthcare or housing. Everything would be the same as for other citizens. Luckily, none of the structures in place were scrapped.”
The study grant was introduced instead: “When I began studying, everyone had student loans. Then, when I left SYL, no one seemed to be studying on the basis of loans; we had already moved to the study grant system. This was a huge social change, but the money was available in society in a different way to now. What to spend the money on was just a matter of practical policy,” says Jarmo Mäkelä, who served on SYL’s Board in the 1970s.
The student housing situation had already begun to improve in the 1970s.
“We began building student homes around the country at a faster rate than would otherwise have been possible before we coordinated our actions. If you think about what HOAS has achieved here in Helsinki, it’s a huge feat compared to what was the case then,” Raumolin-Brunberg recalls.
The 1980s: The advent of the meal subsidy
Students’ living standards saw another improvement at the end of the decade, this time in the form of nutritious food.
“Part of financial aid for students was directed towards food, significantly reducing the price of student meals. It’s wonderful that students can still enjoy a nutritious meal for less than €3, which is a huge gain for national health as well as being good for students,” says Marjo Timonen, a Chairperson of SYL in the 1980s.
Following the transition to the study grant system, the 80s was a period of controversy about the amount and composition of financial aid. However, we had a good negotiating relationship with the Ministry of Education. During that period, SYL began organizing opinion-forming stunts with a slightly new twist.
“We advocated financial aid by dressing a student union employee as Väinämöinen, the hero of the national epic, Kalevala, and giving him a kantele (traditional Finnish string instrument) to hold. The Väinämöinen character was used to highlight how important education and civilization are,” recalls Marjo Timonen. “Of course, this got us noticed. And that may have been the first time we applied a little inventiveness and used actual communications techniques, rather than just demanding, making public declarations or engaging in mass mobilizations.”
“You could say that, by the 1980s, wellbeing and basic services had risen to a level which was worth celebrating. We could breathe more freely.”
The 1990s: reform of financial aid during the slump
Financial aid was overhauled in 1992, but the advocacy that led to this did not go smoothly. Since the late 1960s, SYL had been promoting a financial aid model half-based on the study grant, and half on loans. The system had been developing in this direction in the 1970s and 80s, but in relatively small steps.
Although the 1992 reform has been regarded as positive in retrospect, during the slump of the 1990s students were particularly concerned about loans granted at market interest rates. In 1991, SYL was involved in organizing a major financial aid demonstration in which students – in the spirit of student pranks – donated a huge number of piggy banks to the state, each containing small change. The reform increased the study grant, which became taxable, the provider supplement was abolished, interest-subsidy loans became market-based, and account was no longer taken of the income and wealth of parents and spouses or student’s own assets. In addition, the current model of months of eligibility for financial aid was introduced.