On Wednesday September 16th, the Board of the University of Helsinki decided to launch a change programme in order to adjust to the upcoming fund cuts proposed by the Government. As the University’s core funding will be cut by some 20% (roughly 93 million euros), it was decided that a number of measures needed to be taken to balance the University’s finances – the most extreme being the reduction of its personnel by 1200 by the year 2020. The following day, close to 50 students and staff members gathered at the lobby of the University’s Porthania building to voice their concerns and opinions, for many worried about the devastating consequences the reforms could result in, such as the decline in quality of teaching and general wellbeing of students and staff alike. As a sign of protest and to coincide with the general strike taking place on Friday September 18th against the government’s other fund-cutting proposals, the students decided that Porthania was to be occupied in order to effectively demonstrate the urgency of the situation to the whole student body.
By midday on Friday, Porthania had been decorated by banderoles with slogans protesting against the fund cuts while music played in the background. Despite the general assembly being delayed by a couple of hours due to technical difficulties, more and more people arrived throughout the afternoon. By the time the assembly finally commenced, an estimated 200 passionate students had gathered in the biggest lecture hall in Porthania and the air was filled with anticipation, but also a sense of union – whether it was worrying over the future of critical and scientific thinking, criticism of the government’s austerity policies or frustration towards what many perceived as the deterioration of democracy within the University itself, people had come together to act as one. It was particularly important during the assembly – which lasted for many hours – that a consensus was reached in every decision made and that all the various opinions were heard.
As the day drew to a close, the atmosphere at the occupation also became more intimate and relaxed as teams responsible for tasks such as writing media releases and securing the building’s premises huddled together in groups, while a dance floor was being cleared in the lobby and documentaries were being set up in the lecture hall for those staying overnight. All the while, the students’ strong sense of community and dedication towards their common goals never wavered, but rather solidified: the future of the Finnish education system needed to be secured and higher education needed to be developed solely in terms of cultural politics and education itself.
At the moment, extensive meetings and planning are being set up and what is now known as the Occupy the University movement (‘Yliopistovaltaus’), is busy preparing for the next general assembly today at 6pm in Porthania. For more information, check out their facebook page here.