Photo: Leo Valkama

During the fall of 2023, Finnish education institutes had a string of occupation movements. The movement started at my home university, the University of Helsinki, on the 19th of September, when about 50 students decided to occupy the main building of the university by taking control of the building’s lobby. The students, with increasing numbers, then decided to camp overnight at the main building and continued camping there for 14 days in protest against the cuts planned by the new right-wing government of Finland. 

I will start with the political context of the occupation. In 2023 Finland held a parliamentary election, where the country moved to the right. A left leaning government led by the Social Democrats and joined by the Centre Party (an agrarian party), the Greens, the Left Alliance and the Swedish People’s Party (a Swedish language rights party) lost its majority. After the election, a new government was formed with the National Coalition Party (center-right party), the Christian Democrats, the Finns Party (right-wing populist party) and the Swedish People’s Party. The new government promised conservative fiscal policy, which meant a lot of cuts to different sectors. Furthermore, this meant tightened immigration laws as well. The 4-year government programme got a large amount of backlash from many parts of civil society, including students. In the backdrop of this new government taking power in the summer of 2023, the students decided to take action.

The protestors had 4 demands: 

1. No cuts of housing subsidies. On the contrary, the living conditions of all students – including international students — must be improved. More affordable housing must be constructed! 

2. No tuition fees for anyone! Not now and not ever. 

3. Mental health services for students must be guaranteed. 

4. Universities must stand behind our demands and show solidarity!

Looking at the first demand, the government has planned huge cuts to housing subsidies that would have a big effect on students’ livelihoods. As the basic student aid is about 260 euros (about 3000 kronor), students cannot live on that alone. Most of the benefits students get are in the form of housing subsidies that are proportional to one’s rent, but usually range between 300-400 euros (3300-4400 kronor). These government cuts would have huge effects on both students’ abilities to pay for their housing and for the unemployed who also have the same benefits. Secondly, the government planned on raising tuition fees for students from outside the EU and at the same time, making immigration to Finland harder, which the students wanted to resist. As for the third demand, new money was promised to mental health care services, but this has not been given by the new government. The final demand, unlike the others, was aimed at the university. The occupiers demanded that the university show solidarity with the students and join them in demanding the first three changes from the government.

The demands at the occupation were meant for the university, as the students were in the university’s space protesting. At the same time, they were meant for the government as well. The main building of the University of Helsinki is situated across the street from the Governmental Palace (main building of the government) in Helsinki, and the buildings are twins of each other, designed by the same architect 200 years ago. So, occupying the university also had symbolic meaning in resisting the government. Furthermore, banners were put outside the main building that could be seen from the government’s main building. 

The students’ protest started on the 19th of September in Helsinki, but afterwards it spread quickly. On the next day, two upper secondary schools (gymnasiums) were occupied and the University of Turku and Åbo Academy were both occupied. In the next two weeks, the movement spread to almost every university and institute of higher education in Finland, with quite a few upper secondary schools taking part as well. Over the span of a month, about 50 different educational institutes were occupied for at least a day. 

Personally, I spent most of the days of the occupation at least partly at the occupation of the University of Helsinki. Over the two weeks of occupation a lot happened there. There were discussion-events, live music, planning meetings and just hanging out. The rectors of the university and some politicians came to the occupation to discuss with the protestors. Overall, the lobby of the main building became an open area for political discussion and a place to imagine alternative futures. Almost every day something was happening there and anyone could come, knowing that some kind of event would be held that day.

The occupation gained the most media attention on the 28th of September, when the university of Helsinki asked the occupiers to leave, as an event was planned by the National Defence-Course Association, and the president of Finland Sauli Niinistö was meant to speak there. On the morning of the 28th, about 400 students showed up and declared that they will not leave, and that the university cannot throw its own students out. After a day of intense negotiations, the university let us stay, if we let the event happen in the main hall of the university. The event was held and afterwards the president came to discuss with the students. Overall, this became front page news in almost every media in Finland and got the students demands a large audience. There were some problems with how the news portrayed the event, focusing more on what the President had to say, than what the students had to say, but it was still a day of great visibility for the movement.

The occupiers also held a walk-out at the university, where a large number of students walked out of their classes to protest the cuts. This was held a bit before a march against the cuts the same day, so the students joined a larger protest against the government cuts.

Eventually after two weeks, the protestors decided that continuing the occupation in the form of staying at the main building day and night would no longer be as politically useful and many of the most active organizers were becoming quite tired. It was then decided that the continuous occupation would have to end. On the sixth of October, the protestors walked from the main building of the University to the main building of the Government to protest their demands one last time and the occupation was ended. Though the formal occupation has ended, the movement still goes on in Helsinki and around Finland. The occupation movement has changed its tactics trying to create more solidarity with other groups against the government and doing more targeted protests, such as one at the headquarters of the Finnish Social Insurance Institution, who is in charge of social security programs. 

This occupation has been the longest occupation in the history of university occupations in Finland, with similar events happening at the University of Helsinki in 1968, 1990, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015. Similar occupations have taken place in Tampere and Turku in 2009, 2015 and 2021. The history of the occupations is strongly connected to the year 1968, where one of the buildings of the student union was occupied for a day to block the president from having a speech there. Thus, Finland has had a history of occupations, but this one was very different in that it lasted for two weeks instead of one day, and that it spread to over 50 institutions instead of just one. 

For me personally, the occupation has given a great deal of hope. I have been part of the university community for over 4 years, but before the community had been part of only a limited amount of activism. I thought that students were active only in those foreign universities and that our students just weren’t that political. Of course certain students were already active in activist movements, but I did not think that our university community as a whole would be ready to take part in direct action. Then the occupation happened and it showed that our student community could organise hundreds and hundreds of people in resistance to government policy. Following the occupation, the community has been much more politically active. The occupation has really shown to me that just a small spark can ignite a huge movement that has ripples that will go far into the future. In this case, the small spark was a couple of friends having dinner and joking about occupying the university. Sometimes just something so small can spark huge changes. Those sparks then turn into fires and no one can know what it will all lead to. What is clear is that a movement like this that activated hundreds and hundreds of people to protest has given resources and feelings of solidarity to new people, which will surely help them to create more activism in the future. 

This is all a long way to say that you, dear reader, also have the possibility to start or strengthen political movements. Any activism may fall flat on its face and maybe no one will know it happened, or alternatively something that starts as just an idea in someone’s head may become something that reaches every single person in the political establishment. The only way to find out is by doing something. We can always imagine a better world and we should work for that better world. The saying we used at the occupation, originally taken from the student protests in Paris in 1968,  goes like this: “Asfaltin alla on hiekkaranta.” The translation would be something like: “Under the pavement, you can find the beach”.

”Panorama is a politically and religiously independent student newspaper, and any opinions expressed are those of the writer.”

Leo Valkama is an activer writer and the former editor in chief of Policy, the paper for the students of political science at the University of Helsinki.

Leo Valkama, Writer