Students in economies of abandonment

In late 2023, students occupied higher education institutions across Finland. In her essay, university teacher Heidi Elmgren contemplates the situation of students and the increasingly loan oriented nature of student aid..

Text heidi elmgren image Heidi elmgren

People on barricades. In the spring of 2023, I supervised qualitative research method practice seminars. The topics, selected by the students themselves, were chilling: out of seven small groups, four focused on student fatigue, financial distress, and performance anxiety.

In the autumn of 2023, students occupied higher education institutions across Finland. These students protested against cuts to financial aid for students and the government’s financial cuts on a wider scale. Media was rife with discussion about these student demonstrations. My attention was grabbed by critical opinions in particular. Students were constantly described as well-off, and on the Kulttuuriykkönen Perjantaistudio programme on 29 September 2023, economist Heikki Pursiainen described it as “regrettable” how university student representatives compared the situation of students to that of low income, disadvantaged people in their messaging (Yle 2023a).

Following my seminar talks with the students, my job has become more trying mentally. I can no longer imagine modern-day student life being similar to mine 15 years ago. I would like to be a teacher with whom you can negotiate, who generates a calm atmosphere – everything will be okay, we will make it through anything, this is not that serious. However, current students face a vastly different situation.

Externally set goals define students’ lives and their available options.

Externally set goals define students’ lives and their available options. Even if I, the “nice teacher” was flexible, Kela certainly wouldn’t be. If your graduation is delayed, that directly affects student loan compensation and, in turn, a young person’s future for a long time.’

Let’s return to Pursiainen’s observation. Indeed, why do we want to create the notion of a similarity between students and the disadvantaged? According to Pursiainen, students voluntarily lower their income to later attain a financial position considerably better than those who did not study at university (Yle 2023a).

The meagre current financial situation of a student graduating in a field with a labour shortage and landing a lucrative job is, of course, far from the hopelessness stretching far into the future faced by many long-term unemployed. But how long is this “current”, “temporary” situation?

Students are not in equal situations when their future employment and current inflation are considered. But perhaps we have talked about this enough. Participating in the financial aid system happens to offer all students a look at a phenomenon that has gone largely unexplored in Finnish discourse: economies of abandonment.

How long is this “current”, “temporary” situation?

Economies of abandonment is a concept from the book of the same name by Elizabeth Povinelli (2011). The concept is used to describe financial politics and discourse in which a certain tense, the future anterior, takes centre stage. In Povinelli’s writing, Future anterior[1] refers to the future tense “what will have been”, what will have happened in the future. This state of affairs that will have been in the future becomes the metric and criterion on which the moral value of actions is judged (Povinelli 2011, 2, 3).

This is the tense that is used when, for instance, making difficult cuts targeting low-income or marginalised communities. These cuts are justified – or so we are assured – by that improved situation in the future; what will have been.

In accordance with economics of abandonment principles, the low portion of unremunerated student aid and the direction towards loans will become justified in the future, as that is when the student will have landed their secure, lucrative job. That is when their investment in their own future will have paid off, and the sacrifices demanded by the system and gritting through those sacrifices will have been justified. If they have been.

The low-income status of students is framed as something temporary, and therefore justified, in public discourse. In the same vein, the soon to be implemented reductions to social security are justified by future growth and increasing job opportunities in the future. The problem with this line of thinking, for the so-called real disadvantaged and students alike, is that if your money runs out today and the next aid payment is next week, there is still the matter of living through this week.

Povinelli talks about another tense, the durative present, which describes a continuous and ongoing action to contrast and challenge justifications based on what will have been (Povinelli 2011, 3). Like Povinelli, I am interested in this discourse through which any current suffering and conscious deepening of said suffering can be ignored and any social damage we endure can be whisked away as if through magic; how harming others starts to be considered as caring for them (Povinelli 2011, 58).

Living with debt

The Finnish financial aid system for students has been developed for a long time, from the heavily monitored 1940s stipend-based support for the “hard-working, talented, and disadvantaged” to a more universal model (Nummela 2014, 22–26). Tuija Nummela states in her article describing the development of the student aid system that the circle is now complete, as succeeding in your studies (or at least progressing in them) has once again become a requirement for receiving the benefit (Nummela 2014, 29). Now, ten years later, we may consider whether the system is moving even closer to the 1940s – tuition fees are already reality for certain groups of students, and alongside them we already have, for example, the University of the Arts’ stipend system that is based on successful studies after the first year (Uniarts 2023).

In the 2017 student aid reform, student aid was changed to rely even more heavily on loans. The loan amounts have increased as the reliance on loans has grown. While in the past, most student loans were small at one or two thousand euros, the usual student loan amount in the last five years has been 10,000 to 15,000 euros. In the past, loans over 30,000 euros were exceedingly rare but have steadily increased in number since the student act reform. Last year, over 13,000 students had taken out such loans (Malmberg 2023).

Larger loan amounts also have consequences on the repayment of student loans. If you are unable to pay back your loan, Kela offloads the debt to the government and then starts collecting the sum from the debtor. In 2023, the amount of debt to be recovered was estimated to increase to 80 million euros at minimum. One year prior, that amount was only 31.4 million.

This increase is explained by the effects of the student aid reform. We are now starting to see issues with loan repayments as students who took on debt have graduated and should begin paying off their debts (Yle 2023b). The cruel optimism of economics of abandonment (See Berlant 2011) is revealed when the future turns out not to be what was claimed to happen.

The cruel optimism of economics of abandonment is revealed when the future turns out not to be what was claimed to happen.

One intriguing question is why student aid is becoming increasingly loan based. Negative attitudes to unremunerated forms of social security and questions as to who deserves unremunerated aid pop up in the discourse with some regularity (e.g., Sutinen 2020). When social security is discussed from the “deserve it” viewpoint, the focus of the conversation moves to the moral sphere. After that, it is difficult to return the discussion to universal rights, for example – after all, someone might abuse those rights. Povinelli argues that in neoliberal social politics, any social investment lacking a positive market value is both a financial and moral failure (Povinelli 2011, 22, 23, 134).

From this point of view, student loans are a perfect form of social security – its likely end result is an employed taxpayer and even if that is not the case, the person taking on the debt eventually pays it back to the government.

People in the university community

Hereditary education is common in Finland (See e.g., Keski-Petäjä & Witting 2016) and many young people in higher education are thus likely to come from a relatively wealthy background. This has also been used to criticise student demands. For example, Pursiainen has talked about student aid and free education as “transfer payments between the well-off” (Pursiainen 2016). From this viewpoint, the failure of the student aid system to enable studies for students from different backgrounds is seen as a sign that the system should be developed to support this goal even less.

As such, solidarity played a large role in the occupation protests of late 2023. Students know from experience that the opportunity to study full-time is not based on stable structures offering welfare and action opportunities for everyone. Instead, it is based on random chance. Having support networks, being able to take on debt, or having the finances to pay tuition fees are all lucky breaks. Young people cannot influence any of these things when considering their post-secondary education options.

This encourages thinking about one’s own privileges and demanding better. Students participating in the occupation protests were looking to bring attention to whom the student aid system gives the opportunity to study. Some students already have to pay tuition fees – affecting who can come to study in Finland from countries outside the EU and ETA.

Students demanded, and partially received, support from their universities in their protests. University rectors visited the occupation protests (Suutari 2023, Sairanen 2023) and thousands of university workers signed petitions in support of the occupations (See e.g., Adressit 2023a, Adressit 2023b). Based on hallway discussions, many are concerned about the situation of the universities.

Based on hallway discussions, many are concerned about the situation of the universities.

Some years ago, one professor mocked the universities’ absurd performance targets – the best way to meet those targets would be to just hand freshmen their degree papers in their welcoming ceremony in the autumn. Each university tries to maintain the integrity of their own operations, but methods have only been developed to a limited extent. The need for change is felt by many overworked university employees tired of fixed-term contracts, endless funding applications, and measurement.

If the new generation of students has perhaps learned to mobilise and gained influencing experience, as university lecturer Teppo Eskelinen speculated in an interview with Yle (2023c, see also Eskelinen & Ryynänen 2023), any university worker protest movement still remains to be realised.

[1] future anterior is usually in the form future perfect (will have done) or future imperfect (will be doing)


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