The Joensuu Debate Society aims to progress critical thinking and open mindedness on difficult topics in Joensuu. Therefore, we, the board of the JDS, would like to write about the recent demonstration at our university. It is safe to say that most people have heard about the students’ demonstration outside (and inside) of the Carelia hall on Monday. It is a hot issue right now in all Finnish media. However, most of the coverage has been in Finnish, so we would like to offer a summary of the events in English, as well as add some discussion on the matter.
The context of the situation is that the Finnish Prime Minister, Juha Sipilä, was invited to be the main speaker of a lecture at the Carelia hall of the university. He represents a government which plans to cut a total sum of 150 million euros from the student allowance budget. What this means is that very soon students will lose 90 euros per month. Furthermore, there is the looming possibility of the yearly tuition fees to be extended to all Finnish students. This is not the sum of the austerity measures that the government is planning: all in all the education cuts are over 600 million euros. And all this is coming from a man who had personally campaigned on the notions that he will not cut from the Finnish education and will not decrease the students’ allowances. In other words, we are talking about a man who has committed serious campaigning fraud.
So one should clearly see why university students would not be happy with Sipilä and do not like the idea of him coming to hold a lecture at the University of Eastern Finland. There should also be no confusion as to why students would want to demonstrate against the austerity measures targeted at them. Therefore, an official demonstration had been organised in the hallway of Carelia to meet Sipilä before he went inside the Carelia hall. Alas, he had never walked past the group of students waiting for him for over half an hour – he had snuck inside through a backdoor. This did not resonate well with the students who felt cheated that the prime minister did not want to face them, so they went upstairs and made themselves heard outside the doors of the hall. Meanwhile, several students had signed up for the lecture beforehand and when it had started they got up from their seats and started chanting in protest. They were quickly thrown out but during the brief period that the doors were open, some of the students had decided to hold the doors open further so that the protest slogans of the 100 or so students would be heard inside. The university staff attempted to remove everyone from the doors. No one was behaving aggressively, the students resisted passively and only tried to hold the doors open. The arrival of the police forced the students back but they continued chanting for about half an hour.
All in all, the events of the demonstration on Monday were clearly justified. There is good reason why students would not welcome a lecturer who takes away so much from education and the students, as well as, lying about not doing so during his 2015 campaigning. Furthermore, dodging the people and refusing to communicate with them about their concerns is not a good trait in a leader of a nation. It is fair to assume that had he not dodged the protesters downstairs, they would not have had any reason or even the drive to go upstairs. It is important to remember that none of the students acted in an aggressive way, they only showed passive resistance. Unfortunately, this is not the characterisation that the Finnish media has given. The main news outlets of Finland have called the demonstration chaotic and have described the events to have had escalated into fights. None of this is true. The only arguable wrong was that the students had disturbed Sipilä’s lecture. However, considering the aforementioned facts about Sipilä, and his government, the act of preventing him from lecturing at UEF is fair. Some have said that he was not at the university in his capacity as a Prime Minister but as an expert in the field. This cannot be true as long as he is in power. He has been democratically chosen to fulfill his political role for the nation and that should never be forgotten in any public venue.
It is unfortunate that the brave students who participated in the demonstration are getting so much criticism – even from fellow students. Surely it cannot be argued that there is plenty to demonstrate against (including the fact that Sipilä has committed campaigning fraud). Furthermore, as argued above, the demonstration was completely justified, peaceful, and legal. And yet somehow this particular demonstration has gained a huge amount of coverage and students participating in it critical feedback. A particular article that shall not be mentioned went as far as to say that the reputation of UEF and Joensuu was tarnished. However, why would these kinds of demonstrations ever be negative? It can be argued that demonstration is one of the strongest political tools available to a civilian. It is a tool that we Finnish people have been shy to use and most of the demonstrations that have been organised have not gained enough attention; the ministers have ignored the student demonstrations organised in Helsinki last week. Many Finnish people have also been reserved about demonstrating publicly. And yet this was a demonstration that attracted a large amount of students and gained the attention of the media and Sipilä himself – and somehow this is a problem. We should not be criticising this, we should be celebrating the fact that the Finnish nation is becoming braver to voice their concerns.
Sincerely, the Joensuu Debate Society board