Comparing student unions — the case of ITMO and University of Helsinki

Already more than half of my internship in the International Office at ITMO has passed, time really flies. One of the most interesting things during this time was the meeting with the International Student Union. In my home university in Helsinki I have also taken part in some activities of our student associations. That’s why I can compare the two systems a little bit.

In Finland the history of student unions in their modern form is a little bit longer than in Russia. I believe this is why there are some differences between the student organization fields in the two countries. However, there are a lot of similarities as well.

In my home university the main student union is a huge organization taking care of many such things that in ITMO are responsibilities of the university itself. This includes for example providing student cards and helping students with accommodation and medical care. This student union is a kind of an umbrella organization for around 250 smaller associations, most of which are for different faculties and majors, but also for different hobbies. Just to give a few examples there are 10 choirs, an association for video games and another one for fans of heavy metal!

Similar hierarchy of student unions can be found in ITMO, with the general Student Union being on top. Under this union there are many others, like the International Student Union, unions of different faculties, union for the affairs connected to the dormitory, the scientific community of students and so on. Also some of the activities are similar. For example, both in ITMO and my home university, the main task of the unions is to look after the rights of students. The unions are the official representatives of students in both countries.

I guess the most visible part of the activities of student unions is the different events that are organized to integrate the new students and to unite the student body. This also belongs to the similarities between the two universities. In ITMO the events seem to be grand festivals and competitions, for example the Miss and Mister ITMO competitions that I heard are spectacular. In my home university there is maybe more emphasis on smaller events that are like typical meetings between friends.

Besides the longer history, the other reason behind the differences is that the Finnish education system is very different from the Russian one. We don’t study with the same group all the time, as we construct our own schedules. This is why more activities outside studies are required for the students to get to know each other.

Talking with the representatives of the International Student Council of ITMO, I came across one activity that I haven’t heard of before. That is the Ambassadors, international students at ITMO who while going for a visit to their home countries spread information about ITMO in local schools and other institutions. This seems to be an effective way to make more students interested in studies in ITMO!

An important feature of the work of different student organizations is democracy. This seems to be one of the essential values of both student unions in my home university and in ITMO. An open election is organized every year in order to choose a new board for each organization.

One of the aspects I have been observing is the motivation that students have to spend their precious time working in student organizations (because it can be a lot of work at times). Asking the members of the International Student Council here in ITMO about their motivation, they told me that they wanted to help other students to adapt and also to develop their own skills in organizational work. These are the main reasons for Finnish students to apply for positions in student councils as well. Also if you are a member of the council, you get to be part of the decision making when planning different events and you will get all the information about them first hand!

If you would like to get some useful experience to add to your CV and also to have fun at the same time, you might want to consider joining a student union. From experience I can tell you that it can be really rewarding!

Intern at International Educational Programs Department