A More Perfect Union (Lingua Franca 6/94)

Finland is such a nice place. Generous yet efficient social services; stripped pine furniture; saunas; record numbers of women in parliament…and while unemployment reaches 22 percent and breadlines lime in the streets of Helsinki, the business that, improbably, continues to be profitable to the tune of $5.23 million a year is Helsingin Yliopiston Ylioppilaskunta — the Helsinki University student union. With total assets worth 1.5 billion Finnmarks (approximately $272 million), HYY is the richest student union in the West, if not in the world. (They know because they checked — they don’t have as much money as the union at the University of Abu Dhabi.)

Most of HYY’s money comes from rent — it sits on a choice block of commercial real estate which it bought for its headquarters in 1868, when it was still on the outskirts of Helsinki. Then there’s considerable income from the union’s travel division, Kilroy Travels, now Europe’s largest youth travel agency. And then there are compulsory dues (students can’t attend classes until they’ve paid), which bring in approximately $1.6 million each year from the university’s 27,000 members. In a country less virtuous, embezzlement would probably become a youth movement under these circumstances, but this is Finland, where white collar crime is a rarity. There appear to have been no financial scandals in HHY’s entire history. And HYY uses its money responsibly. Profits from real estate and travel subsidize both HYY’s catering division, which provides low-cost student food, and its publishing division, which produces student texts and trade books. Forty percent of the dues revenue is used to provide health care, and about half of HYY’s $2.6 million annual budget supports smaller student organizations and clubs, such as Teologihomot, the gay theology students club.

Like most other organisms with lots of cash, HYY has nurtured ambitions of the diplomatic variety. In the 1980s HYY, like Finland, thought of itself as a major force in the Third World, and sent student goodwill ambassadors bearing Finnmarks and technical knowledge to deserving youth organizations. The union still stands a $20,000-a-year women’s information project in north India and a summer camp for international student leaders, but now it focuses primarily on local student issues.

There was a time when HYY as into the student power thing — in 1990 it organized a three-day takeover of the university’s main administration building to protest the lack of student representation in the Great Senate, among other things. But that didn’t last. The administration capitulated almost immediately, and these days the two are allies in the fight to dramatize the school’s economic plight to the government. On Valentine’s Day HYY and the university jointly sponsored a “Day of Outrage,” during which administrators and students together took to the streets and to the nearby Eduskunta (parliament house) with candle, song, and placard.

There was a time, too, before Finland’s recession, when one could walk by HYY’s crenellated headquarters on the Mannerheimintie, Helsinki’s main drag, and see parties taking place on each floor and student berserkers hanging from windows, bottles of vodka and lakka (cloudberry schnapps, a Finnish favorite) in hand. But these days conspicuous partying is not quite as cool as in those bygone bibulous years, except on such events as May Day, when union members, like most Helsinkians, get smashed celebrating the arrival of spring, and Carnival, the yearly bacchanal cum orientation session for incoming freshpersons. “It’s an indescribable feeling to sit on the Student House balcony in the early hours of the morning after a successful event, sipping a little wine and looking at Helsinki from tile heart of the city,” reminisces Anja Kosonen, HYY’s official spokesperson, who has been working for the union since 1991. “You feel there’s something out there in the world — and that we are already contributing to it.”

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