Foot, meet mouth: exchange students and fees

The Finnish Minister of Social Affairs and Health, Liisa Hyssälä (a she, if that matters) recently said (link to article in Finnish, and in English) something I hope will cause a lot of uproar.

Uproar against her, I mean, because it was a stupid and hateful thing she said.

She wondered why Finnish universities and similar schools of higher education give space to 15 000 foreign exchange students, while there are only 4000 Finns studying in foreign countries. (Well, only 4000 that get the sweet governmental study-aid money.) Might not they be driving out poor Finnish boys and girls? She said this might be a “disproportionate” state of affairs, and something to think about.

I spent the next five minutes fuming and frothing and wanting to punch her in the face.

Look, minister and your kin: If you cannot stomach it any other way, think of it as a form of development aid. We are a benefactor, as Finnish universities have no tuition fees — indeed, the state basically pays you a bit (opintoraha) to attend. Do you think the lower middle class kids of lands far-off and close get exchanged to Yale or some other money-grubbing monster of a university, or might that be too costly? Might they just squat in their own places, never learning what a world of difference there is outside? Might that insular, isolationist, inbred mindset be a teensy bit of a bad thing? Even if there was no benefit to Finland from the exchange students (and there is), giving them free places to study and a calm, tolerant and high-class environment to do so, giving them this whole window into a different world, would be a great service to them individually, to their countries, and to humanity as a whole.

And to turn it around: can you honestly be so incredibly asinine you don’t see the immaterial benefits of having the classes seeded with people of difference and, to be supremely uncharitable and selfish, softly leading Finland’s young into the path of being at ease with people of different cultures and backgrounds? Or how about the academic and personal contacts and co-operation this all fosters? It’s a distastefully fishy populist red herring to wonder all innocent-like if 15 000 exchange students means 15 000 ostracized Finns, but even if it did (and I don’t think does), it would be more than worth it. It’s just as stupid to wonder whether the numbers of Finns out and foreigners in are “disproportionate”, or whether there should be any connection between the two.

I’m quite sick of all the other things I hear politicians saying about universities, too.

Maybe it’s just my fucking retarded and unfashionable view of a free university being the closest thing to holy in a secular world, and a university education being a desirable good thing in and of itself, and a service to all humanity, and a mind-broadener and a thought-provoker that is too fucking precious to be limited to just those few that by an accident of birth have cash cow parents, or those with luck at the drawing of sponsorships and stipends, or those acquiescing to the handicap of ruining themselves slaving to scrape just enough money together to keep at it.

It shouldn’t be a thing you have to pay for. A university shouldn’t in any way be considered through the avenues of money, profit and bang for your buck. Genuinely worthy politicians should pour all the money they can into the education of their people and all people, as universal and comprehensive as they can, and count them blessed even if that increase in intelligence and humanity resulted in the demise of their political parties and platforms — but then again it seems “a genuine politician” is an oxymoron, and the politics of issues are dead and replaced with those of sensation and glamor. As evidenced, I think, the comment above.

(Those that say “Nurdy nur nur, but look how Finnish people don’t value it because they don’t have to pay for it!” — fine, let’s attack Russia! Let’s have another war so we can pay for our independence with cripples and broken homes and smoking ruins and the bloodied dead, and reap the questionable moral benefits of that! Let’s pay! As if suffering was a good in itself. As if suffering was a lesser evil than complacency.)

(Those that wonder why we won’t follow the common trend — America is usually invoked here — should go perform anilingus on a goat. The popularity of a proposition is no argument for its desirability. I hear fascism was pretty popular in the Thirties, and that Godwinic comment is fully intended both to illustrate the fallacy and to insult all who fall for it.)

(And, to mention another popular delusion of these days, of course universities should never be viewed as PR machines, or things that produce profit or commercially profitable innovations, or bend over in a way that attracts push and pull and deposits from the outside — if that’s the case, then kill all departments of mathematics. Kill philosophy. Kill all the little departments. We won’t ever give out nice, uplifting stories of easily popularized foofaraw. We won’t ever do anything that’d give profit. Mathematical truths cannot be patented, and their applications are entirely unpredictable and irrelevant. We are in this because it is beautiful and worth doing, and because our curiosity drives us. Once you start angling for profit, you lose most chances of ever getting it — the free, curiosity-driven enterprise of science is spectacularly ill-adapted to producing regular results and desired inventions. Universities are hatcheries of open human minds and engines of truth and knowledge. If one cannot see the intrinsic good in that, one might as well re-legalize slavery because hey, that’d turn in a tidy profit too. Fuck ideals!)

What most worries me is that there have been occasional comments about fees for foreign exchangers; if that comes to be (“What, you paid for this lecture?”), once you put a price on education, I’m sure there’ll soon be American-style fees for all students, Finnish and foreign alike.

If the moral evil of student fees doesn’t touch you, consider the practical evils. Goodbye leisure, welcome pressure. Goodbye learning what you want; welcome scrambling through it all as fast and cheap as you can, and hello lawsuits because dagnabbit you will pass the course because you paid for it, and hello declining standards that decline a bit faster. And when it comes to laying down the cash, it’ll be goodbye to families like that of my parents. Two adults, single income, no particular savings, three children, all academically capable and inclined (blinding self-praise, I know), and it seems we all might go for doctorates. Ages within four years of each other.

I can’t imagine the hardship and likely the impossibility of ponying up the money for our educations if we needed to pay the universities for the privilege of studying. (“Sorry, you youngest one — we can’t afford a third.”)

I can’t conceive of the hardships of scraping together money during the time we should spend studying, or the kind of degrading, insecure jobs that would fall to students in such an economy of desperate need.

I can’t stand the thought of angling for a stipend, and then walking out or deep into the oppressive dungeon of debt when none is forthcoming. Oh, Finnish students do get loans easily, and many do, but with a bit of luck and careful asceticism I’m looking at getting my doctorate without any debt at all. I am insanely happy to live in a country where this can be done, and I’m equally furious at the fools, populists and mercenaries who would because of flimsy, shallow and false reasons take it away from the people after me, or any part of the people involved in this glorious pursuit of self-betterment, be they Finnish or foreign.

A cynic would call this whining and whinging from an entitlement brat; I’d say this is about universal good and human rights, and though that sounds exceedingly worn and overblown, I really believe that it is.

(And please, do not even entertain the thought that things should be harder and harsher because that builds character. It was funny in a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, but it’s a terrible reason in real life. Not the least because such character-building would in many cases be character-breaking.)

Edit: Updated the article link and added one to the English version of the article. The link had died because the good people of Yle had edited the article, adding the righteous disapproval of Education Minister Virkkunen. (Who, though not in the English version, growls that Hyssälä’s remarks aren’t very far from the olden hysteria that suave, charming foreigners are a-coming and taking all of our women.)

3 Responses to “Foot, meet mouth: exchange students and fees”

  1. Bob O'H Says:

    Well said!

    But I’d keep off the coffee for the rest of the day. Sorry, no theorems for you until tomorrow.

    The rector of the University of Helsinki (a philosopher, poor chap) pointed out that educating foreigners is in Finland’s economic interest. Some will stay, and add to the economic success of the country, which means that Finland gets the benefit whilst not having to pay for their childcare, basic education etc.

  2. masksoferis Says:

    Okay, no coffee, but can I still use my intravenous caffeine drip? :-)

  3. Bob O'H Says:

    Only if it’s decaf.

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