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Politics

Only money for cheap champagne

There is still a lot to fight for, maintain activists, as they celebrated 100 years of the students’ union

»Not bad. Sippin’ champagne while working!«

Our photographer is visibly pleased to be covering the centennial of The Students’ Union at the University of Copenhagen. However, he is also slightly wrong. The sparkling wine that we are washing down canapés, grissini sticks and cream-cheese-filled tomatoes with, is as a matter of fact not champagne. Mont Michel demi sec is a EUR 11-a-bottle cava – the French original’s cheaper Spanish cousin.

However the bubbles are plentiful, and the entire anniversary – tastefully set in one of the University’s old halls – does not quite seem to fit the oft-painted portrait of Europe’s impoverished masses of young academics on the verge of desperation.

On the contrary, the well-dressed crowd seems rather happy and satisfied as they, accompanied by the pleasant background sound of a jazz duo – chit chat with mouths full of finger food. Hugs are given, shoulders are patted, smiles are smiled. And as the chairman of the University of Copenhagen Students’ Union – Bjarke Lindeman Jepsen – steps on to the platform the applause is as loud as one could expect from a pleased crowd with hands full of glasses and plates. It is repeated several times – for instance when the chairman talks about the Union’s latest achievement, the securing of a guaranteed minimum of 14 weekly lessons for all BA-students already from 2013.

»The Students’ Union is super at speaking the students’ cause,« Bjarke Lindemann Jepsen concludes.

»We want to have the best education programmes that are possible,« (yet another round of applause),»and we want security. Security when it comes to finances, housing and jobs.«

I find a table, empty my glass – it strikes me that I actually find Mont Michel a little too tart – open a notebook and scribble down the following question: »But wouldn’t a lot of people say, that Danish students have got all that already?«

It’s complicated

They sure would. But a great number would also disagree. An overview of the Danish political spectrum shows that the adjectives used to describe the Danish students go from ‘poor’ to ‘spoilt’. But which is it then? The University Post asked Bjarke Lindeman Jepsen and the vice-president of the Students’ Union, Maria Toft a few days later:

»First of all, it is important to recognize that students’ life conditions are a complex phenomenon. It is correct that Danish students, among other things due to the SU (lump monthly grant, available to all Danish university students, ed.) have a relatively high income. But the Danish living expenses are at the same time very high,« Bjarke Lindeman Jepsen says.

»Furthermore it is also a political question: Under what circumstances do we want our students to live? Do we want them to struggle to make ends meet? Or do we want them to have the security to focus on their studies?«

But still: Danish students are among those students with the highest income in Europe. But at the same time the ‘2011 Eurostudent Survey’ shows that they are not the most satisfied? How do you explain that?

»Again, it is not enough to look at the income,« Maria Toft says. »It must be perceived in its entire context of student life conditions. And in Copenhagen a huge number of students have a hard time finding a cheap place to stay while studying.«

»The whole SU-system as a concept is great and has proven its worth during the economic crisis,« Bjarke Lindemans adds. »Together with tuition-free university it ensures that students can complete their education without too much debt – and that is essential to get us through the crisis.«

SU for security and mobility

A number of Danish economists have suggested a reform of the SU-system, so that students get support during their Bachelor’s degree, but have to finance – through government loans – their Master’s degree themselves. What do you think of that? »I do understand some economists try to find money somewhere. But there are a great number of ‘ifs’ and it is a dangerous path to take.«

»First of all, as it is right now in Denmark there is no job market for graduates with only a Bachelor’s degree. And furthermore, every study suggests that one of the great things about the SU system is that it secures social mobility – meaning that it encourages young people, whose parents cannot support their education, to go to university. I fear that a reform of the SU system would threaten that. Furthermore the idea of financing one’s education through loans is built on the premise that the student will be easily able to pay their debt after they have graduated. But that does not match the unemployment we are experiencing right now – and have experienced for quite some time.«

Maria Toft continues: »It should also be remembered that higher education, which for instance DEA (The Danish Business Research Academy, ed.) has argued, is a good social-economic investment.«

Danish students are also European

Are the Danish students not privileged when you compare them to other European students?

»I do believe that a lot of Danish students are happy with the SU system,« Marie Toft counters.

»But again: We often meet people who are having difficulty making ends meet despite of their SU.«

Danish students do feel the European crisis, the chairman and the vice-president both emphasize.

»We have experienced structural changes and cutbacks in many University faculties – and the students feel it,« Bjarke Lindeman Jepsen says.

»And people tend to forget that the students actually care about these things. In the last couple of years we have had a several large demonstrations, so the whole prejudice about the spoilt and indifferent Danish students is fundamentally wrong.«

»We are facing the same problems as the rest of Europe. For instance the significant problem of unemployment among young academics,« Maria Toft says. »Consequently the Students’ Union recently took part in a large transnational gathering of European student politicians where we discussed these topics because these are indeed issues which threaten all of us.«

Chairman Bjarke Lindeman Jepsen agrees:

»Even though our politicians in general have taken the right decisions so far, we feel the general trends that the crisis has brought to the agenda all over Europe. Suddenly it is considered OK to consider cutbacks, to question the system of free education and to consider other economic reforms. So even though the Students’ Union has just turned 100, we are still facing some of the same fundamental challenges we did back in 1912. In the following years our central tasks will be to emphasize the understanding of the importance of education and continue the effort of securing the students’ conditions of life.«

Reception/recession?

A few days earlier.

The reception is about to end. Bjarke Lindeman Jepsen has just received a Royal Copenhagen coffee-set from University of Copenhagen Rector Ralf Hemmingsen. In his speech, Hemmingsen lingered about the fact that the Students’ Union emerged the same year that the Titanic sank.

»I’m getting a little tipsy,« a guy confesses to another, and empties his glass for the last drops of Mont Michel. Not a really surprising statement. The trays are empty – besides a few chunks of homemade hummus – and we are down to the last bottle of bubbles. There is still draught beer, though.

Read the latest comment by chairman and vice-chairman of the Student Union (Council) here.

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