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Students must take part in discussions that influence their lives, says Antti Pentikäinen, Chair of the National Unions of students in Europe. The backdrop is the Old Student House in Helsinki, a venue for many academic events and celebrations.

    Spokesman for European students

    Nina Korhonen

 

Antti Pentikäinen, from Finland, is the new Chairperson of the National Unions of Students in Europe (ESIB). He speaks for students wherever decisions affecting their lives are made.

Antti Pentikäinen (age 26) admits he is a romantic. He believes that each generation has a duty to reform society. This young theology student went into student politics when he began to be critical of his own generation's input in this respect.

"I wanted to see if I had it in me to effect change. Would I be a man of my word?" Pentikäinen says by way of explaining his motives.

Antti Pentikäinen is the international officer at the National Union of Finnish Students.

He can take care of his new job as ESIB Chairperson mostly from Helsinki, thanks to telecommunications. The ESIB headquarters is in Vienna, Austria.

The national unions of students in Europe represent six and a half million students. In addition to the EU countries, the ESIB members include Israel, Belarus, Ukraine, and the former Yugoslavian countries. The organization has worked for nearly two decades to promote university students' aims in EU decision-making, the Council of Europe and UNESCO.

"The primary duty of the Chairperson is to see to it that the views of national student unions are heard in Europe and taken into account when decisions concerning them are made," Pentikäinen says. One major aim for him is to boost the activities of national student unions and encourage students to network across national borders.

"I'm well aware that high positions like this are not on offer every day. I want to keep my eyes open to change and have an influence in matters where student organizations can make a difference, for instance by activating anti-racist discussions on campuses."

 

Harmonization - no easy matter

At the moment, the number one task for ESIB is to contribute to the harmonization of education systems, which forms part of the larger integration process in Europe. Last June Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom signed a document known as the Sorbonne Declaration, calling for harmonization in higher education. The next forum where this matter will be taken up is the meeting of the EU ministers of education in Bologna in April.

According to one scenario suggested for harmonization, studies should be divided into three stages: B.A./Sc. in three years, M.A./Sc. in two and another three for the doctorate. These would be spaced by periods of employment.

"The aim in harmonization is equivalence, but no one has given much thought to how it will affect educational content," Antti Pentikäinen says.

"Harmonization would inevitably infringe on the autonomy of universities and governments in educational matters."

In Finland, university degrees have already been harmonized to some extent, mainly according to OECD recommendations. In the Nordic countries, students have traditionally tried to influence the development of the education systems. "Students here know what degrees should be like in order to serve the needs of society."

"The message of ESIB to student organizations is that harmonization and its effects should be discussed at the national level. Students should keep their finger on the pulse of the times and take part in decision-making - it is, after all, their lives that will be affected."

"In the long run, harmonization would make things easier for students; for example, it would facilitate exchanges if universities had the same semesters or terms. Students could choose study modules anywhere in Europe and combine them into the kind of degree that best suits them."

 

Cause for pride

Antti Pentikäinen's life is not all about students' interests. His own studies at Helsinki University are at a point where he only needs to write his Master's thesis to graduate. In his research, he would like to combine his experience of political decision-making with an ethical viewpoint.

One challenging topic would be to examine Finland's participation in UN peace enforcement measures from ethical premises.

Antti Pentikäinen is proud to be a Finn: "It is nice to see that young Finns have an important role to play in Europe. Finns may once have felt insecure about their identity, but no longer." He thinks that the generally respectful Finnish attitude to work and professional skills is much more helpful in getting things done than mere discussion, however profuse.

Despite his international role and years spent in the USA, Antti Pentikäinen is very much a Finn. "The best things about Finland are the summer, forests and lakes, as well as a certain melancholy and humility in the people - but this is not the same as kow-towing to others."

A year ago, Pentikäinen's life changed radically when he became a father. "Being a parent is not easy, but my son is a great joy in my life."

For more about educational harmonization, see www.tky.hut.fi/~esib