Helsinki-Una Open Forum: Why do we need student engagement?

Student engagement is something we can all agree is great and important, at least in theory! But is it worth it when we need to put it into practice and how much should students be involved in? These are questions that we thought worth discussing and we will share some key insights from our last Helsinki-Una Open Forum right here.

At the Helsinki-Una Open Forums, we strive to bring up topics that connect our university with our broader network and involvement in the Una Europa alliance. 24th of November we had the fifth and last Open Forum of 2021 and we discussed the theme of student engagement.

We were lucky to have four great speakers and we got key insights as to why student engagement matters, how to do it well and what value it can contribute to our committees, international alliances, course development and building community in new programs.

If you want to watch the full talks, you can find them on UniTube.

Here we have gathered our main take-aways and reflections on how to strengthen involvement of students.

Teemu Turkki, student board member in Una Europa from the University of Helsinki.

Teemu has been a student board member in Una Europa since August and shared his experience working with fellow students in an international context, finding ways to include student voices and understanding the opportunities and challenges in a complex network such as Una Europa.

Teemu brought up many important points based on his experience in the student board:

  • The main goal of the student board (and other official bodies with students) is really to make sure the student voice is heard. That’s the essential and foundational role of these bodies. For students, it can feel difficult to really influence matters but they often have unique perspectives and suggestions that we can benefit from. The student board is crucial in facilitating that connection, and bridging bottom-up initiatives and ideas from students with the larger structures of networks such as Una Europa.
  • Student engagement happens on many different levels, from local to global and all of them matters when meaningfully engaging students. In Una Europa there is both the central Student board but also local task forces to engage local students and provide a flow of information both ways. While this is a great start, it is still challenging and an ongoing task to make sure that the centralised student board is transparent and shares the knowledge that is being gathered and discussed with all students to allow them to be informed and involved.
  • Finally, Teemu made a compelling argument for why student engagement is more important than ever. The world is increasingly complex, and we need the voices, ideas, and actions of many different people to solve the problems we are facing. It is not possible to solve problems alone. Decentralized decision-making and bottom-up engagement will be crucial to the success of Una Europa and in any kind of problem-solving in a global context, with challenges such as sustainability. For us to reach the ambitious goals of Una Europa and create the European university of the future, we truly need to engage students and make them our partners.
  1. Meri Mäkelä, university teacher and Rami Ratvio, university lecturer, and together coordinators of the SUST-001 course

Student engagement is not just about the students joining student associations and purely student driven initiatives. It is just as much about how we as staff are incorporating and including students in our work and giving them a seat at the table.

Meri and Rami understand very well the opportunities and benefits of being radically open, collaborative, and co-creating not just with students, but any member of the university community. They have been working on the university-wide sustainability course, SUST-001 that will be offered to all students. One of the main catalysts for this course was the university’s new strategic plan, where sustainability was positioned as a cross-cutting theme, to be present in all educational offerings. You can preview the course right here.

So, what have Meri and Rami learned from the ongoing process that has already lasted several years and included 160+ collaborators?

  • When planning a new initiative that will be university-wide and multidisciplinary it is beneficial to involve as stakeholders as possible. Meri and Rami are not only involving the students but also staff and other stakeholders within the university. In this kind of process, all perspectives and inputs can be valuable. It is hard to know where new insights might come from and the more people that are involved, the more insights and fresh thinking can happen. Especially initiatives related to complex topics such as sustainability benefits from a broad set of collaborators. If you want to be successful in creating a multidisciplinary course you need multidisciplinary approaches and points of view.
  • Students can take on many different roles and it is feasible to have them involved in all parts of the process. Students aren’t only included in the process of testing the course prototype, but they are involved in answering surveys, being test users, working on the content and pedagogical design, acting as facilitators in workshops and part of the steering group as equal members, in addition to being members of the working groups, and some are even working group leaders. Students were positioned as equals and encourage to contribute to the process at all stages with a full mandate together with staff.
  • Co-creative processes don’t have a clear start and end. When involving students and looking for feedback at all stages of the process, you need an iterative approach where feedback is integrated continuously. The course has been available in several iterations and changes have been made based on feedback from the students. If you want to engage students and do it well, you both need to make it clear how they can participate and show that you take the feedback seriously. There is nothing more discouraging that providing feedback and never seeing any changes being made. On the other hand, it is motivating to see your feedback put into practice.
  1. Alicia Lucendo Noriega, student in the master’s program Changing Education (CE)

Alicia is part of the first cohort in the first English-language program in the Faculty of Educational Sciences, Changing Education. They are not only the first English-language program, but they also had the challenge of creating a community in the middle of a global pandemic. In her presentation Alicia unpacked how to build a community from scratch and how proactive and creative students can be when provided the environment and encouragement to engage and co-create with staff.

So, what lessons can we learn from Alicia’s experience?

  • Co-create a community that feels safe and inclusive to everyone. It is an important part of culture building to allow students to commonly share and discuss what kind of community they want to be part of and what is important for them to feel able to express themselves freely with fellow students. In Changing Education this process started at the beginning of the program and continued through the first period. It allowed students to have a conversation about the kind of community they wanted to be part of. It both create ownership and a sense of responsibility towards the community. As Alicia said, it creates a strong foundation for learning. It is a reference point for everyone to refer to when needed and it is a continuous process to collectively bring it to life.
  • Connect with each other as human beings. Sometimes we get caught up in our roles and titles, who is student and who is staff. Alicia shared the initiative of Monday cafes where all students and staff could meet online. One hour each week, everyone could join this café to connect, talk, and share how it was going.
  • Collect feedback and act on it. Several feedback mechanisms have been put in place in the program, both regarding courses, but also to share experiences of the whole program and other aspects on students’ minds. Seeing the feedback being considered and put into practice, no matter how small, is encouraging and motivating. Ongoing conversations and dialogue are essential and in the Changing Education program students also organise a Student Panel each semester for the students to meet and openly discuss feedback and come up with concrete ideas together. Additionally, this is a great opportunity for community strengthening, since students come together and discuss how they together can improve the community. This kind of space allow students to get connected, act and feel a sense of agency for the collective they are part of.
  • Finally, Alicia emphasized how her program is an example of how much students are capable of when giving the opportunity. While the program staff did a lot and initiated the close cooperation with the students, the students also started several initiatives completely independently. They started a multimedia website where they share a podcast, blogs, their writings from courses including thoughts and ideas on how to change education. Additionally, they also created the first English-language student association Osa Ry in the faculty of educational science. They wanted to engage with the wider community and faculty, and they found ways to do this. By creating a platform to share their thoughts, work, and ideas they are striving to be part of changing education in practice. By organizing themselves in an association they are organizing events, connecting with the broader faculty and community. All this came from the wish to contribute to changing education. They are truly accepting the potential and invitation posed by their program, to change education.

We hope these insights inspired you as much as they inspired us, and we encouraged you to watch the full talks on UniTube! Student engagement is the future, students are essential partners within our collective university community and there are so many ways we can benefit from their insights and passion. We hope this has given you some ideas on how to strengthen the involvement of students in your own initiatives and projects.

Helsinki-Una Open Forum will return in January 2022 and we hope to see you for another year of thought-provoking talks and discussions!

Making international experiences accessible to all


The first student board of Una Europa in 2020

You might wonder why you should read about internationalisation in the time of COVID-19. This pandemic has, for the first time in our lifetime, shut down borders and quite literally grounded us. Does it really make sense to talk about international experiences without physical mobility? Topias Tolonen’s answer is ‘yes’. As this crisis has shown us, we need to rethink what internationalisation means and how we make it accessible to everyone, maybe even right here at home. 

Topias Tolonen is not new to the conversation about the value and challenges that comes with internationalisation. He is currently in the International Affairs Group at the University of Helsinki, which is where everything that has to do with internationalisation is debated. In addition, he is actively involved with the Student Union of the University of Helsinki, where he also deals with issues of international affairs among other things. In January 2020, he was selected to represent the University of Helsinki in the Una Europa Student Board and he just finished his term this August. Una Europa is an alliance with eight member universities, the University of Helsinki is one of them. The alliance has embarked on a journey towards a more integrated European Education Area and a common European campus. This means imagining the future of higher education through joint degrees, virtual mobility, living labs and much more.

But for Topias Tolonen the interest and passion for internationalisation started long before applying for the student board of Una Europa.

“I have been active in the Student Union for years, most recently I’ve started working as a specialist on the topics of higher education policy and internationalisation. I have been thinking about what it means for a university to be international and what that might look like in practice. The reason why I applied to join the student board of Una Europa is that I saw this alliance as an opportunity to learn. I wanted to see their approach to this question and get an example of a concrete manifestation of what an international university could look like.”

Reflecting on his time as a student representative in Una Europa, he argues that it was not just about understanding how this alliance might help or support internationalisation. In Topias’ opinion, it was also a way to get engaged and potentially impact the European landscape of higher education. Una Europa is an entry point to participate in and shape that conversation.

This is a big endeavour, and many challenges lie ahead but also plenty of opportunities. Topias was working with seven other students, each representing one of the other participating universities. Their role was to bring the student voice to this alliance, to make sure that what is being done in the different working groups has relevance to students and is addressing students’ wants and needs. Initiatives include joint bachelors, masters and doctoral programs, virtual mobility, newTopias Tolonen pedagogical approaches, challenge-based learning and much more.

The student board of Una Europa sends representatives to the steering and executive committee meetings. The goal is for the student voice to be present and to have a clear link between the high-level decision-making taking place in the steering groups and working groups and the students on each campus. Topias really sees it as quality assurance of the work that is happening to make sure that it is benefiting students and other stakeholders. The money for the project is coming from Erasmus, so students should definitely have a clear voice in Topias’ opinion.

“It is challenging when you are part of a newly started project. How to put the structures in place that keep students involved and informed continuously and make sure that we as the student board were kept informed about new information and knowledge being circulated.”

Topias Tolonen is very clear on the value of international experiences and would like more students to benefit from it. He sees Una Europa as a possibility to remove the obstacles and challenges that students might be facing when considering an international experience.

“Based on the Eurostudent VIII study, one of the key points that keeps Finnish students from applying to go abroad is financial matters. The cost can be high and they lose the income from their job while abroad. There are also many practical questions and just many unknown factors that make people think twice. Una Europa is piloting virtual mobility, which is very interesting, but I’m also curious to see the potential and implementation of blended mobility.”

Topias really wants to expand and rethink the idea of mobility. He wants it to be accessible to a broader range of students and work to break down as many barriers as possible. He argues that there are many initiatives that could make the process of going abroad easier, such as centralising information and making the application process clear and simple.

“I still believe that the threshold to applying to go abroad is too high. That is an issue. But again, if everything goes according to the plan, an alliance like Una Europa will support us in breaking down these barriers and making the technical and administrative side of things much simpler. I think that is very valuable and something that all students should really be excited about!”

Topias Tolonen has finished his term as a Student Board member, he is now focusing his energy working at the Student Union of University of Helsinki (HYY) as a specialist in higher education policy. This conversation took place in the fall of 2020. 

Since September this year, Teemu Turkki is the new student board member for Una Europa.