Guaranteeing student safety and liberties as a sending university

Guaranteeing student safety and liberties as a sending university

This week on the EAIE blog, we are highlighting the spring issue of Forum magazine on the theme of ‘Internationalisation in a conflicted world’. Conflict comes in many shapes and sizes and perhaps always has. Yet, in our highly interconnected world, conflict increasingly affects us all. How internationalisation professionals cope with conflict in its many forms becomes a key question in our daily practice. Today’s author, from the University of Helsinki, discusses the important issue of exchange student participation in student politics and protests while abroad.

At the University of Helsinki we prepare outgoing students to ‘take a leap of faith’, as one returnee described it, to a university and a country that are very different from the student’s own. In a pre-departure meeting with exchange students headed for our partner universities in Africa for a semester, one student asked “When you said that I’ll be representing the University of Helsinki abroad, do you mean that taking part in demonstrations isn’t allowed?” With this question, the pre-departure briefing suddenly took a leap to the intertwining topics of freedom of expression, knowing and respecting the host country’s laws and regulations and maintaining personal safety.
With the students heading furthest away, we do extensive work to prepare them for a new type of safety environment that requires a different type of vigilance to what they are used to. We do not, however, often talk about political participation or freedom of expression at pre-departure briefings. They are treated as personal, non-study related issues – although the majority of leading Finnish politicians have graduated from our university.

Freedom of expression

Should we, then, talk about freedom of expression as a part of pre-departure preparations? Are we qualified to do that, for each target country? I remember having guidance sessions with a student who was trying to prepare for an exchange in a country, which does not allow public expressions of the student’s own sexual identity without the risk of serious consequences. The student was excited about the chance of living in the host country regardless, and by talking about the dissonance beforehand, found a way of coping with it.
Student activism is a big part of our own university’s history, albeit more self-contained. This year we have seen many peaceful, legal student demonstrations in Finland against the budget cuts imposed by our current government. Our outgoing students are used to a society and university, where their voice is represented in decision-making on many levels. Sometimes this leads them to think that the rest of the world is the same.

Going ‘local’

Each year, at our partner universities around the world, students are demonstrating. What should exchange students do when local students are burning tires at the University of Zambia in order for classes to resume when the university has taken a sudden long break in the middle of the study year? Or, at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar, when students are trying to regain their allowances?
At pre-departure briefings, we tell our outgoing students to be wary of big gatherings and ask them to think of their safety. Becoming ‘local’ is what student exchanges are about and so the students have a natural tendency to identify with, and support, local students’ grievances. Sometimes it means taking part in a demonstration, even if we have stressed the safety aspect before departure.

Learning from others

Perhaps the best advice I heard regarding taking part in student protests abroad came from a returnee who had been to South Africa as an exchange student and was advising outgoing students in that pre-departure session with me: “Do your homework, so you know what you will truly be demonstrating about. Finding out about local student politics takes a lot of time and you want to make sure you know what you are supporting. It has to do with yourself and your beliefs, and with understanding the local setting in great detail, not with your home university. That is the only way you can evaluate the risks beforehand. Though knowing this much about the destination may take more than a semester”.
Following this discussion with my students, I continued thinking about this topic. In order to gain insights from an entirely different perspective, I asked a colleague from a receiving university about her thoughts on the issue. Her own blog post, a sequel to this one, will be posted tomorrow on the EAIE blog.
Raisa is University Bilateral Student Mobility Coordinator at University of Helsinki, Finland.
EAIE members will receive their copies of Forum on their doorsteps soon, but can already download the full version online. Non-members can view the editor’s pick in the Resources Library. Gain full access to Forum by becoming an EAIE member.