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‘Why do I have to care about politics? What does politics have to do with me? I’m not queer, black, a muslim, or a jew. I’m not a scientist, or a journalist or an artist. I’m not indigenous. I’m not old, I don’t pay tuition fees. I don’t rent, I don’t have to work, I don’t travel. I’m neither an international student, nor a minority. I’m not impacted by climate change, migration laws, import policies or global relations. Why should I care?’
All over history, students have always been a driving force of political change. Exactly 55 years ago, on May 24th, 1968, students in Stockholm left a mark on Swedish politics with the four-day occupation (Kårhusockupationen) of the student union building at Stockholm University. The occupation took place as a result of a debate surrounding the introduction of fixed study courses in Swedish higher education; and was likely inspired by the nation-wide civil unrest that happened in France as a result of student protests. Today, the student landscape at a majority of Swedish universities looks very different... While a small number of student unions, such as Stockholms universitets studentkår (SUS) are still heavily influenced by politics and led by party-affiliated students; our student union, THS, and most student unions in Sweden for that matter, often take a stance on a different end of the spectrum.
To some students, however, politics is less about the percentage of right- or left-leaning party representatives elected into their union; and more about the right to study, the right to live, the right to rent, the right to live sustainably, and the right to a secure future. While not all of us at KTH might relate to these rights, or comprehend the urgency of accommodating them, it is important to keep in mind that a significant percentage of our students are impacted by decisions relating to tuition fees, sustainable choices, migration laws, rental policies, representation, and/or financial student aid.
2022 was a heavy year; the war in Ukraine, the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, the protests in Iran, the ban on female education in Afghanistan, and so much more have left many students around the world in extremely vulnerable positions. For some international students already in Sweden, this meant added distress and a lack of the ability to foresee a future in Sweden; but for those who are yet to arrive, global politics often hindered their opportunities to pursue higher education in Sweden. Is it not the student union’s responsibility to speak out when it comes to political issues that affect students?
Osqledaren spoke to Iranian PhD student and EECS council representative, Alireza Kamelabad, who continuously tried to reach out to THS over the past couple of years. Alireza had been very active in fighting for the rights of Iranian students in Sweden, during a time where obtaining a residence permit became almost impossible for Iranian students. With the Swedish migration agency taking over 6 months to process applications, and students not being able to apply any earlier than 3 months prior to their studies; many students lost the chance to arrive on time for their classes. While Alireza attempted to bring up the issue to THS, he often did not receive a response or acknowledgement of his concerns; which led to severe disappointment and a lack of trust in THS’s operations. Alireza summarizes his experience of the past 3 years, “It seems like THS is mainly occupied with planning parties, with their time and resources going into that instead of focusing on resolving issues or defending the rights of students”. His disappointment, perhaps similar to many impacted students out there, stems from an expectation put on the student union as a place for “scholars with fresh minds who guide society to a future that is beneficial for all”, instead, he has often felt like he would turn to THS if he wanted to throw a party; and not if he needed support.
Union board member (Kårstyrelsen, KS) and former union president, Teo Elmfeldt, describes the caution of THS when it comes to taking stances as an active attempt not to alienate the members: “It’s important to consider where we can be political without alienating our members, where politics become essential to protect students - which is very visible in the case of international students.” Teo references the natural variations in the opinions of the members; some might have stronger opinions than others with regards to the migration restrictions that Sweden should have, or with regards to CSN (governmental student aid) for example. However, he is of the opinion that THS should strive to be able to act when a decision involves an attack against its members; such as decisions that make life in Sweden more difficult for international students, or the Aliens Act which impacted PhD students’ ability to stay in Sweden. Teo describes such policies as ones that go against THS’s core values… but what is the difference between a policy that withholds a PhD student’s right to a permanent residency, and another that hinders a new student’s ability to even come to Sweden after receiving an acceptance to KTH?
The highest decision-making body of THS are its members, through the union council (Kårfullmäktige, KF) which consists of chapter representatives. However, those who are most impacted by global policies are widely underrepresented - if present at all - within the union council. Carl Housten, ex-Osqledaren Editor-in-Chief, former member of KF and current political secretary of SSCO (Stockholm Federation of Student Unions), elaborates on how little interest in external politics there is within THS’s decision-making bodies, the union council (KF) and the union board (Kårstyrelse, KS). Carl believes that the organization is now stuck in a bad combination where the elected representatives are sometimes expected to be advocating for students rights within the realm of student politics, without this being mentioned in their job description. Though THS claims to be active in national politics impacting students through the broader unions, such as SFS (Sveriges förenade studentkårer, or Swedish National Union of Students), the reality is that the majority of members see none of that. It becomes very obvious, not just from our interviews, but also from conversations with students - even those active in chapters and in the union - how little students know about the higher-up organizations. Nonetheless, Carl also states that THS could - and should - be doing much more within the higher organizations. As one of the biggest student unions in Sweden, it becomes evident from our involvement in SFS but also from our list of priorities, that there is a lot of room for change.
Carl explains, “Organizations have different roles, students at KTH know what a chapter is - maybe what THS is. But if you talk to the politicians in power, or the industry, they know who SSCO & SFS are, but they don’t know who the individual unions are. The larger organizations have the opportunity to actually make change on the national level. THS writing a debate piece or a statement on their own won’t have that much impact, but if you join with the other unions, you get a bit more. You need to organize on a bigger scale to actually push questions through, but it’s also important for THS’s reputation that they address the issues that are important to their students even if they don’t expect to actually get those questions through themselves. Lead by example, even if you’re not going to meet the prime minister and discuss it yourself.“
THS seems to then be in a vicious cycle, where in order for the organization to be equipped enough to take action in political matters impacting its members, the organization must be steered towards that direction in its operational plan. However, with the ones who ultimately mandate the operational plan being the members of the union council (KF); the biggest question to raise here is: what resources are these representatives provided with in order to increase their ability to tackle the larger-scale influential questions that could define THS’s strategic work?
According to board member, Teo Elmfeldt, THS “does not elect people because of their strong political opinions and they are not being elected with that responsibility.“ They are ultimately elected because of their competence and opinions on student influence towards KTH and student life on campus. The union board in particular operates strategically and not operationally; meaning that even though they are tasked with the preparation of the operational plan, they can only advise the management team on what to focus on and prioritize. “It seems like we don’t have the correct framework to address these political issues when they arise”, says Teo, “it’s also hard to prioritize these questions when we don’t perceive the work:gain balance to be there. These questions consume a lot of time and we often cannot see immediate results, so by tackling political questions we would have to be down-prioritizing other student life questions. I’m not saying that THS always prioritizes correctly, I’m just saying that it is a matter of prioritization for good or for worse; and since we as elected representatives change on a yearly basis, it is always down to the specific representatives that hold these positions every year. We can of course write down documents detailing how and what should be done and what questions should be prioritized, but the reality is that political influence is quite a soft topic to communicate to our successors.”
“THS is a ‘political’ organization, but it’s not party-political,” adds Teo “THS should be able to act politically when needed.” Despite this claim, it still seems like it’s hard for THS to take any political stances. The fact that a student organization over 120 years old lacks established routines to support affected students is quite disappointing. If we didn’t have routines when tuition fees were introduced for international students in 2011, or during the 2015 refugee crisis, the Aliens act of 2021, war, and student permit complications; when do we begin to deem it necessary to establish routines? With the world around us changing so rapidly, it is more important now than ever that we as a student force as prepared to take informed and revolutionary stances with regards to the challenges around us; be it preparing to protect our students, establishing environmental-friendly patterns in the face of climate change, or pushing forward educational accessibility for all.