What they were voted to do

Today, the student unions from the Icelandic colleges and universities have been drawing attentions to much needed initiatives that benefit students. 

A few years back I was asked to be a board-member of the Union for Icelandic Students Abroad. I was opinionated, although I wish I had been more active and more enlightened at the time. Around that time, the Student Loan Organization was changing its re-payment laws. Students had traditionally paid 4.75% of their annual income of the previous year back to the loan organization and everyone across the board agreed that this could be made easier on the debtors. 

The government of the Independent Party and Progressive Party wanted to lower the payback to 3.75% per year. The student organizations had agreed between them that they wanted to keep the 4.75%, but after tax, instead of pre-tax as it was. Everyone thought they had an agreement, with which they could approach the Student Loan Association board. 

But at the last minute the president of the Student Union at the University of Iceland did an about turn and agreed with the government. The rest were flabbergasted as their common stand had been ruined and obviously it ended up going the other way.

Why did the Student Union president change her mind? Could it be that she had the well-being of her fellow students in mind? Or did the fact that she and her husband were deep inside the youth organization of the Independent Party play a bigger role? They have at least both been rising stars since then, he within Landsbankinn, the Indpendent Party’s job-centre for example.  

So for whom was she working? The student politics at the University of Iceland have always attracted people who want to climb the political ladder, instead of the idealistic young people who try to make gains for their generation. The annual vote for example is basically such that you can choose from the Independent Party’s branch or the Leftist branch, usually people who are within or close to the Left/Greens and Samfylkingin.  

Later I worked for Kaupthing at a time when there was plenty of money to go around for marketing and the student unions with their growing budgets actively sought sponsorship, which we were only too pleased to hand them. Every summer for three years I met with just about every student government in every school, and all of them represented themselves and their plans about the winter. Overwhelmingly they cared about two things, how can we get more money to throw bigger parties and how can we ourselves get a job at the bank? 

I know this may be harsh, as there were plenty of decent people who came through the door. But so many, and I emphasize many and not all, did not appear to have a care in the world as far as student rights were concerned.

At first the amounts we paid for the sponsorship rights were decent, then they ballooned as more banks, telephone companies etc. got in on the act. When we received a letter from one candidate for president of Verslo, the Commercial College of Iceland where he asked for personal contributions in return for the bank “owning” the student body we cut our contributions dramatically across the board in all schools. That was the “step too far” that we did not want to take. 

We did not want to “own” anyone, we wanted to offer what we thought was fair for being main sponsors and compete with other companies openly. I know many have a different opinion, but I dare them to find examples of our team offering members of the student unions use of free laptops, cars and staff summer houses as we found out others had been doing. The candidate at Verslo got the position and another bank probably then “owned” the school. We used to joke amongst ourselves that this guy would probably end up in Parliament. 

It is good to see that student unions back in the limelight for the right reasons. They probably don’t have as much money for parties as two-three years ago and they are definitely in a different position from those who expected to swim in champagne at graduation. I hope they manage to bring some necessary changes and benefits to the students of today and tomorrow. That’s what they were voted to do.


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