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Government parties, student unions oppose debt forgiveness proposal

The plan, based on a similar model in Norway, would offer full or partial student debt relief to graduates of courses such as medicine or teaching if they move to a rural area.

Porthania-rakennus Helsingin yliopiston keskustakampuksella.
File photo of the entrance to Helsinki University's main campus. Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

A proposal by Minister of Science and Culture Antti Kurvinen (Cen) which would incentivise highly-educated workers to move to sparsely populated areas of Finland has not received widespread backing from student organisations or his party's government coalition partners.

Both the Green Party and the Left Alliance have indicated that they do not believe the debt forgiveness proposal would be the most effective means of addressing Finland's regional skilled labour shortage, adding that the financing of such a reform would be surprisingly high.

The Green Party further added that any changes to the student financial aid system should first focus on raising study grant levels or other financial aid initiatives.

Greens MP Iiris Suomela — who will become the party's interim leader while current chair Maria Ohisalo is on maternity leave — said that the current level of study support does not provide students with a sufficient income during their studies. This complicates students' daily lives, Suomela added, and can even delay their graduation as students have to work long hours while studying.

"In the case of study grants, I would consider securing students' livelihoods to be the most important thing, and I would not raise these regional policy goals ahead of that priority," Suomela told news agency STT in response to a question about Minister Kurvinen's proposal.

The proposed plan, which is based on a similar model in Norway, would offer full or partial student debt relief to graduates of courses such as medicine or teaching if they move to a rural area.

"The aim is to complete the legislation during this parliamentary term. I hope that we will also start this reimbursement model during this term of office," Kurvinen said at the announcement of the proposal, adding that he hoped the draft could be passed into law during this current government's term of office.

However, Suomela told STT that she finds it difficult to understand why another government party is looking at proposals that would increase expenditure, especially as funding for education and science could face significant cuts over the coming years.

"The number one priority is to reverse cuts in education and science, instead of looking for new expenditure projects which are outside of the government's programme," she said.

Good objective, questionable means

Chair of the Left Alliance party's parliamentary group Jussi Saramo told STT that Kurvinen's proposal has left him wondering where the Centre Party — which has pursued a policy of strict financial discipline during the governing parties' budget negotiations — has suddenly found the money in the state coffers to offset student loans.

Saramo also further echoed Suomela's comments about possible impending cuts in education, culture and sports.

"If there is room for maneuver, then this list of cuts will probably be thoroughly reviewed again and then we will see what the priorities are," Saramo told STT.

Both Suomela and Saramo emphasised that they considered the objectives of the Norwegian model — to alleviate the problems of employment and the provision of services in rural areas — to be good, but doubted the effectiveness of the model in achieving those goals.

"If the student aid system and regional policy are mixed, it must be absolutely certain that it is an effective and economically viable measure. This doesn't seem like it," Saramo said, but added that his party has not formed its final position on the matter as Kurvinen's proposal came unexpectedly and has not been negotiated with the other coalition parties.

PM Marin: Proposal worth considering

Kurvinen's proposal did however receive some support from among the other governing parties. Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) said the option was "worth considering".

"I consider it one of the possible tools we have in the box. This issue of getting specialists to relocate to the regions is very real, it is serious and that is why we need different ways of responding to it, and I myself am open to this proposal," Marin said at an SDP press conference last Thursday.

However, the PM stressed that the government parties have not yet made any decisions on the matter.

Union: Student financial aid system of "higher priority"

Meanwhile, the National Union of University Students in Finland (SYL) said it did not support plans for a debt relief programme.

The union, which represents university students, said in a statement released on Friday that the study grant scheme should be considered a higher priority by the government rather than seen as supporting other policy goals.

According to SYL, Kurvinen's proposal makes the system of student financial aid an instrument of regional policy.

"Student financial aid, like other social benefits, must be equal for all its users, regardless of their place of residence or field of study. The sectoral and regional conditions planned for the regional student loan debt relief scheme would seriously contrast with this principle of equality," the union's president Annika Nevanpää said in a statement.

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