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Helsinki to provide free learning materials to upper secondary school pupils

The city estimates that providing free learning materials to upper secondary students will cost around 19.4 million euros per year.

Lukiolaisen fysiikan kirja pulpetilla.
File photo of school textbooks. Image: Juha Kemppainen / Yle

In a vote on Wednesday, Helsinki councillors made the decision to offer all of the city's upper secondary school pupils free textbooks and study materials. While schooling is free in Finland, pupils and their families are responsible for purchasing all the necessary books and equipment once basic education ends and 15 or 16-year-olds decide to continue with their studies at the next level.

City councillors voted 48-32 to approve the measure, after it was proposed by a group motion by Social Democrat councillors.

Members of the populist Finns Party, however, called the initiative "populist," while some conservative National Coalition Party members said they did not want to see students from wealthy families receive the textbooks for free.

The conservative party was also wary of the cost of the plans, according to the city's deputy mayor for education, Pia Pakarinen of the NCP.

Pakarinen said she was concerned that offering free textbooks would draw students from nearby areas which would increase student numbers in Helsinki, saying that would not be a good development.

"I think we should think about Helsinki residents' tax money and not pay for students from other municipalities who go to school here," Pakarinen told Yle.

"This decision can lead to the possibility that it will become more difficult for the youth of Helsinki to go to upper secondary or vocational school when young people from Espoo and Vantaa would come here, where [textbooks] are free," she said.

All Helsinki pupils eligible

The free textbooks and study materials will be available to all types of upper secondary school pupils in the city, including those attending vocational schools. The materials will also be offered for free at state or privately-run schools, and available to all upper secondary students in the city, regardless of the district in which they live.

The city has estimated that the free study materials programme will cost around 19.4 million euros per year, a figure which caused a good deal of controversy at the councillors' hall.

Otto Meri of the NCP said the price was too high.

"That's an unbelievable amount of money and costs as much as salaries for 400 teachers or the yearly budget for five upper secondary schools. It is a good motion, but it's just too big," Meri said.

Regarding NCP councillors' concerns about well-to-do students getting the free materials, SDP councillor Abdirahim "Husu" Mohamed said pupils will have a choice.

"We won't force rich [students] to take these books. They can also buy them in future," Mohamed said.

Swedish People's Party councillor Marcus Rantala agreed with the NCP's stance that offering the materials would contribute to unhealthy competition between regional school systems.

Rantala said that the money could be better spent on things like raising the salaries of day care workers as well as student care. He said the cost of textbooks and learning materials could be lowered for students other ways, by using technology and recycling study materials.

Finns Party councillor calls proposal populist

Finns Party councillor Mari Rantanen said the programme is too expensive.

"It's a populist proposal. If the Finns Party would suggest free care [benefits] for war veterans, we would be accused of populism," she said.

Rantanen's fellow party member Veronika Honkasalo said the issue was a political one.

"It's important that the Finns Party demonstrates which sort of politics it supports. Helsinki makes profits of hundreds of millions of euros every year and the free [study materials] for upper secondary students is a key issue in the welfare state," Honkasalo said.

The 19.4 million euro projected estimate for the free textbook programme was reached by an analysis carried out by the National Agency for Education. It estimates that an upper secondary school pupil's learning materials cost around 2,500 euros in total, while the cost of vocational student's schooling varies greatly.

The agency calculates that vocational school students pay out sums between 100 to 1,000 euros for study materials. The city has taken the higher figure into consideration in its budget for the new programme.

According to the city, it would be discriminatory to only offer the free textbooks and materials to students living within Helsinki. By offering the free materials to all students, city leaders expect that more pupils will come to Helsinki to attend secondary and vocational schools, which in turn, will likely raise the final cost of the programme.

Edit: Updated on 28 September at 10:50 am to correct references to second-year students in the story. The book funding programme will be extended to all Helsinki upper secondary students who continue their schooling after nine years of compulsory basic education.

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