Liisa Reinola: University students – an easily forgotten group of users

Children and young people’s physical exercise is often discussed, and equal opportunities for them to be active: how certain sports are expensive, but how physical exercise is important for personal development, social relationships and even health. Once this case is somehow fixed, the discussion jumps ahead many decades and focuses on exercise opportunities for the elderly. It is a well-known fact that physical exercise does play a key role in supporting their health and ability to function. So, the opportunity for safe gym training, jogging paths close to home, and guided sports groups for seniors by the city sports services must be provided.

It makes me wonder how several years of an average person’s life can be ignored?

In Finland, there are 13 universities, 22 universities of applied sciences, the National Defence University, the Police University College and Högskolan på Åland. About 300,000 students work in these buildings. How can such a massive number of people be forgotten in municipal decision-making?

Some people still think that student life is all about partying, but in actual fact, studying at a university offers much more than just that. University students make lifelong friends, forge extensive networks of acquaintances all over Finland and even the world during their studies. Communality, cohesion and team spirit are strong in Finnish universities. They are manifested prominently in sports as well. Universities offer students an increasing variety of hobbies and sports opportunities.

Or would do if they had the facilities for them.

The key role of schools in promoting physical activity is well-known

Within the framework of the Students on the Move programme, some Finnish municipalities offer students in upper secondary and higher education municipal sports services at a substantial discount or even free of charge. These municipalities realise and recognise the importance of physical activity as a counterbalance to studies, know that students are unlikely to be able to pay much, but still have the right to be physically active.

However, there is major inequality between municipalities in Finland, and the same applies to students transferring from the upper secondary level to higher education. They maintain their student status, but suddenly they no longer have the right to use services they were previously entitled to, or at the same prices that were available a year earlier. Throughout life, educational institutions play an important role in personal physical activity, as witnessed by various Government programmes, for example for primary and secondary schools. Universities are no different in this respect, people still spend many hours every day studying and learning new patterns of life.

University sports services rarely compete for Finnish championships, honour successful sports stars by retiring their number and placing the jersey on display, or exceed the national news threshold with their performance. Probably this is one of the reasons why it is so easy, when times are allocated in municipal sports facilities, to forget what a large number of people are involved in university sports services.

The dim and cramped gym on the far side of town might not attract even the biggest sports club enthusiasts on a day-to-day basis. Or, good times were allocated to students in an old sports hall year after year, but after an expensive, and necessary renovation, surprisingly: no times are available. After such surprises, it can be hard to believe that a city wants to be a student city or a university itself wants to be the best place for students.

Student well-being contributes to working life

One of OLL's three goals for the municipal elections seeks to tackle the above-mentioned problems. Exercise supports the capacity to cope, be strong and have energy, and these support learning. When you make progress in your studies, you can graduate within the target period set. Today’s well-being student is a well-being employee of the future. Physical exercise can also alleviate students' mental health problems and perceived loneliness, which have been featured in the media a lot recently.

The burden must not be left to universities alone, but municipalities must be involved in the work, for example by taking university students into account in allocating times at sports facilities, and in deciding on the related fees.

Health-promoting habits adopted during the studies will continue until working life. If, as a student, you happen to find your way to a university that promotes students’ well-being in close cooperation with the local municipality, you are highly likely to have good opportunities while you are a student, and this applies to working life as well. The opposite is true in a university where sports services are more limited, there are no sports facilities, and municipal decision-makers see university students as nothing but a nuisance, drinking their way through studies, wearing nothing but overalls.

All universities and municipalities in Finland must take an interest in the well-being and sports opportunities of their students. University graduates with high well-being will contribute skills and expertise, innovation and healthy working years to their municipality and will not take anything away.

Liisa Reinola

The author is Sports Counselor and sports secretary of Seinäjoki University of Applied Science's Student Union SAMO. In 2020, she was a member of the Board of the Finnish Student Sports Federation and the committee of the University Sports Network.

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