Uniarts professors win their fixed-term case

The December verdict by the Labour Court is likely to lead to other full-time contracts at the University of the Arts.

Professors at the University of the Arts Helsinki demanded their employment contracts to become full-time, which was approved by the Labour Court of Finland. In their verdict in late December, the Labour Court stated that the employment contracts of Anna-Kaisa Rastenverger and Anita Seppä had been written up as fixed-term contracts at the employer’s initiative without a valid reason. As such, the contracts are to be deemed contracts of indefinite duration. Both contracts would have expired at the end of the year, and openings were posted for near-equivalent jobs.

The plaintiff in the case was JUKO, the Negotiation Organisation for Public Sector Professionals. The Finnish Union of University Professors supported the professors from the beginning and carried e.g. the risk of legal fees.

According to the Labour Court, fixed-term contracts are an exception with limited applicability even at the universities. As a general rule, a contract of indefinite duration should be offered instead. Being an established practice in the field does not constitute a valid reason for a fixed-term contract on its own, and the arts must follow the same employment principles as any other field.

Professor of Art History and Theory Anita Seppä hopes the verdict sets a positive precedent. Seppä is in her third full professorship and, as a result of the court verdict, earned her first full-time employment contract at 52 years old.

“The verdict emphasises the freedom of science and art, which may not be curtailed or weakened by, for example, university strategy or staff politics. This is a very important defence of an education-focused university and improves our chances to confidently work long-term for Finnish research and art”, Seppä says.

Tarja Niemelä, the Executive Director of the Finnish Union of University Professors expects the Labour Court verdict to have wider ramifications.

“The verdict affects Uniarts as a whole, all fields of art, and also the fixed-term contracts at other universities because the court’s reasoning was so strong”, Niemelä says. Mia Weckman, the Director of Advocacy of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers, shares the expectation. She emphasises the point in the Labour Court verdict stating that the universities must abide by the Employment Contracts Act exactly as any other place of employment.

—“We have been repeating this over and over even though the employers keep saying the situation is somehow different at the universities. The first court verdicts just support this, in our opinion very clear-cut, argument.”

Weckman is positive about the fact the legal process has now been gone through and tested.

“If the universities themselves and the Finnish Education Employers will not ensure the Employment Contracts Act is followed, we will be taking legal action on more issues.”

Uniarts has outlined that as a result of the Labour Court verdict, the university will review all fixed-term employment contracts for academic personnel, approximately 150 in total. Tarja Niemelä of the Finnish Union of University Professors sees this approach as the correct choice and reiterates that if there were no grounds for a fixed-term contract at the time of appointment, the employee must become full-time.

Uniarts rector Kaarlo Hildén commented on the effects of the verdict as follows:

“It is likely that the specified fixed-term contract criteria will lead to other contracts becoming full-time as well. Over the decades, we have had an established practice that had not been specified in relation to the Employment Contracts Act. Now we have got a framework we can use to review both our existing and future fixed-term contracts.” Last year, Uniarts adopted the tenure track system for professors. The university has highlighted its plan to increase the number of full-time employees. The Finnish Union of University Professors has spoken out about the way the career system is based around fixed-term contracts such as a lengthy probationary period which clash with the Employment Contracts Act.

“The goal of the career system is to increase the number of full-time employees, so in that respect it has worked as expected. We must specify the principles which allow for fixed-term contracts to be used within the career system and at the university in general”, Hildén says.

Text: Terhi Hautamäki
English translation: Marko Saajanaho