How will the pieces of the higher education puzzle settle?

The atmosphere surrounding science and higher education politics on the national level may not be desperate right now, but it is expectant and uncertain. Many projects are beginning, and their consequences may become rather significant, depending on what position the pieces will finally land in.

To start with, it is worth mentioning the draft law that the Ministry of Education and Culture is trying to push forward quickly and that would allow the large-scale outsourcing and subcontracting of education for universities, extending up to 49 percent of BA, MA or doctoral degree studies.

At the same time, the working group that is preparing additional funding for universities — the “capitalization group” led by Permanent Secretary Anita Lehikoinen — is expected to make proposals after about six months of consideration. It is unclear, though, to what extent there will be specifically capitalization, and how the resources will be divided between the teaching and research sector led by the Ministry of Education and Culture and the enterprise and innovation sector led by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.

The Ministry of Education and Culture is also starting large-scale vision work at the higher education sector which will, hopefully, clarify what kind of big picture is being created. The government will announce its potential new openings in April after their midway spending limits discussion. Judging by the meagre advance information, there will be new key projects and levers and instruments that are led by the political level.

It has long seemed as though, from the point of view of the political level and maybe even university management, the problems of universities lie in the system’s steerability and the agility to change, in getting and measuring results. In how to get more and more output out of the same or smaller resource.

From the point of view of real-life science makers and maybe even from the point of view of middle management, the problem looks somewhat different. Work at universities is sometimes badly organized, but there are few tools available for organizing it better. It would be good to get more results, but this is difficult, if a lion’s share of the staff that makes the results is constantly facing the danger of unemployment in a game of musical chairs.

When The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers named temporary jobs as the obstacle of science in 2016, it simultaneously stated that they are the root cause of many other problems as well — lack of perseverance, the suspension of research or a drop in ambition level, work atmosphere problems, even cynicism.

Universities’ stream of income comes from many sources, but this is true of many other workplaces, which have, better than universities, been able to build trust in the sense that good work will also be rewarded with continuity.

The problems lie largely in universities themselves, but university politics does not nearly always make resolving them easier. For example it is difficult to believe that the large-scale subcontracting of education would make the number or quality of employment contracts better.

The political and public servant level seem to be putting the responsibility for the problems of working culture on universities. According to official optimism, education organizers will hardly use their margin of flexibility to its maximum and will always act responsibly — even though in practice it is known that when the euro is the consultant, many kinds of solutions are possible.

The most cynical vision is that economic pressure and enabling legislation will be used to force some universities into profiling themselves as subcontractors, in which situation the connection between teaching and research can only be dreamt of.

The Education and Culture Committee of the Parliament is currently considering already another evaluation that has been made of the Universities Act that took effect in 2010. That, too, states that the working culture has become authoritarian and the staff’s possibilities of influence have been weakened. In this, too, the responsibility seems to fall solely on universities, while they are also expected to follow the policy definitions set by the state’s political powers even more closely.

(March 8, 2017)

Chair, The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers

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