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  • Eleni Berki

    Ikponwosa Omogieva

    Eleni Berki and Ikponwosa Omogieva Ekunwe work as researchers in the University of Tampere, and have been active in the group of foreign academic workers of Tampere University Association of Researchers and Teachers.

    Equal Career Opportunities, Acceptance and Tolerance for Foreign Academic Workers

    During the past decade, the annual rate of foreign visiting scholars spending more than two weeks at Finnish universities has varied between 2012 visits (in 2000) and 1631 visits (in 2008). In 2008, altogether 999 foreign scholars visited Finnish universities at least for a month. The average duration of their stay was slightly over four months. From 1990 onwards, the number of such visiting scholars has remained almost the same, the highest rate being 1357 visiting scholars in 1995.

    These statistics, however, do not include foreign scholars working at universities on a more permanent basis; it seems that there are no formal statistics on academic workers with a foreign background. In encounters with our foreign colleagues in the group of foreign academic workers in the Tampere University Association of Researchers and Teachers (Tatte), we have learned that foreign academics face considerable difficulties in Finnish universities. To begin with, some of these problems are outlined below:

    1. 1. The unstable nature of the work or research contract. This is encountered as the most severe difficulty. Most of the foreign employees are occupied in teaching and/or research positions where the funding coming from the Finnish State or other sources is, in most cases, guaranteed only for a few months.
    2. 2. Difficulties in learning the Finnish language. This is a serious problem that might sometimes prove to be a communication barrier for further socialization with Finnish colleagues. The lack of Finnish language skills seems to exclude foreigners from many social, cultural, and sports events, and even from every day coffee and lunch break conversations.
    3. 3. Difficulties in finding new friends among Finns as well as other foreigners. Some interpret this as a consequence of point 2 above and some as an issue of general acceptance and tolerance of the others. It seems that in Finland integration of foreigners into the Finnish society is a more preferable option than a multicultural and multilingual society. Many foreign researchers are, however, wondering why does foreigners’ integration into the Finnish society seem to be the only solution that is widely supported by individual Finns and the Finnish State initiatives alike? Furthermore, why do the benefits to be gained from the richness of a multicultural and multilingual society rarely get mentioned?
    4. 4. Unequal opportunities for work and employment with the Finnish academic workers. It seems that hardly ever do the international colleagues feel that in the context and environment of academic work they are equally treated and their knowledge equally highly appreciated. On the contrary, they feel that in comparison with their Finnish colleagues (i) their opportunities for formal state financial support (e.g. state funded research projects) are limited; and (ii) their professional and personal development is restricted.
    5. 5. Lack of vital information on work rights. This, along with the lack of information on social and political rights, is currently the case in many workplaces where foreign academic and research workers are occupied. Finnish university researchers are not adequately informed on their right to holidays (!) and on the amount of extra holiday money they should righteously get for their vacation.

    On top of these difficulties, together with the demanding weather conditions and social isolation, a number of foreign and Finnish academic workers have repeatedly reported academic discrimination of foreigners. In the university context of work-related tasks and duties, a clear sign of unequal work opportunities can be seen in the case of new job advertisements and application rounds: unwanted foreign applicants are often carefully eliminated or discouraged by using Finnish language in the job tasks’ specification. A general bitter remark is that seldom is a foreign Ph.D. graduate appointed for a further teaching or research position. Once the Ph.D. studies are completed, the cycle of staying and working in Finland closes; with a few proverbial exceptions – as in every rule. Many research studies report that in the Finnish media in general, people with immigrant background are rarely interviewed as being specialists or experts on something. Most often they are only being discussed as “immigrants” without specifying who or why they are in Finland. It is other Finnish people (such as employers, supervisors or government officers) who talk on the foreigners’ behalf.

    On the basis of our knowledge and experience, we would like to share some pieces of concrete and practical advice with all foreign and Finnish academic workers.

    What to do? - Practical advice for the foreign academic and research staff

    1. 1. Join the local professional union of researchers, scientists and lecturers. For a start, visit The Finnish Union of Academic Researchers and Teachers (FUURT) web pages. They include useful resources on the new work environment and society adaptation. Additionally, you will have a source of significant information such as work, social, political rights. As a member, you will always find all sorts of legal support, insurance, work contract assistance, and so on.
    2. 2. Try to learn the Finnish language and communicate in it. It is an important skill to show your good will and commitment to the new work place, and the first and foremost step to understanding on what is going around you, wherever you are in Finland.
    3. 3. Get information on scientific, academic and other forms of discrimination. Are there any legal grounds for your exclusion from some forms of working life, or/and do you have the right for some particular treatment at work?
    4. 4. Speak up! If you do not voice your grievances, other people – the union, the Finnish state, the employer and fellow employees – will never know of them. This is more than a right; it is a moral obligation for yourself and other fellow workers that face similar problems. Do not be passive, if you want to bring about reforms.
    5. 5. Have patience and try! Do not run away from Finland after experiencing a few difficulties. A change in the attitudes towards foreigners and in the overall work culture is coming; only very slowly. After all, life and work in Finland has many opportunities and advantages.

    The bitterness due to the clearly unequal opportunities makes many profound foreign and Finnish academic workers choose to leave Finland and start building their future in the USA, Canada, the UK or Sweden, to mention just a few countries, where legislation treats foreign workers better.

    These countries, for instance, accommodate multicultural, international staff in academic and scientific institutes that openly announce themselves as being equal opportunities employers for all ethnic and other minorities. Furthermore, the mass media of these countries have a longer tradition in showing the talents and potential of immigrants, while Finnish media still project work related immigration mainly just as a general strength of Finnish commerce and economy, without referring to the well-being and work-life balance of foreign knowledge workers.

    What happens in the Finnish Universities nowadays (new work contracts, new University law, Bologna process for European integration, etc.) affect both foreigners and Finnish academic workers alike. Foreigners might have already experienced similar changes in other academic environments and could bring invaluable knowledge to consider regarding the consequences of such decisions on the working lives and work-life balance phenomena in other academic institutions. It is of vital significance to realize that Finnish and foreign academic staff should try to understand the work environment they live in, and eventually change and transform it to a better one for all. Internationalization (also of Finnish business, Finnish education, Finnish culture etc.) is a key issue for social progress and economical prosperity. These can only happen if we accept others’ values, knowledge and ethnicity and dignify other humans´ requests with respectful words and actions. Therefore, the following are also some practical advice for the Finnish people.

    Advice for Finnish colleagues, employers and the Finnish State:

    1. 1. Learn English (or the foreigners’ language) and practice it! Nowadays the need for being international and global requires further knowledge, especially on languages and cultures. Finns are known as multilingual persons who enjoy traveling to exotic places and getting acquainted with other cultures. As the current financial crisis might be fatal for the usual Finnish tourist destinations, it could be cost- and time-effective to utilize the Finnish multilingual and -cultural environment.
    2. 2. Have patience and be polite! Finns, again, are known to be polite and calm people. Imagine yourself as a newcomer in a small country where the language is not an easy one to learn. You would then like work, dignity, recognition, friends and social life, … decent salary for living yourself and your family. You would be very unhappy if you are experiencing communication difficulties, extreme weather conditions, isolation and some form of work contract that underestimates your knowledge, skills and future potential.
    3. 3. Take a more active, mentoring role. Welcome and support the new foreigners by organizing and participating in inter-cultural events, multilingual content websites, and information sessions.

    Above all, the Finnish state and Finnish employers (e.g. the Finnish Universities and the Ministry of Education) should adopt a more active role in informing their foreign staff on their rights and obligations, and they should help them in a smooth adaptation or/and integration process into a society that is not multicultural. There is a centrally and politically decided view, supported by most of the political parties, that Finland needs more foreigners and different scientific viewpoints and experiences. To live up to this view, then, a demonstrated commitment and concrete support is needed.

    Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Finnish and foreign colleagues for openly and honestly sharing their experiences and discussing their opinions with us. Special thanks to Anne Koski, Sinikka Torkkola and Kirsti Sintonen for the timely information, assistance and thorough editing. Thanks also to Joel Kuortti for lanquage consultation.

    Eleni Berki, Ikponwosa Omogieva Ekunwe and Reeta Pöyhtäri:
    The writers work as researchers in the University of Tampere, and have been active in the group of foreign academic workers of Tampere University Association of Researchers and Teachers (Tatte).