FINLAND: Merger fever hits universities

The Finnish higher education sector is about to enter a phase of institutional mergers. Perhaps this is long overdue given that Finland currently has 20 universities with 176,000 enrolments, and 26 polytechnics with another 130,000, to service its five million-strong population.

The conurbation around the capital Helsinki is home to more than one million people and this region is the best served with higher education. However, the university network covers the whole country, including sparsely populated areas to the north and east.

Ten of Finland's universities are multi-faculty institutions although only one of these is in Helsinki, three are universities of technology (one in Helsinki), three are schools of economics and business administration (two in Helsinki), and four are creative arts academies (all in Helsinki).

The regional distribution of multi-faculty universities away from the capital is a product of Finland's regional development policies from the late 1950s. Nine universities were established in regional cities over the following 20 years or so. The universities vary in size from 39,000 students at the University of Helsinki to about 250 at the Academy of Fine Arts.

All Finnish universities are state-run and financed primarily from the national higher education budget.

But change is afoot and Finland's new-century higher education policies include institutional mergers. First are several regional mergers: the universities of Joensuu (about 8,000 students) and Kuopio (6,000) will merge to form East Finland University; the University of Jyväskylä (home of Finland's synchrotron), the University of Tampere and the Tampere University of Technology will become the Central Finland University (with more than 41,000 students); and the University of Turku and the Turku School of Economics and Business Administration are also to merge.

Second, various other arrangements have been agreed to or are being discussed in the Helsinki region. The Swedish-language business university, Svenska Handelshögskolan, will in future "cooperate more closely" with the University of Helsinki. Less concrete are the future organisational arrangements of the three creative arts universities that are not party to an 'innovative university' scheme although it is believed the subject is also being discussed with "closer cooperation" likely.

The third and perhaps most radical change aims to see the creation of a ‘world class university’ – an ‘innovative university’ which is to be formed by a merger between the Helsinki University of Technology (HUT), the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration and the University of Art and Design. It will have about 21,000 students and will comprise three of Finland's strategically important fields: technology, business and art know-how.

One could understand if the University of Helsinki felt slightly miffed that anyone thought Finland did not already have a world class university. After all, in 2007 the university was ranked 73 in the Shanghai Jiao Tong list and 11 among non-English speaking universities while also ranking 100 in the Times Higher Education Supplement's World University Rankings (26th non-English speaking).

HUT, the major player in the innovative university, was ranked in the 403-510 bracket and 170th in the Times Higher list. The new university is also to receive more state funding than any of the others. Again, this is unlikely to please the rest spurred on by league table rankings, perhaps the innovative university will be seen as Finland's version of the 'Harvard Here' syndrome. How much money it will really take to achieve the desired end is not known.

On the other side of Finland's binary higher education system, polytechnics also have mergers in mind. In fact, some mergers have already occurred. As reported in last week's University World News ("Polytechnics that call themselves universities") many of Finland's polytechnics have taken the unprecedented step of describing themselves in English as 'universities of applied sciences'.

University rectors wonder why the word 'university' would be used in English when the equivalent word is not used in either Finnish or Swedish.

* Dr Ian Dobson is an Australian scholar currently based in Finland. He is editor of Australian Universities Review and an honorary researcher with Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research in Melbourne.