FINLAND: Icy reception cools protests

Student organisations in other countries could take note of how civilised their counterparts are in Finland. Alarmed at government plans to impose significant reforms on their universities, Finnish students called a national day of protests for Thursday 19 February. But, compared with the French, it was as mild as an afternoon tea party.

At the University of Helsinki, up to 100 students "moved in" to the administration building in the late afternoon, intending to spend the night there. They occupied the foyer and the rector's fourth floor office suite. Not only was the situation marked by extreme tranquillity, staff arriving for work the next morning were offered fresh coffee while Rector Thomas Wilhelmsson was presented with a bouquet of flowers to open "negotiations".

Although thousands of students were expected to throng the streets of cities across the country, few turned up. That may have been because the temperature in the south was down to -10 degrees, enough to cool the rage of the most diehard protester.

The students believe amendments to Finland's 1997 Universities Act, to take effect from the start of 2010, will mean a decline in university democracy, and that universities will be "led from the top".

The radical changes in university funding and governance (see previous reports here and here) will see the end of rectors being elected by their colleagues. University senates will become bodies with at least half their number coming from outside the university while the senate chair will be an external member, not the rector, ex officio. Elected staff and students will be in a minority under the proposed arrangements.

Students fear reduced funding for non-science areas and the introduction of tuition fees. If passed, the bill will permit fees to be charged to students from outside the European Union and the European Economic Area. Some fear that this will represent the thin edge of the wedge.

Now staff protests are also in the offing. Staff from the humanities and social sciences are particularly concerned about a 'science' culture being imposed on them. A recent survey of professors at the University of Helsinki, found that 167 opposed the new law and the internal reforms that would follow, 47 approved and 17 neither approved nor disapproved. Then again, half the professors failed to respond.

The deans of law from the four Finnish universities that teach law signed a petition stating the intended law was technically problematic. The deans said those who had drafted it had failed to listen to the Ministry of Justice, Finland's Supreme Administrative Court or any of the university faculties of law.

In response, Minister of Education Henna Virkkunen said the new law was "the second best thing" that had happened to universities. The best thing, presumably, was that universities were established in the first place.

"The universities' autonomy will increase but they will have more responsibility for finance and staffing policy... [Universities] can no longer focus solely on planning research and teaching...," Virkkunen said.

"Core funding is secure but the distribution of disciplines between universities will be assessed regularly, to avoid overlap... Some additional funding has been promised for the coming years, and universities are to be rewarded for winning larger amounts of external funding. Universities require more strategic thinking, and a broader view will come from having a higher proportion of board members from outside."

The changes proposed by the new law would move Finland's higher education sector closer to that in many other countries. But some academics argue there has been inadequate research into the likely effects of the changes.

For example, Finnish university staff members have traditionally been equivalent to those in the civil service: a job for life but on relatively low salaries. The possible impact of these changes has not been considered in a scenario where, on the one hand, tenure is weakened and, on the other, staff can demand the type of terms and conditions perceived as being available to researchers employed outside the university sector.

Although the bill was sent to the parliament on 20 February, it has yet to be discussed in any plenary session. It is likely to be some time before the amendments are subjected to a vote.

* Dr Ian Dobson is Helsinki correspondent for University World News. An Australian scholar currently based in Finland, he is editor of the Australian Universities Review and an honorary researcher with Monash University's centre for population and urban research in Melbourne.