FINLAND: Changing the academic profession

The Changing Academic Profession survey is an ambitious study of the attitudes of academic staff in more than 20 countries. The largest and most extensive survey of academics yet undertaken, it sought to assess the characteristics of academic staff and their work. Speakers from 10 countries presented country-specific and comparative findings at the LH Martin Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Management international conference held in Melbourne. Dr Timo Aarrevaara of the University of Helsinki presented findings from the Finnish survey.

The CAP survey deployed a common questionnaire, population definition and sampling approach. Survey data were compiled by Germany's University of Kassel and a number of indicators defined. These included relative academic salaries, job satisfaction, propensity for job change, opportunity for research, contract conditions and workload. The country base of the CAP survey is being expanded as new countries quiz their own academic staff.

Finland's binary higher education system of universities and polytechnics has much to learn from the CAP project, particularly as its university sector is about to undergo its most radical changes in decades.

The Finnish submission compared Finnish academics' responses from younger and older academics, and between academics in universities and polytechnics. It also compared Finnish responses with Australian responses because Australian higher education went through a major restructuring in the early 1990s. Would the Australian responses to the CAP survey provide a vision of Finland's future?

Perhaps the Finnish universities will meet the challenges the reform will bring because 67% of its academics expressed high or very high levels of job satisfaction. But the responses from university academics were different from those at polytechnics, with the former being less 'satisfied' than the latter.

Further, the level of satisfaction in Finnish higher education is lower than that in other professions. The fact of relatively low academic salaries means the academic profession is less attractive to younger staff, particularly in the universities. It is fairly common in Finland for older academics to earn 'a bit on the side'.

Among other results to come out of the survey, only 10% of older academics said they would not select an academic career again (compared with 20% of younger academics); academics were happy with their physical surroundings but did not think some of the support services they received were up to scratch. They were critical of 'cumbersome administrative processes'.

Overall, Australian academics were less satisfied with their lot than the Finns. Perhaps the major changes that started with the so-called Dawkins reforms from 1989 on were the cause. Australian universities now have much higher student to staff ratios than 20 years ago and the proportion of casual staff has increased from about 13% to 22%.

Although the effect of the Finnish university reform is uncertain, Aarrevaara suggested that on some issues perhaps Finland should be careful not to follow the Australian pattern too closely.

A seminar on the Finnish CAP results will be held in English at the University of Tampere on Thursday and Friday this week.

* Dr Ian Dobson is Helsinki correspondent for University World News. An Australian scholar often based in Finland, he is editor of the Australian Universities' Review and the Australasian representative of the Educational Policy Institute.