FINLAND: International staff exchange week

Academic work and academic staff are quite rightly the focus of journalistic reporting on universities. But this focus sometimes overlooks the important role played by support staff, who represent around half of total university staff in most countries.

Last week, 17 university administrators from 11 countries came to the University of Helsinki's International Staff Exchange Week to learn how things are done in Finland.

Participation is open to staff members from Helsinki's partners in the Erasmus scheme, the European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, established in 1987.

According to Wikipedia, Erasmus forms a major part of the EU Lifelong Learning Programme 2007-2013, and is the operational framework for the European Commission's initiatives in higher education. Helsinki has 350 Erasmus agreements as well as numerous other inter-university research cooperation arrangements.

This year's participants were selected from about 80 applicants, with a selection process that aimed to cover a wide range of geographic and professional areas. Participants represented universities in Austria, Estonia, France, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and the UK.

Their professional areas included quality and performance indicators, human resources, planning, university marketing and communication, IT, libraries and archives, language centres and student exchange. The programme was conducted in English, although it included a 'quick course' in Finnish.

Participants were provided with the opportunity to network with fellow professionals, and to benchmark their own experiences against those of staff from their host department at the university.

Helsinki's coordinator, Tiina Kasunen, is at pains to point out that communication is a two-way thing, with Helsinki having much to learn from participants from other universities.

It wasn't all hard work, though. Participants enjoyed a city sightseeing tour, including a visit to Parliament. There was also a trip to Nuuksio National Park, an extensive and ecologically important continuous backwoods area of about 45 square kilometres a few kilometres from downtown Helsinki.

On the social side, in the evenings, participants were introduced to Finnish nature, Finnish culture, Finnish cooking and the obligatory visit to a sauna.

The university intends the week to be a regular and on-going activity.

* Dr Dobson is an Australian scholar who spends much of his time in Finland. He is editor of the Australian Universities' Review and the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.