Tight government budget to hit universities hard

On 14 August Minister of Finance Alexander Stubb presented the government’s budget proposal for 2016, totalling €53.9 billion (US$59.6 billion). The budget proposal is being prepared in a situation where the economy has not grown in recent years due to weaker economic conditions and long-term structural problems.

The decision to adjust central finances will reduce the government’s spending in 2016 by around €900 million (US$993 million), and the savings to be made within the school education and higher education portfolios will reduce funding by approximately €210 million. But even with these cuts in the budget, the current estimate is that the central government deficit will grow from €100 billion in 2015 to €106 billion in 2016.

Finnish government ministries will now negotiate on the effects of the proposed budget cuts with the Ministry of Finance before the budget is presented to parliament.

In a shock for the University of Helsinki, the ministry is proposing a €30 million cut in funding one year before scheduled in the original government policy programme, which leading university officials are characterising as a “research-hostile line”.

This €30 million is not the total amount to be cut in the coming years. By 2020, the University of Helsinki will have faced funding cuts amounting to about €100 million due to decisions made by the previous and new governments.

Simultaneously, the government is considering ‘spearhead investments’ in research totalling €1.6 billion, for which universities have been invited to submit proposals for projects which prioritise bio-economy, clean technology and digitalisation of primary and secondary schools.

Implications of cuts are ‘not understood’

In a recent comment in Yle Uutiset, the national news service, University of Helsinki Rector Jukka Kola said: “Prime Minister [Juha] Sipilä’s government has not understood the potentially negative effects of cutting funds from education and research. With this budget proposal the government is cutting important cords from the one Finnish university that has gained the most international acclaim.”

Spokespeople from the University of Helsinki say that the Ministry of Finance’s budget proposal is forcing unfair cuts on universities and that the University of Helsinki will start to show a negative turnover by the end of 2015.

Helsinki University in 2015 is ranked number 67 of the world’s best universities in the recently announced Academic Ranking of World Universities, and this is its best ranking in the 13-year history of the ARWU or Shanghai ranking.

“We want to maintain our position among the top universities of the world and to improve it further, but our efforts would be a great deal easier if the government of Finland hadn’t targeted the University of Helsinki specifically with major budget cuts,” says Markus Laitinen, head of international affairs at the university.

In early June, several thousand people in central Helsinki protested against the government’s proposed cuts to education. Protest organiser Turmas Sadeniemi said that the reduced education budget “would put the country’s future at risk”.

A working group called Vain Kaksi Kättä (‘Only Two Hands’) campaigned against cuts to early childhood education during the summer. In August the group handed the Ministry of Education and Culture a petition with 67,368 signatures arguing that the number of children in pre-school teaching could not be increased if budget cuts went ahead.

Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat reported that 85 professors and research directors, 40% of whom are men, earlier this summer signed a petition protesting against what they say is a total lack of any perspective of equality of the sexes in the government’s programme.

They are demanding that the government makes a commitment that in the future it will evaluate the impact of its austerity and structural reform plans on women, men and the equality of the sexes.

Comment on austerity plans

World-renowned Finnish educator, author, scholar and Visiting Professor of Practice at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, Pasi Sahlberg, commented to University World News: “I think the government's austerity plan hits education particularly hard in two ways. One, it reduces funding from municipalities and universities and shifts the burden from state or local budgets to parents and students.

“Continued budget cuts will eventually do away with all or most of the additional and support services in schools and universities, increase student:teacher ratios and bring even more part-time teachers and professors to schools and universities. This will have negative impacts on the quality of teaching and learning in the long run.

“The second, and perhaps more serious consequence is the erosion of public trust in education and especially trust between educators and politicians. Before the spring elections all main party leaders were shown holding signs saying ‘No more cuts from education!’, promising that while austerity is an inevitable part of the next government’s programmes, education would remain untouched.”

This was not the case and severe cuts followed. “I am afraid many educators in universities and schools will gradually lose faith in education being for the common good and in education, research and innovation being the drivers of transformation of the Finnish economy. These consequences may be very difficult to heal afterwards,” said Sahlberg.