Helsinki to slash staff as austerity hits universities

The board of the University of Helsinki, the oldest and largest university in the country, is to cut 1,200 out of 8,200 staff posts, a measure of how Finnish universities are being hit by the effects of the government’s austerity programme.

The University has been told it faces a cut in government funding of €106 million (US$118 million) by 2019-20.

Last week Lappeenranta University of Technology announced a similar cut of 15% of staff jobs.

Jaana Husu-Kallio, chair of the University of Helsinki’s board, said: "Our key objective is to maintain high-quality teaching and research. We are now seeking the best solutions without compromising this objective.”

The board authorised the university leadership to take every necessary action to balance the university’s finances. Besides the measures to reduce personnel costs, the extensive changes will include a number of other savings targets, reforms and means to acquire new forms of income.

Rector Jukka Kola said that the University of Helsinki will seek new sources of international funding, and that the university would be prepared to accept tuition fees from students coming from outside Europe.

A recently retired University of Helsinki administrator, who did not wish to be named, described the cuts as harsh, but noted that there had been a considerable expansion in the number of administrative staff a few years ago.

“There is no doubt some scope to pare back some support staff, but cuts are always difficult to assimilate. Perhaps someone should start by looking for places where functions have been duplicated.”

Fierce reactions

Hannu Riikonen, a professor of comparative literature who has worked for the University of Helsinki for 44 years, told national daily Helsingin Sanomat: “The situation does seem very disconcerting. I haven’t heard of anything like this in my long career. The cited numbers are very high.”

Jari Järvenpää, president of the National Union of University Students in Finland, or SYL, said: “Students are not alone in worrying about the immense cuts aimed at education. The Confederation of Finnish Industries and trade unions have also criticised the cuts, worried parents have contacted the media, citizens have protested, and many others have expressed their astonishment over the choices the Finnish government has made.”

Järvenpää said the cuts at Lappeenranta University of Technology and the University of Helsinki would have “massive consequences” in education and research for both current students and future generations.

Petri Koikkalainen, chair of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers, told University World News that junior researchers are often in the most vulnerable position but since the introduction of the new Universities Act and university reform in 2010, several universities have already reduced their personnel, including terminating contracts of ‘permanent’ professors and lecturers, and a few universities have already gone through many rounds of such streamlining or ‘profiling’.

Law students at the University of Helsinki took matters into their own hands recently, occupying a central university building, establishing twitter and Facebook pages called ‘Angry students’ (modelled after the commercially successful Finnish computer game ‘Angry birds’), and publishing a statement of their protest.

It said: “The university community has already suffered from constant funding cuts, structural reforms, staff reductions and curricular reforms during the term of the previous government. These reforms and changes are part of a constant spiral of reforming and developing that has not led to the improvement of research, studies or the university community.”

The students accused the management at the University of Helsinki of making an “uncritical public response” to education cuts.

“This is unacceptable,” their statement said. “Therefore, the people of the university are taking over their own spaces to demonstrate that the autonomy of universities is not for sale.”

World-renowned Finnish educator, author, scholar and visiting professor of practice at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, Pasi Sahlberg said in his blog that sweeping cuts in education planned by the Finnish government would put the country’s high-performing school system in danger, and wider erosion of the welfare state would be “the worst thing” for education.

“Finland cannot afford to compromise equality if it wishes to remain as a top player in education,” he said.

Dean of the arts faculty at the University of Helsinki, Arto Mustajoki, told University World News: “The situation is really serious. It is impossible to make all the cuts in administration. But if one wants to see positive things here as well, they are: we are now more ready to make necessary improvements and reforms in our activities which have been discussed and planned for years: including rather revolutionary study reform (structural changes of curricula and use of more student-centred methods) and more effective searching for new sources of finance.”

On 18 September the largest general strike for several decades was staged, and on the following day 30,000 people took to the streets to protest against the government’s austerity plans. This was the largest such demonstration in the Finnish capital since 1917, when Finland gained its independence from Russia.

Unions representing 2.2 million people – in a country of 5.5 million – went on strike, protesting over the government’s proposal to cut welfare rights. Railways, buses and airports were closed down. The government had proposed cuts in welfare rights to reduce government spending.

These included ending two public holidays; reducing overtime payments; no extra pay for working on Sundays; cutting sick leave pay by 20%; and reducing public employees’ holidays from 38 to 30 days per year. Unions had agreed to an increase in the retirement age from 63 to 65 years.