Austerity measures hit universities and polytechnics hard

The latest austerity measures announced by the Finnish government are likely to bring the total number of posts cut since 2012 at Finnish universities and polytechnics to 5,200, the equivalent of two universities and one polytechnic, according to reports.

The figure is based on a survey relating to the austerity measures adopted by the three Finnish governments since 2012, those of Jyrki Katainen (2011-14), Alexander Stubb (2014-15) and Juha Sipilä (since May 2015), which was published by Finnish newspaper Keskisuomalainen and reported by the broadcaster Yle.

Yle estimates that the total budget reductions since the start of 2012 will amount to €280 million (US$305 million), with universities having to cut 3,700 staff positions and polytechnics having to lay off 1,500 staff since 2012.

The government has decided to freeze the university index, introduce tuition fees for students from outside Europe, cut the research funding distributed by the Academy of Finland and Tekes – the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation – and discontinue the compensation paid for pharmacy services to the University of Helsinki and the University of Eastern Finland.

Helsinki University issued a press release last week announcing its intention to reorganise its central administration. It is to reduce administration numbers from 1,050 staff members in 50 organisational units, to 800 staff members in a single administrative service unit. All administrative personnel will have to apply for the new positions.

“The old administrative organisation is being dismantled, and the positions in the new service organisation will be opened to internal applications,” the statement said.

The goal of the new organisation is to “remove overlaps, ensure that staff competence is used more comprehensively and reduce administrative costs”.

Tapani Kaakkuriniemi, the Helsinki University representative of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers, told University World News: ”This is quite like a cruel game of musical chairs. Easy to count that some 250 are left without a job.”

Yle reported that Aalto University is also to cut around 200 jobs. Staff numbers will be further reduced by retirement and non-renewal of fixed term contracts. The latter measures will see numbers shrink by another 130 positions by the end of 2018.

The majority of the retrenchments will take place next month. As the impact of planned cuts in education budgets continues to sink in, Lappeenranta University of Technology, or LUT, also announced sharp staff cutbacks. The institution in eastern Finland, which has 7,000 students, plans to reduce its staff by 13% as it braces for a reduction in next year's budget.

LUT aims to slash personnel costs by €6.3 million, along with other cost-saving measures adding up to a total of €8.9 million.

Unemployed PhD graduates

Unemployment among PhD holders has grown over the past 15 years and increased rapidly in the past few years. There are currently more than 1,600 unemployed PhD graduates in Finland, which represents about 5% of all doctoral graduates.

Petri Koikkalainen, president of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers, told University World News: “The number of new PhDs has increased from 300-400 a year during the 1980s to an unprecedented more than 1,800 in 2014. For a long time, the labour market seemed capable of assimilating the increasing number of PhDs, but now that no longer seems to work.

“The biggest single reason probably is the economic downturn following the crisis of 2008 and the weakening prospects of some Finnish industries. In addition, the public sector has been much more ‘streamlined’ during the past decade or so, which makes the situation more difficult for new graduates in the humanities and social sciences.

“The most difficult areas in terms of absolute numbers of unemployed doctorate holders are in biology, other bio-sciences and technology, but the humanities and social sciences also have significant numbers of unemployed PhDs.

“The cutbacks proposed by the new government in the education sector more generally are, of course, especially harmful in this situation because they will make employment in universities and other research institutions even more difficult, which traditionally have employed a considerable proportion of doctorate holders,” Koikkalainen said.

Maija Arvonen, agreements and bargaining officer with the Finnish Union of Experts in Science, told Yle that in addition to the economic downturn there has been a kind of chain reaction. If a student with a lower degree doesn't get a job they often pursue PhD studies because that guarantees them four years of work through to their dissertation.

Many groups have repeatedly proposed to the Ministry of Education and Culture that the number of PhDs could be lower.

"If you spend 10 years working towards your doctorate and you cannot get work, it's not sustainable for the economy or an individual," said Arvonen.

In the next four years there may be limits placed on the number of PhD study places. The Ministry of Education and Culture will start negotiations with universities to lower the number of PhDs from 1,800 to 1,600 annually.

University of Helsinki Chancellor Thomas Wilhelmsson told Forskerforum that Finland is now at risk of having a ‘lost generation’ of young researchers. “We will not see the total effects until after some 10 years, and then it is not the present government that will sit with the responsibility,” he said.

Anger towards politicians

In December, Finance Minister Alexander Stubb was confronted by angry protestors when he arrived to make a speech at the University of Helsinki.

On another occasion, during a visit to the University of Tampere, Stubb was booed by a man in the lecture hall wearing a mask depicting Prime Minister Juha Sipilä. The protester was evicted from the lecture hall, while another chanted loudly “Sorry, sorry, sorry” in reaction to the austerity measures hitting universities.

Later, in the cafeteria where Stubb was taking questions, a man threw a soft drink at him, calling him “a liar and a budget cutter”.

Göran Melin of the Technopolis Group, Stockholm, which in 2015 released a report entitled Towards a Future Proof System for Higher Education and Research in Finland for the Ministry of Education and Culture, told University World News that Finnish institutions are feeling ‘stabbed in the back’ after loyally agreeing to huge structural changes.

Melin said universities have faced repeated financial pressures and requirements for organisational change and are in need of stable long-term conditions.

"The ministry itself should take full responsibility to decide on the comprehensive organisational changes of the whole system that perhaps are necessary in order to concentrate the resources and create a more internationalised and high-performing higher education system. Just cutting the resources is not going to improve the performance of the Finnish higher education institutions," he said.