Merger makes Tampere the second-largest university

The University of Tampere and the Tampere University of Technology merged on 1 January to create Tampere University, the second-largest university in Finland, a move that will further break down the borders between Finnish universities and university colleges.

The new university will be the largest shareholder of Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK).

The move came after years of resistance but has been welcomed by the ministry, the rector in charge of the University of Tampere from 2016-18, professors, union leaders and student representatives, even though the merger processes were problematic.

Tampere is situated in the South of Finland some 100 miles from Helsinki and is the largest urban area in the Nordic countries not situated on the coast. It is a vibrant engine in Finnish technological development and Tampere University of Technology has notably developed close ties to industry.

The new university foundation is to be operated by private law instead of by public law. Aalto University, established by a merger in 2010, is the only other university governed by private law. The 11 other Finnish universities are governed by public law.

In 2010 all Finnish universities were decoupled from the state and staff members are no longer government employees. Yet the state funding covers universities’ core activities and the state provides the regulations for student intake and the rights to provide degrees and evaluate results when funding is negotiated.

The university community comprising the new Tampere University and Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK) will comprise approximately 30,000 students and 4,400 staff and will have an operating budget of close to €400 million (US$459 million).

Some 38% of the operating budget for all three institutions merged will be provided by external funding and one main objective with the merger is to trigger the strengthening of external funding. The university community will confer approximately 4,000 degrees annually.

Permanent Secretary Anita Lehikoinen at the Ministry of Education and Culture, who is the most senior officer working with the minister, told University World News that Tampere has involved the merger of two university cultures, which at times has proved difficult due to “lack of mutual trust and understanding between the two universities”.

“The role of patient, almost constant debate, discussion and deliberation was probably not recognised well enough in the process,” she said.

Five years of wrestling

The merger has been a lengthy and complicated affair, involving a large number of people and organisations, with numerous board meetings, media appearances, seminar discussions and interventions in the media and social media.

Several student organisations have been mobilised, and Tatte – the local Tampere branch of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT) – intervened during the process, notably when the transitional interim board of the new foundation university decided to commence the recruitment of the new university president prematurely and ”with no legitimate authority”, Tatte said.

It said the academic community, including Tatte, had regularly closed ranks on the issue in defence of autonomy and legality.

The critical mass was reached in February 2018, when the interim board presented a draft for controversial new university regulations which Tatte believed might be in violation of university law and the Finnish constitution. University personnel and students walked out in protest and Tatte filed a complaint to the Finnish parliamentary ombudsman.

Following the walk-out, two Tatte members were elected to the academic board.

The National Union of University Students in Finland (SYL) said university autonomy had been jeopardised, complaining that the university community had not been allowed “genuine participation” in the merger.

The merger process hence saw a lot of dissatisfaction and erosion of trust. But the board selected a new rector, Mari Walls, who took up the position last September and the other leadership positions have been filled.

Walls and president of TAMK Markku Lahtinen said in a press release recently: “An incredible amount of exceptional work has been done by hundreds and hundreds of people both within and outside our university community.”

The Ministry of Education and Culture is supporting the merger with €22 million of funding during 2017-20. The administration of the new university foundation demanded the government provide €200 million in capital, but the government has conceded only that it will provide capital “to the extent possible”.

Cultural differences and power struggles

This merger process has been difficult due to organisational, political and cultural differences, different interests and power struggles.

The University of Tampere was known to be a very democratic public institution with active participation by the university community, while Tampere University of Technology has had the closest links to Finnish companies. Debate has centred on the question of whether the new university as a foundation university should have a board with internal members – whereas foundation universities have a senate consisting of internal members only for academic decision-making.

Jussi Kivistö, professor of educational management at the University of Tampere, told University World News that Tampere University’s future chances for success were “not depending primarily on the legal form of the university (private instead of public), but on how to integrate the cultures of the two very different universities in a way which is acceptable and motivating for the staff and students”.

He said one of the potential dangers of the new university governance structure would be trying to over-manage the institution in an overly old-fashioned top-down manner.

“The governance structure of the new university allows the staff and students to participate in institutional decision-making in formal terms, but more important is that the governance is shared also in real terms. This is actually the latest trend in many knowledge-intensive private enterprises, which have learned that lower levels of management hierarchies and shared governance are actually the key for long-term organisational success.”

Positive feedback

Göran Melin of the Technopolis Group, who in 2015 was the principal investigator of a major study of the Finnish higher education system, said the merger is a “promising and exciting undertaking”.

“The formation of a second really large multi-faculty university in Finland is likely to have long-term positive effects on Finnish research. The new university will continue to collaborate closely with Tampere University of Applied Sciences, meaning an even more comprehensive and complementary academic community. Other countries should follow the continued process carefully in order to learn from it.”

Jari-Pekka Kanniainen of the Student Union of Tampere University (TRE) said the merged student union would have five representatives among the 19 members of the representative council or konsistori.

He said the new university would be the most organisationally diverse among the Finnish universities, posing special challenges, although they chose three main strategic areas – social sciences, health and technology. TRE will be working with 52 field-specific student associations to coordinate advocacy work in the different faculties.

Liisa Laakso, who was rector at the University of Tampere from 2016 to 2018, during the merger, told University World News that the merger combination would bring new strengths to research and higher education.

“This requires full respect for the work, achievements and excellence of the disciplinary fields represented in it. In the legacy of the University of Tampere, social sciences in particular are important. The societal impact of the university includes critical thinking and values of academic freedom.”

She said there had been concerns that the interim board was not balanced and properly informed in its decision-making, which could undermine the excellence of the new university.

“It is up to the new leadership and also the stakeholders – founding members and the government – to show that this is not the case. The new university needs proper resources and the university community needs to be able to work in peace and to have certainty of their future.

“Tampere3 [the name given to the merger process] was not initiated in order to make savings. It was initiated in order to provide a stronger basis for research and higher education.”

Ministry optimistic

Permanent Secretary Lehikoinen said the ministry had supported the process financially and encouraged the universities to take the measures needed to implement the merger.

“Now that the process is completed, and very able people have been appointed to key positions, I am very optimistic for the future of Tampere University together with Tampere University of Applied Sciences,” she said.