Finland is not the happiest place on earth for an academic

Don’t believe the hype; Finnish universities face just as many problems with professional mismanagement and staff morale as those in other countries, says Gareth Rice

July 22, 2018
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Beware of the advertisements that Finnish universities are using to create the impression that they are welcoming places for foreign scholars. In general, they are not. 

I know enough foreign scholars, from across different faculties, who have had their academic careers mismanaged by “professional” front line staff at Finnish universities to write a tome on the subject. 

Such is the culture of fear in Finnish universities that some foreign scholars are afraid to speak out about being mismanaged. Their superiors, who are likely to have the backing of a tightly knit buddy network, will threaten to terminate their employment. The superiors surely appreciate that it can be a daunting experience to lose one’s job, let alone being made unemployed in a country miles away from home.

I have just read Darren Stewart’s article “Expendable? A cautionary tale about foreign scholars in Finnish universities” with dismay. What happened to “Victor” (not his real name) was shameful and unacceptable. It is yet more evidence that Finnish universities have no idea that foreign scholars are worthy of being managed with the highest levels of professionalism insisted upon by universities in other parts of the world or, even worse, they refuse to see it.

The case of Gareth Rice v The Department of Geosciences and Geography at the University of Helsinki has already reached a global audience so I shall not repeat the details here. Instead, I will delineate some of my own reflections on Finnish higher education and offer some advice that, I hope, will help the Victors of the future to form a sufficiently accurate view of what it is like to work in a Finnish university.

If, as a foreign scholar, you think that you will be treated as fairly as your Finnish peers, you have another think coming. The crudest of checks through the web pages of Finnish universities and funding bodies will tell you that, unless their bailiwick is, say, fish biology or museum studies, foreign scholars are less likely to get promoted, get tenure and get research funding from Finnish foundations or the Academy of Finland. 

Advice: While doing your research take the time to email other foreign scholars who are already working in Finnish universities. If they are uncomfortable to put things in writing then you might invite them to a Skype chat where I am sure that they would be more than happy to speak freely to you about how they are managed by their Finnish university. 

Think about international academic standards. If you look at the university web pages of some Finnish professors you may wonder how they managed to get promoted to that grade. Don’t just look at their publications, but in which journals their work has been published. Are they published in the leading journals in your field? In some cases you will notice that they have listed newspaper articles among their academic publications and in other cases they will not have one monograph to their name! 

Advice: Finnish academic standards will be much lower than you may have read about or been led to believe. Being a big name academic in Finland doesn’t necessarily mean anything outside Finland. You should ensure that the Finnish academic with whom you are going to travel from afar to work is a respected and influential figure on the global stage. 

There are lots of statistics about Finland and as an academic you’ll know that they should be treated with the utmost caution. To take the example of happiness – Costa Rica is the happiest country in the world and Finland the 37th, according to the 2016 Happy Planet Index. 

Meanwhile, the 2018 UN World Happiness Report ranked 156 countries by their happiness levels and 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants and Finland was ranked the happiest country of them all!

It seems that this happiness didn’t percolate down into the University of Helsinki. Around the time that the UN report came out, however, an email was sent to staff working in the Faculty of Science from the department well-being/communication task group. 

It said, “well-being and morale in the department has been identified as an area of concern, based in part on earlier results from the Faculty of Science equality survey from last spring” and implored faculty to take an anonymous survey, sharing their thoughts in English or Finnish because “addressing concerns about the wellbeing of researchers, teachers, and other staff in the department is now a top priority”. 

Not only does the email cast serious doubts on happiness in Finland (the data was collected for Gallup by a private Finnish company), it points to a more serious problem in the country’s main university.

Advice: As the email indicates, pay attention to the anecdotal evidence and what you can glean from people on “the inside” as this will give you a more accurate picture of what it is like to work in a Finnish university when compared with any statistics.

If I was ever bothered to write that tome (I always seem to be occupied with much more interesting subjects) I would face a further challenge; getting the text translated into flawless Finnish to reiterate to Finnish universities that they are not welcoming places for foreign scholars. An honest job advertisement would indicate that they are already aware of this and simply refuse to do anything to resolve it.  

Gareth Rice is a lecturer in the School of Media, Culture and Society at The University of the West of Scotland.

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Reader's comments (10)

I am 100% agree with above article, I cannot write more because already mentioned all in details. But, I believe in Finnish professors they are careful and honest.
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Very truthful and factual article. I was once a researcher and have very good academic track record with plentiful publications in the journals of international repute. I have experienced similar project mismanagement problems in the university. Being a foreigner, they never listened to my complaints. In the end, I said goodbye to my otherwise very good academic career. Finland is not the country if you want to pursue academic career for sure.
I’ve read the original story carefully. It’s unfortunate, but has a very specific context and reflects the story of a younger scholar who did not bother (or felt uncomfortable) to ask the right questions prior to signing the employment contract. It happens. Finnish unis are quite good to international scholars (I’m one of them), much better, in fact, than the UK unis (and I got used to be there but decided to return to Finland due to better academic culture and better pay -surprise:). It’s true that Finnish scholars often have a better chance for promotion, but it’s mostly due to their knowledge of the Finnish language. If, as a foreign scholar, you managed to learn Finnish (or not, in my case), you have the same and even better chances. Finns are fair; the procedures are transparent and you always get some feedback. In the ‘Victor’s case (and it’s a very small academic world), there seemed to be a gross misunderstanding between expectations and reality as well as miscommunication with his PI. However, the story of the termination of the contract seems very shady to me. If that’s what happened (which is unlikely), Victor should have contacted the head of department and the dean (the dean is very fair and professional and committed to her job). Or, if he feels wronged, let him contact me and I can definitely help straighten out things being a professor of law and, together with his PI, belonging to the same dept where the project was carried. I am a foregner, one of those nationalities nobody likes, but I cannot imagine my contract being terminated like that.

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