Finland's frozen assets thawed by Arctic fusion

But while mergers boost competitiveness, campus commutes leave some cold. Ed Dutton writes

April 19, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Winter migration: it is 140km between the campuses of one merged university

As the internationalisation of higher education creates fiercer competition for students and research funding, universities are looking to streamline, putting mergers on the agenda in many countries.

But when a merged university requires academics to commute for 140km on the motorway in an Arctic winter, the move towards more unions can polarise opinion.

Finland is at the forefront of the merger trend: three new universities were created in 2010 (involving seven pre-existing institutions), with more unions expected in 2013.

Anita Lehikoinen, director of higher education and research policy at the Ministry of Education, is clear about the reasons for the mergers in 2010 and those next year: "Quality and competitiveness. Small universities are just not powerful enough."

The new Aalto University, which merged the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics and the University of Art and Design Helsinki, was aimed at "trying something new, combining technology, design and business schools", she said.

But in the cases of the University of Turku (which absorbed the Turku School of Economics) and the University of Eastern Finland (which merged Joensuu and Kuopio universities), the aim "was to make stronger scientific units that could better compete internationally", Ms Lehikoinen said.

Kuopio and Joensuu would have become teaching-only universities, she said, if they had not "done something drastic. Now we are merging all the free arts academies. The idea is to create one strong arts university."

However, many academics are concerned about the results of the 2010 changes. Jani Ursin, senior researcher in the education faculty at Jyväskylä University, interviewed researchers at the new universities.

"Many felt that a lot of extra work had to be done, there weren't enough resources, and they were unsure about the future of their jobs," he said.

The merging of faculties was seen by some to have led to larger classes and less contact with students.

For the University of Eastern Finland, "it's 140km between Joensuu and Kuopio, and this is quite far", Dr Ursin said. There is only basic public transport, he continued, and the motorway "is not a motorway by British standards", and it is "not fun" to drive between these two cities in Finland's dark Arctic winter.

"Of course there will be problems in the early years, but the balance is very positive,"said Perttu Vartiainen, rector of the University of Eastern Finland. Although some people have lost their jobs, these have been in the main administrative staff, he said.

"The trade unions argue that it's just about saving money," Professor Vartiainen said. But he insisted that the mergers have "allowed greater cooperation between academic fields across the two campuses".

"We are stronger if we join forces," he argued, noting that both universities can produce international-standard scientific research only if they pool their resources. In Finland, unlike in the UK, "140km is not that far", he added.

Tapani Kaakkuriniemi, president of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers, argued that the mergers have resulted in job losses and, in some cases, "poor chemistry" between institutions.

However, he said his members are generally positive about the forthcoming mergers, believing that their universities are too small and that a merger will bring administrative benefits and greater prestige.

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