Funding and flexibility: keys to the future

December 1, 2006

Finland's universities must adapt to survive in the competitive international market, says Raili Seppänen

Finland's universities are going through turbulent times. External pressures such as globalisation and the internal pressures of impending economic, structural and cultural changes pose big challenges. The question is do universities have the capacity to meet them?

Finland's tertiary education system cannot afford to be complacent, a recent assessment from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warns. While the report published in September acknowledges that the existing system serves national requirements fairly well, it says a radical overhaul is needed if the country's 20 universities are to survive in the international market.

The report argues that the shift from traditional disciplines and long courses to modern universities with diversified funding is inevitable. It lists several areas that universities need to focus on, such as economic autonomy, tuition fees for foreigners and a flow of international students and staff.

In 2005, a two-tier degree pattern that fits the Bologna structure was set up. But in Finland a bachelors degree is still seen as having little relevance in the labour market. The OECD report urges greater flexibility and more willingness to review skill requirements for jobs.

The Ministry of Education has repeatedly placed economic demands on universities to try to improve efficiency and productivity. "Our worry is that productivity is being pushed up by reducing staff numbers," says Ilkka Niiniluoto, rector of the University of Helsinki. A funding shortage prevents universities from employing more teaching staff.

Because many Finnish students opt to go to university abroad, the OECD report talks of a brain drain. To try to attract more foreign students, an increasing number of higher education institutions are offering programmes taught in English. But lack of resources is hampering these efforts.

The Finnish Council of University Rectors is pressing for a change in the law governing university funding, bringing more economic independence and allowing universities to get involved in commercial projects and to compete internationally.

The council says that universities should become legal entities. This will allow them to set up funds and draft long-term business plans. Until now, all external funding had to be tied to research. A Bill on university reform is going through parliament and some concessions are expected before the end of the year.

Although the National Confederation of Student Unions supports more commercial universities, it stresses that students should not be fee-paying clients but members of the academic community.

However, tuition fees are still very much on the agenda. The OECD recommends charging foreign students from outside the European Union. In 2005, a Bill proposed fees ranging from €3,000-€12,000 (£2,000-£8,000) a year. But this year, Antti Kalliomaki, the Minister for Education, announced that it had been shelved. It remains to be seen whether the plan will be revived after the general election in March.

 

Helsinki

The University of Helsinki is the oldest university in Finland, dating back to 1640. It is also the largest, with about 38,000 students and more than 7,500 staff, writes Raili Seppänen.

It was established in the former Finnish capital of Turku, but it was transferred in 1828 to Helsinki, which had become the capital in 1812.

About 10 per cent of the university's teaching staff are from outside Finland, and are based mainly in the sciences, the medical faculty and its Biotechnology Institute. Each year, the university awards about 4,800 degrees, including almost 400 at doctoral level.

Jorma Ollila, former chief executive of communications giant Nokia, and Linus Torvalds, developer of the Linux computer operating system, studied at Helsinki, as did seven of ten Finnish presidents and three Nobel prizewinners.

Helsinki's strategy from 2007 focuses on research and internationalisation. It is one of the founding members of the elite Leagueof European Research Universities. The university has 11 faculties and 20 independent research institutes that can quickly refocus their research on emerging fields, giving them an edge internationally. Its strongest research areas include IT, international law and human rights, cognitive sciences, computational molecular science, biophysics, human genetics, structural virology, cancer biology and climate change.

Helsinki fared well against European universities in a 2005 international research evaluation, which gave two thirds of Helsinki's 75 research units either the highest or the second highest score out of a possible seven.

At present, there are no tuition fees for foreign students. But, with an average acceptance level of 23 per cent of applicants, it is not easy to win a place.

There are 2,100 foreign students at Helsinki - 5 per cent of the total cohort. Most of these come from Russia, Estonia, China, Germany, the UK and the US, although, in total, 98 different nationalities are represented.

Helsinki aims to double the number of foreign under-graduate and doctoral students by 2009. The target is to have 1,440 undergraduate students, 750 doctoral students and about 1,100 non-degree students - a total of 3,300 overseas students. The university plans to launch 30 additional masters programmes delivered in English. Dedicated services aimed at foreign students, such as language courses, cultural guidance and career guidance, will also be improved.

One overseas student, Martha Vera from Mexico, enrolled on a masters in communication in the faculty of social sciences because of its reputation, despite warnings about how hard it was to gain a place. She says: "My study programme has met my expectations, although it is hard work. The main drawback is that important information is often only in Finnish so it is not always accessible to a first-year student who has just a basic knowledge of the language.

"But," she adds, "the compulsory Finnish language course has excellent tutors."

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