Think global or stay local? Finnish sector weighs its options

Unease with internationalisation echoes growing concerns in other Nordic nations. Ed Dutton reports

February 23, 2012



Looking inward: standards of written English at Finnish institutions such as Helsinki University, above, can be variable and academic staff must sometimes pay for proofreading and translation services


Across the Nordic countries, academics are under pressure to publish in English to give their research greater international impact. While some believe this is a necessary step towards improving university standards and attracting international students and scholars, there is a growing backlash against Anglicisation, amid fears for the future of the Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish languages if they cease to be used in academia for critical analysis and the exploration of complex concepts.

In Finland in particular, the pressure to publish in English has given rise to a shadow market in translation and proofreading services - which can prove expensive for academics and universities.

At an institutional level, Finnish universities increasingly pride themselves on their internationalism. There are a number of "international" master's programmes taught in English. These are the only courses in Finland's higher education sector - undergraduate or postgraduate - for which fees may be charged, and the fees apply only to non-EU students on these courses. Even so, the Finnish higher education sector's level of internationalisation - as indicated by numbers of foreign students and university staff, Finnish academics' and students' international mobility - lags behind that of other Nordic states.

For some, this is a serious problem. For others, it is part and parcel of a focus on protecting the Finnish language that may help to avoid the kind of academic backlash being seen in some neighbouring countries keener to embrace internationalisation.

According to Kimmo Viljamaa of Ramboll Management Consulting, a public-sector consultancy firm, Finnish academic research has significantly less impact than that of Sweden, Norway or Denmark. Finnish academics, especially in the social sciences, are far more likely than their Nordic neighbours to publish in their native language or in anglophone journals based in their own country.

Mr Viljamaa, who is also a doctoral researcher at the University of Tampere, conducted research in 2009 on university internationalisation for the Academy of Finland, the governmental funding body for scientific research. In his view, the sector's relative lack of internationalisation is a problem. "There are fewer foreign students in Finland than in other leading countries. The share has been growing but it's still below average," he says.

Self-perpetuating

Viljamaa adds: "More worrying is that Finnish researchers don't go abroad very much. Mobility has actually gone down in the past decade. And there are far fewer foreign staff at Finnish universities than in other Nordic countries."

Viljamaa stresses that this lack of internationalisation seems to be self-perpetuating, making it difficult for Finnish institutions to attract the best international scholars.

"Language is a big problem. Science research will be carried out in English but all of the administration will be in Finnish. This means that foreigners may be able to work on a project but it would be very difficult for them to make a career in Finland."

The relative lack of internationalisation in Finland's universities reflects the state of the country as a whole, compounding problems for international scholars, Viljamaa argues. "The culture makes it difficult for the family [of the academic]. It's very difficult for a spouse to find a job without speaking Finnish.

"In the capital [Helsinki], it's easier. But at a small university elsewhere, language is a much bigger barrier." The problem, he suggests, is less common among Finland's Nordic neighbours, where the standard of English is higher.

Lack of internationalisation in Finland also has a financial impact on both individual scholars and departments.

Pentti Haddington, a postdoctoral researcher in linguistics at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies at the University of Helsinki, notes that all Finnish universities offer proofreading and translation services to their academic staff.

"Normally, before you submit an (English-language) article to a journal, you're asked to get the language checked. Sometimes it's done by the English department and sometimes by a special language centre," explains Haddington, who used to work at such a facility at the University of Oulu.

But either way, he adds, "you have to pay for it, and it's very expensive. Sometimes, if your research is part of a project, there may be funding to pay for proofreading. But in most cases, the department can't afford to pay so academics have to pay for it themselves."

According to Haddington, this means that there is a clear financial advantage to being a native English speaker, or having near-native fluency. Poor written English can be costly: according to Arja Alin of Oulu's language centre, university employees are charged €15 (£13) per page for proofreading, but €35 per page for translation. Demand for the two services is roughly evenly split.

But the perceived slowness of the language centres also leads to Finnish academics employing freelance proofreaders. One freelancer, a British postgraduate living in Finland who wishes to remain anonymous, says he charges between €14 and €16 per page for proofreading and EUR40 per page for translation into English. Most articles sent to him are about 30 pages long.

Obfuscation

Following proofreading, he says, academics "want the work to be of publishable quality...Often, many sentences have to be rewritten."

The freelancer sometimes finds himself editing the articles academically as well as linguistically.

"The idea is to make the sentences clearer and in better English. But I find that there's a lot of obfuscation. Sometimes, they're writing in a way that they think academics like. And when you take away the obfuscation, which you inevitably do if you're making it clearer, then you can find the argument and agree or disagree with it."

Others in Finnish higher education argue that the sector is maintaining a necessary balance between a local and global outlook.

Anita Lehikoinen, director of higher education research policy at the Ministry of Education, says Finland is making moves to increase university internationalisation.

"There will soon be greater rewards for international scientific publications published in English," she explains. "But we also have an obligation to the Finnish public that universities should offer education in Finnish and Swedish, our two native languages."

She emphasises that the hard sciences are increasingly international but that "many of the people in the social sciences and humanities think that most of the impact [in work in those disciplines] is within Finland. So there is more resistance to the use of English there."

But, for Lehikoinen, the most important reason for maintaining Finnish in higher education is that it needs to be preserved as a language of scholarship.

"We have nation-states now and they are not going away any time soon," she says. "We are a small country with a small language that nobody else speaks. If we don't take steps to preserve Finnish, then nobody else will."

In Norway, internationalisation has been the subject of heated debate. But there, unlike in Finland, publishing in English is not only encouraged but rewarded. Beginning in 1997, academics at Norwegian universities have been given financial bonuses for English-language publications.

It is also common for Norwegian academics' English-language articles to be submitted for "language washing" (proofreading). However, according to Birgit Brock-Utne, a professor in the department of educational research at the University of Oslo, this service is typically paid for by the department and its use may be seen as a sign of poorer-than-average English skills.

Brock-Utne sees the internationalisation of Norwegian academia as highly problematic.

"If everything is in English, it means the lowering of our language because we stop creating academic concepts and the language deteriorates," she argues.

"Our research is paid for by the Norwegian taxpayer, so it should be in the language that the people feel comfortable with."

She concedes that the problem could be partially solved by popularising English-written research in Norwegian, but notes that academics "do not gain prestige" for doing this.

Brock-Utne's view echoes an increasingly voluble backlash against Anglicisation across Nordic academia. In neighbouring Sweden, the Language Defence Network campaigns to strengthen the Swedish language in the Swedish academy, where, the group claims, more than 90 per cent of doctoral theses are written in English.

In 2010, it referred Gothenburg University to the parliamentary ombudsman for demanding that all applications for a post at the institution be written in English.

Brock-Utne says of the situation in Norway: "We have internationalised very fast and we have many international academics who have been here for six years and do not even speak Norwegian."

In her experience, it is mainly UK academics who have failed to learn Norwegian after many years.

Brock-Utne proposed, as a requirement of their employment contract, giving them three years to learn fluent Norwegian. Her university's anthropology department follows that policy, which she thinks is "a good thing".

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