University of Helsinki head furious over austerity measures

Cuts will “hurt the country’s competitiveness and citizens’ well-being”, says rector

August 2, 2015
Man holding a chainsaw in a forest
Source: Getty
Selective felling? Finland’s coalition has axed €500m of universities’ funding

The head of Finland’s largest and oldest university has come out strongly against the country’s austerity budget for higher education.

Earlier this year, the recently elected prime minister, Juha Sipilä, told the country’s parliament that his coalition government had “decided on a total of €4 billion [£2.8 billion] in cost savings in public finances during this parliamentary term”.

The “strategic programme” for the nation included the “freezing of index increases [for] universities and universities of applied sciences” and the end of special funding, worth €30 million, “earmarked to the University of Helsinki and the University of Eastern Finland [compensating for corporate tax paid on] their pharmacy business activities”.

In order to make “the system of higher education institutions and research activities…more cost-effective”, the programme proposed shedding administrative staff, “clustering of higher education institutions” and greater specialisation of their missions.

Yet it also noted that universities were autonomous and retained “the power of decision on how the savings will be put into effect”.

However, Helsinki rector Jukka Kola issued a statement saying he was “shocked” by a cut of approximately €500 million to total university budgets, which came in the wake of €200 million shaved by the previous government that had led to Helsinki reducing staffing levels at by 500 posts.

By 2020, Professor Kola went on, the university would “face cuts amounting to more than €83 million due to decisions made by the previous and new government. This means that the university’s basic funding will be cut by one sixth.”

“It is not sustainable or wise to weaken the future success factors and competitiveness of Finland via these big spending cuts on universities,” Professor Kola told Times Higher Education.

He said he found it particularly “difficult to understand and accept the targeted extra cuts on the University of Helsinki”, given that it is Finland’s highest ranked university (currently 103 in the THE World University Rankings), as this would “directly hurt our country’s competitiveness and citizens’ well-being”.

Asked for his comments, Tapio Kosunen, director general of the Finnish department for higher education and science policy, acknowledged that universities had “reason to be worried about the money” but noted that a budget of €3.2 billion for higher education and science still represented a relatively high proportion of GDP.  

There were likely to be additional government funds for “regional centres of excellence”, for commercialising research and for matching (and more than matching) money obtained from private sources, he said.

Universities had already shown themselves “very active in thinking about new modes of cooperation” and in developing individual “profiles”, he added, while constitutional factors meant that the specific issue of pharmacy payments was still under discussion.

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