Where have all the passion people gone (from universities)?

A high-end bicycle component manufacturer uses the slogan The Passion People for themselves and the bikers who buy their products. I would love to see the same description used for us all in Finnish academia, however the reality may not quite measure up to that. A recent article in a Finnish evening newspaper (Iltalehti 22.3.) features a scientist who at the age of 38 got utterly disillusioned by the uncertainty of jobs and research funding in academia and finally decided to leave in order to pursue a career in a completely different field. The same article reports on a survey carried out by the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers Union, which revealed that as many as some two-thirds of the under-forties of their membership were contemplating doing the same. A common complaint amongst them was that the Finnish university reform of 2009 has changed universities into business enterprises which have started to work according to the rules of market economy and don’t care enough about their employees anymore. Some go so far as to describe this development as ‘academic capitalism’.

In their article in American Academic (1,1, 2004: 37), Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades define academic capitalism as “a regime that entails colleges and universities engaging in market and market like behaviors”. They argue that universities today are “seeking to generate revenue from their core educational, research and service functions”, which then leaves no room for what used to be seen as the primary function of universities, viz. “the unfettered expansion of knowledge”.

I wouldn’t say that Finnish higher education institutions would have moved quite so far in the direction of American-style academic capitalism and, indeed, doubt (and certainly don’t hope) that they ever will. But the above-mentioned survey of young academics (which dates back to 2010, so doesn’t necessarily depict the current situation very accurately) should awaken us to realise that, unless some positive measures are taken to fight against the widespread disillusionment amongst our young scholars, there will soon be an acute shortage of the type of ‘passion people’ every university needs. This is all the more necessary in view of the recent increase in academic unemployment.

filppulaMarkku Filppula