All posts by Katja Mielonen

Lean thinking in the academic world

Originally, Lean thinking and the Lean Management Model were introduced for the purposes of automotive industry process management. The objective was to reduce unnecessary work phases and labour, make less errors, produce better quality, achieve faster flow-through times and cut down on costs. In management, the key principles of Lean in everyday activities are “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People”. These are good principles. Lean thinking is gaining footing also in health care and in hospitals, and the experiences have been positive.

How about in the academic world? A university is not a car factory. Teaching, research, administration – all of these nevertheless involve a large number of different processes. Profitability is measured through numerical indicators such as numbers of degrees awarded, completion times, numbers of students completing 55 credits, publications, doctoral dissertations, competitive funding, etc., and also feedback.

The smoothness and swiftness of processes are important for the university’s employees, customers, students and research partners alike.

Reductions in the universities’ funding also forces them to think about how money gets used. How to achieve similar, or better, results by doing less – i.e. by eliminating unnecessary work? As organisations, the universities still have a long way to go when it comes to reforming their ways of doing things. The old position-based thinking sits tight and complex administrative processes cause things to run not-so-smoothly.

Heavy expectations are placed on digitalisation, which comes with great opportunities and in which Finland could lead the way for others. The compatibility and functionality of information systems are of utmost importance.  System providers should also feel this pressure, so that clients don’t have to pay for systems in which a slowly progressing progress bar plays the leading role.

Lean comes with the idea of finding better solutions – together. There are always things that could be done better.

Lean management in any organisation is the recognition and daily practice of the Lean principles: “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People.”

Hilkka Soininen (2)Hilkka Soininen
Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences


Waging war on science publishers

While universities and scientists in Finland and many other countries are struggling with increased cutbacks in their funding, they are faced with similar challenges in making the results of their research known to the academic community and the wider public. Electronic publishing was at one time expected to gradually work towards lower subscription prices for scientific journals, but nothing of the kind has happened. On the contrary, most publishers have put up their prices both for printed books or journals and electronic publications at levels that have forced university libraries to reduce the number of journals they can afford to subscribe to. Neither has this development helped individual scholars who cannot possibly keep up with the recent rise in subscription fees or book prices.

Just over a year ago, I wrote a blog about the open access movement that had been formed by some language scientists at the Freie Universität, Berlin and at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. By now, this movement has grown world-wide, with over 550 linguists around the world signing to the so-called Berlin Declaration, which calls for an alternative low-cost and open-access publication forum, independent from commercial publishers. Similar open-access channels have been set up by scientists in several other disciplines, including natural and health sciences, where the publishing houses have their biggest markets.

A recent issue of The University World News (15 Nov) reports on a ‘mass exodus’ of the whole team of editors and the editorial board of the prestigious journal Lingua, which was founded in 1947 by North Holland but was in the 1990s taken over by Elsevier. The journal’s editors sent to Elsevier a ‘re-negotiation letter’ in which they demanded that all articles published in Lingua be made open access. Also, the publication fees should be lowered to around US$430, and the authors should be allowed to retain copyright on their articles. Apparently, the negotiations between the resigned editorial team and Elsevier have failed, and the editors are now said to be setting up a new journal, which would be based on the principle of open access.

In Finnish academia, too, scholars have become increasingly concerned about the rising cost of publishing and the whole commercial culture surrounding it. In his column in Helsingin Sanomat (9 Nov), Dr Janne Saarikivi called on Finnish universities to distance themselves from commercial publishers rather than encourage their scientists to place their research articles in ‘top publications’, many of which have been in the forefront of making money with science publishing. Future publishing, according to Saarikivi, takes largely place in completely different forums such as Facebook or even Wikipedia.

Changes are clearly under way in the field of publishing these days, and it remains to be seen how and to what extent commercial publishers will react to the type of protests on the part of the academic community I have described above. Should academic institutions such as universities and their international organisations join the movement for low-cost open access publication, prospects of change would be greatly improved. In the meantime, we just have to keep up the fight as best we can and try to cope with the rising cost of publishing.

Markku Filppula
dean, Philosophical Faculty

Reputation is a long-term project

Years ago, I participated in a world conference on environmental history at St Andrews. To my surprise, the train from Edinburgh did not arrive at St Andrews town centre, but at a stop in the middle of a vast field. The silhouette of a small coastal town located on a cape opened up in the horizon.

Was this really the home of the well-known educational institution found among the UK’s top six universities? The combination of a small town with less than 20,000 inhabitants and a university with 8,000 students seemed unreal. The University of St Andrews has turned its small size and remote location into attraction factors in its marketing, as can be seen in the following passage taken from the university’s website: “Why study at University of St Andrews? A small place, where you can get to know almost everyone – but with big ambitions in every shape from teaching and research to sport, music, drama, volunteering and charities.” St Andrews places emphasis on tradition and quality by reminding us that it is the third oldest university in the English-speaking world. Globally, there are several similar examples of small yet well-known universities, and perhaps we could learn something from them.

In university rankings, our performance is negatively affected by the fact that we are not particularly well-known. Within the scientific community, the quality and extensiveness of our research and the level of our research environments are factors through which we can raise awareness of our activities. Active publishing, working abroad, networking and participation in international conferences are excellent ways to spread the word about us. The decline in the interest of first- and second-degree students and doctoral students to study and work abroad is a concerning recent trend.

In the recently closed admission round, the attractiveness of the University of Eastern Finland as a place to study in continued to grow. However, we could do much better by using the positive images related to our education provision and our campuses to make up for the negative images related to our location. Without proper understanding of who we are and what we do, the location of our campuses gets more attention than our education provision. This is my conclusion of the results presented in the Kun koulu loppuu (Once School is Out) report by the Economic Information Office of Finland charting upper secondary school students’ future plans and images of Finnish higher education institutions. On a positive note, those interested in the University of Eastern Finland were clearly thirstier for knowledge and more appreciative of education than those interested in the other universities included in the survey.

Based on this survey, a rapid improvement of our national reputation is a challenging task. Over the past year, we have sought to raise awareness of who we are and what we do through UEF student ambassadors visiting upper secondary schools. Alongside students who are happy to study with us and positive media coverage, the development of alumni activities gives us tools to disseminate up-to-date information about our university to prospective students, their parents and main stakeholder groups alike. Our alumni constitute a resource we haven’t fully used yet.

The University of Eastern Finland, even when taking the history of its predecessors into consideration, is a young player in the international field. Standing out from the mass through determined definition of profile is a way to promote our reputation among colleagues, decision-makers and the general public. This makes location less important than knowledge and expertise, which are something students and researchers have been attracted by throughout centuries.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen

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

A university that takes a stand

When the University of Eastern Finland was being established, the university’s leadership saw the university’s Intranet not only as a channel for disseminating and seeking information, but also as an arena for dialogue within the academic community. This is not something I can say we have particularly excelled in. Yes, we have dialogue, but it primarily takes place elsewhere in the Internet, in social media, and in channels of print media.

This is the background against which the UEF Leadership Group chose to relocate its blog from the Intranet to the university’s public website. I hope that in the future we’ll also be able to reach readers visiting our website for the very first time.

Obviously, the audiences reading our Finnish and English websites are different, and this is why our two blogs, one in Finnish and the other in English, will live lives of their own. The idea is for our Finnish blog to be updated on a weekly basis, and our English one once a month.

Moreover, the idea is not to give readers a pre-defined “leadership opinion”, as the very essence of universities is to be critical and to take a stand. As representatives of the UEF’s leadership, this means that each author will take a stand in the area he or she is an expert in.

An interesting text is usually one seasoned with a personal approach, and I’m happy to welcome posts more critical than we’re used to seeing in the Finnish discussion culture.

You see, we Finns tend to regard dissenting opinions as invitations to debate. This can, of course, be explained by our largely analytic tradition in philosophy. Without falling victim to glorifying the university institution as it used to be when I was young, i.e. one taking a stand, I personally am a big fan of an atmosphere that encourages researchers, teachers and students to participate in social dialogue.

PerttuVartiainen3_100x130pxPerttu Vartiainen