Category Archives: Markku Filppula

More borders, less mobility

Brexit has awakened us to the threat of new ‘hard’ borders being established within the European Union, which has for decades striven to do away with such barriers to free movement of labour and goods. The UK Parliament’s recent decision on backing Theresa May’s exit plan effectively means that Britain is very likely to leave the Union in 2019 or soon thereafter, and that in turn – despite what May might hope for – means a return to the old customs border services and various kinds of restrictions on people’s movements across the borders into the UK.

In the academic world, this prospect has already given rise to a great deal of concern in both the UK and elsewhere in the European Union. It has also begun to be reflected in researchers’ wariness of engaging in long-term research collaboration with colleagues in the UK. In turn, academics there are increasingly worried about the future of their collaborative research projects and especially about their future opportunities to benefit from research funding from EU sources. As the largest beneficiary of, e.g., Horizon 2020 funding, the academia in the UK will certainly feel the difference if, and when, all that funding drains out.

This reality has begun to dawn on even many of the ‘leave’ voters. On the continental European side, there does not seem to be any willingness to give Britain special favours in the eventual exit deal. Somewhat paradoxically, this means, for instance, that border posts will have to re-erected between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, despite the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK. This would be in conflict with the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement and thus open up an international dimension to the question. In an interview with the Observer (11 Feb 2017), the former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic Bertie Ahearn expressed his concern about the loss of what he calls the “calming effects” [of an open border] and about the “bad feeling” that would follow from any attempt to re-establish a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Ahearn also points out some figures which testify to the absurdity of having a hard border between the two countries: 200 crossing points between the Republic and Northern Ireland, 177,000 crossings by lorries a month, 208,000 by vans, and 1.85 million by cars. Add to these the corresponding figures for the cross-Channel traffic and you soon realise that May and the British Government haven’t quite thought the matter through.

Closer to home, Brexit is also making its mark, e.g. in the numbers of students wanting to study in British universities. Traditionally, Britain has been the destination of most of the Finns admitted to British higher education institutions, with currently some 2,000 enrollments of Finnish students. While the number of applicants from Finland has for long been going up year by year, this year marked a clear drop, from 910 to 760, according to the statistics published by UCAS, the UK’s central Universities and Colleges Admission Service. Interestingly, this decline does not concern Finland only; applications from the EU as a whole fell by 7 per cent. Of course, there may be other factors at play, too, but many observers put the decline down to the imminent threat of Brexit and its consequences. In any case, we seem to be heading towards a Europe with more borders and less mobility. A lot will also depend on the outcome of the upcoming general elections in France and Italy, which may turn the tide in one direction or the other.

Markku Filppula

The Decline or Rise of the Humanities?

Recent reports on Finnish universities’ plans to cut humanities degree programmes have aroused fears that the humanities as a whole are in a state of a free fall. What has been of particular concern for many is the allegedly rushed, undemocratic, and almost random manner in which decisions on these cuts are now being carried out. Or rather, are said to be carried out as, in fact, at the time of writing this blog hardly any such decisions have yet been taken by those universities that have so far been mentioned in this context, including UEF. Yet it should be evident to all who have followed the discussions on universities’ structural reforms over the last couple of years that some changes are under way in the humanities just as well as in several other fields of study. Since this topic is likely to occupy front-page headlines in both national and local news media for some time to come, it is worthwhile having a look at the reasons behind these developments.

One is the diminishing demand for labour in some areas of the humanities. Teachers of most foreign languages except English are one example. This is a reflection of the rapidly declining numbers of school-students opting for these subjects in school, not to mention those of school-students choosing them as one of the subjects for their Matriculation Exams. For example, the number of pupils taking the exam in German Language (Advanced and Short courses combined) dropped from 6,038 in the year 2007 to 2,296 in 2015, so down to about one third in less than a decade. The figures for French Language reveal a more or less similar development. What is worse, this downward trend is set to continue unless some drastic steps are taken especially in areas outside the major cities to enable and encourage school-students to pick up German or French as one of their subjects. Now almost half of the examinees in these subjects come from Helsinki and the province of Uusimaa. In the light of these statistics it is not surprising that the numbers of applicants wanting to study these subjects at university are declining. The reality is that universities now find themselves struggling to fill their student quotas in some of these subjects, which forces them to make adjustments to their study programmes.

Apart from language subjects, some other arts and humanities subjects have also witnessed a decline in numbers of applicants but so have some of the sciences as well. Yet the pressure for cuts appears to have been much greater on humanities programmes than those in other fields. This is then easily interpreted as showing that the humanities are in a “crisis”, as has been done in some recent newspaper reports on higher education. What seems to support this is the reportedly similar situation in many other countries if not worldwide even. You only need to google “humanities cutbacks” and several hits come up referring to cutbacks in humanities programmes in Norway, Germany, the UK, Israel, Japan, and the US, to list but a few. More often than not, these measures are accompanied by curtailment of funding for those programmes that have remained.

Are the humanities then doomed to be wiped out altogether? The true picture may, after all, be less negative than it seems at first glance. I recently came across an essay entitled “The Rise of the Humanities” by Peter Mandler, Professor of Cultural History at Cambridge University (available at ). In this essay he analyses the situation in the humanities especially with respect to student enrollment numbers in the UK, US, and Australia. Mandler notes, first, that the talk of a crisis in the humanities has become so customary, an “orthodoxy”, to use his expression, that few have bothered to find out if there is real evidence to back up such rhetoric. Mandler himself has conducted a longitudinal study of the enrollments in humanities in the English-speaking world for over the last half-century. His results show that there has been hardly any change in the proportion of students studying humanities within that period. Indeed, in absolute numbers and despite fluctuations over the years, there are now more humanities students in the English-speaking world than ever before. In the US, as Mandler writes, the proportion of humanities degrees has remained stable at 10-12 per cent of all degrees ever since the 1950s. The only major change occurred in the 1960s and 1970s at the time which saw a significant influx of women into higher education. In the subsequent decades the situation changed only in that women turned in increasing numbers to more “professional” fields of study such as business, journalism, communication studies, and social work, while men continued to maintain their interest in humanities at the same level as before. Mandler’s conclusion, therefore, is that there is no real basis for the talk of a crisis, and that the humanities have proved resilient enough even in the face of tough competition from other, seemingly more attractive and financially more tempting, fields of study. That in itself shows that the humanities continue to be capable of serving important cultural and societal needs in the rapidly changing world.

Turning back to the current situation in Finland, the need for changes and possible cutbacks in the universities’ offering of courses in the humanities should be assessed against their wider background, and the consequences of any drastic changes should be carefully analysed before implementing them. Needless to say, rushed decisions and measures on the part of universities and other policy-makers can be irreversible and carry the risk of destroying something that will cause permanent damage to some areas of scholarship. Even those areas that at first glance look too small to be viable may play an important role as part of a larger and meaningful field of research or study programme. As for humanists themselves, rather than surrendering to the rhetoric of “crisis”, they should find ways of renewing their disciplines, by seeking points of connection and concrete forms of collaboration with other disciplines and study programmes – something that they have already begun doing and should continue to do.

filppulaMarkku Filppula
dean, Philosophical Faculty

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

Finnish Universities seeking new directions for the study of languages and cultures

All Finnish universities providing teaching in languages and linguistics as academic subjects have for some time now been involved in discussions on how to improve their mutual cooperation and division of labour in this area. Started by the Universities Finland organisation (UNIFI) and at least “encouraged” if not directly ordered by the Ministry of Education, similar rounds of discussions have been going on in many other fields, with reports from most of the discussion groups coming out this spring.

The languages and cultures group has all but completed its work and produced a memorandum outlining several ways in which universities could develop their teaching of, and research on, languages and cultures. Societal needs are of course the prime factor determining what kinds of teaching and research should be provided and how it should be organised within each university and between the universities. Since most language departments or units are relatively small by international standards, the need for cooperation between universities is evident. It is also clear that language subjects cannot isolate themselves from other fields of study; this calls for new approaches and new study programmes combining language studies with social sciences, business or law studies – something which has been successfully done in many other countries, especially in the Anglo-American world.

Perhaps the most problematic issue in the discussions has been the division of labour between universities when it comes to reducing the numbers of student intake or even the number of universities providing teaching in some of the less studied languages such as German, French, and Russian. With the numbers of school students opting for these languages on a decline in recent years, universities are now finding it hard to attract enough students capable of taking up the study of these subjects. This in turn leads to small units becoming even smaller and less viable both financially and academically.

The decrease in numbers of students in these subjects is rather paradoxical in view of the fact that the demand in the labour market for people mastering, e.g. German or French, continues to be high in business life, the financial sector, and in the EU context. For German, this should not be surprising as Germany is our largest trading partner, not to mention the long-standing cultural, historical and other relationships between the two countries. Yet there are fewer and fewer students choosing to learn German in Finnish schools. The proximity of Russia and the close trading and other relationships makes the demand for knowledge of Russian among Finns even more obvious. Finns have, however, been rather slow in developing interest in learning Russian. At present English is the sole foreign language of choice for an increasing number of students, which threatens to leave the other languages and knowledge of them in a very marginal position in schools, and as a consequence, in universities and the whole society.

The next stage in the inter-university discussions will no doubt be the most difficult one as universities will be expected to implement at least the most important changes proposed in the memoranda. It may mean having to give up something but also gaining something else in return. No matter what will happen to the proposed changes concerning the study of languages and cultures, it is to be hoped that we hold on to at least our present level and repertoire of knowledge of languages as a nation.


Markku Filppula

Universities on the way from strategy-driven to ranking-driven institutions?

Higher education institutions (HEIs) all over the world have become accustomed to planning their long-term goals in the form of strategies, accompanied by detailed plans for action based on them. The contents of such strategies are usually determined by specific research goals, educational and societal needs, the future labour market, and so forth. While all these are still widely considered to be some of the major factors behind the goals laid out in a typical HEI strategy, recent years have witnessed the arrival of yet another factor which is becoming increasingly powerful in defining a HEI’s profile and global position in the academic world, viz. international rankings of HEIs.

The European University Association (EUA) has just published a study entitled Rankings in Institutional Strategies and Processes: Impact or Illusion? (EUA Publications 2014). It is said to be the first pan-European study of the impact and influence of rankings on HEIs and their strategic planning procedures. This study brings to light some interesting results. Although rankings have received a lot of criticism from HEIs and individual academics, this study finds that over 60 per cent of the 171 HEIs examined use rankings to inform their strategic decision-making and this figure rises to over 70 per cent when various organisational, managerial, and academic actions are included. The vast majority of HEIs regularly monitor their placement in rankings and also use them in their bench-marking, branding and marketing efforts.

Use of rankings is by no means restricted to HEI officials or academics. According to the study, prospective students looking to find a suitable place to study, and especially those from outside Europe, were among the most active users of ranking lists. The same was also true for universities’ partner institutions and government ministries. All in all, one is left in no doubt as to the growing importance of rankings, which have clearly become a fact of life and have to be accepted as such. Also, HEIs cannot really be blamed for making use of them in their efforts to define and improve their global position. But we may have reason to worry if ranking lists start setting the parameters for what kinds of research are conducted in a university, what kinds of education it should offer, or what kinds of research or educational partnerships are possible between HEIs. Already there is evidence that ranking lists have begun to form obstacles to institutional collaborations even when such a need would be obvious and beneficial for all parties concerned on academic grounds. In such cases one wonders whether the tail has started to wag the dog and not the other way round.

filppulaMarkku Filppula

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