Nordic networks support cooperation in China and Africa

The world university rankings published this summer were a pleasant read for the University of Eastern Finland.  Besides the performance of individual universities, it was interesting to look at the geographic distribution of the top 500 universities in the Shanghai ranking. It was no surprise that American and Western European universities did well, or that Chinese universities have been showing a strong performance in the past decade. The Shanghai ranking also included four universities from the Republic of South Africa but only two from Russia.

In the university world, networking has become an increasingly important tool in the growing competition for research resources and the best researchers. UEF has successful partners in all corners of the world. In China and southern Africa, we are also supported by an extensive Nordic university network. But have we fully tapped into the opportunities available through the Nordic networks? The Nordic Centre set up in conjunction with Fudan University, which was placed 151–200 in the Shanghai ranking, has served as a bridge connecting the Nordic universities and Fudan University, and businesses based in the Shanghai area. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in late October, the Nordic Centre currently comprises 25 Nordic universities.

A similar network, called SANORD (Southern African-Nordic Centre), has been established to bolster cooperation with southern African countries. This differs from its Chinese counterpart in that its membership consists of 25 leading universities from southern African countries, including the University of Cape Town, placed in the 201-300 bracket in the Shanghai ranking. Although not all African members of the network are yet able to reach the level of their Nordic partners, they are very eager to improve their higher education system, which creates demand for education export. Nordic SANORD members are by and large the same high-ranking universities that are part of the Nordic Centre.

Both the Nordic Centre and SANORD are fairly well known among researchers. However, the services offered by these networks could be utilised more efficiently. In addition to building bilateral relations with China and Africa, we should consider strengthening our cooperation with our Nordic partners. When seeking major international funding providers, or when planning extensive cooperation with the Chinese partners, a Nordic university consortium would be much more powerful and able to offer more skills and competences than any individual university. Based on my personal experience of the Nordic Centre’s operations, I would say we Finns have much to learn from the cooperation between the Swedish and the Danish in the Chinese projects. Active involvement in the Nordic Centre and SANORD allows us to forge stronger ties with our African, Chinese and Nordic partners.  Hopefully we will find ways of linking businesses to this competence network, too. Some promising developments are already under way in China.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen
dean

Transnational education holds great potential

Finland’s new Government Programme will make significant cuts to universities’ state-allocated funding in the upcoming years. In addition to reforming our structures and activities, we need to seize every opportunity we find in order to safeguard jobs at the university in the future.

The greatest potential, perhaps, lies in transnational education. Academic education is a one-billion-euro business worldwide, and for example the UK and Australia have turned it into a significant industry.

Competition is tough, but not impossible – especially if we were to invest in such strength of our education as teacher training, forest sciences and the bioeconomy, for example.

The Finnish Government’s plan to introduce tuition fees to non-EU/EEA higher education students opens up great potential for transnational education. If Finnish universities succeed in attracting students to fee-charging programmes expectedly, that will translate into significant additional resources for universities and export revenues for Finland.

For some reason, the discussion around tuition fees is often fuelled by distorted ideas: tuition fees are seen as a gateway to introducing tuition fees to Finnish students as well, or as fees preventing exchange students from coming to Finland.

However, in all its simplicity, the proposed amendment to legislation would only allow the collection of tuition fees from non-EU/EEA students for degree-awarding programmes. At the same time, the amendment would facilitate transnational education. After all, at least the traditional economic theories regard the exchange of products against no fee as something not very profitable.

Another voiced concern is the potential drastic decline in the number of international students, as has happened in Sweden and Denmark after they introduced tuition fees. This is a likely first scenario here, too, when those who are attracted to Finland only by our free education choose not to come.

In the future, we need to be able to compete by quality, not by price. Finnish education is of such a high standard that we have every possibility to succeed. By focusing on our strengths and further improving the quality of the education we offer, the student numbers that are likely to decline as an initial reaction, will bounce back to their current level, and likely even higher.

Instead of focusing on the possible downsides of transnational education, we should seize the opportunities it offers. As our resources are getting scantier and our age groups smaller, transnational education may bring Finnish higher education institutions interesting, and international new jobs.

Jukka_Monkkonen_100X130Jukka Mönkkönen
Rector

Get exited – about something!

“I’m so excited, and I just can’t hide it, I’m about to lose control and I think I like it…” For some reason, that song by Pointer Sisters was ringing in my ears last summer when I was riding my motorbike along Road 92 in Finnish Lapland. It made me think about the things that I’m excited about. Getting immersed in my thoughts while riding through beautiful summer scenery is definitely on the top of the list: that’s truly exciting and empowering.

Excitement should also be something one associates with working, at least from time to time. Although I’ve heard that in research, excitement is not enough, one needs to have passion. Passion makes people do incredible things, sometimes downright crazy ones. When passion is in play, one doesn’t count the hours. That’s what has happened to many researchers and they’ve been able to keep that passion alive year in, year out. That’s all great, but I think a word of warning is in place. Every now and then, it’s good to stop and think about time management, as when we get older, our bodies can remind us that too much is too much. It’s wise to pay close attention to these signals.

My faculty, the Faculty of Science and Forestry, succeeded very well in acquiring Academy of Finland funding this spring. This compensates for our weaker performance in earlier years, and hopefully will help us get through some difficult times. Success is a source of excitement and it builds faith in the things we are doing. As the Dean of the faculty, I’m proud of and grateful to our staff.

So, get excited about something. Finding that one source of inspiration is a resource each and every one of us should have. It serves as a motor for everything we do and also helps us cope at work. For many people here at the university, work can be major resource, but most of us also need something else. Holidays are often revitalising, especially if one has something exciting to do. I’m already waiting for mine.

Jukka JurvelinJukka Jurvelin
Dean, Faculty of Science and Forestry

Societal Impact from cradle to grave

The weekly programme for many of us UEF people involves hitting the winding road between the Joensuu and Kuopio campuses. This two hour drive allows time for chatting. One of my recent discussions touched upon the societal impact of the university. Soili Makkonen, our development director, talked about two practical examples. The graduates from our theological programmes are involved in people’s lives from cradle to grave, while our teacher graduates take care of our children from their first steps of learning all the way to university graduation. There’s no doubt about this impact.

The basic mission for universities is scientific research and research-based education. During the last decade, Finnish universities were given a third mission: societal impact, i.e. supporting the development of wider society. How does our university contribute to society, and how does it rank in terms of this among Finnish universities? Comparisons with universities based on scientific and educational outcomes are much easier to make. As a result, this is used for the funding of universities. One way of estimating societal impact is to think about how Joensuu, Kuopio and the whole of Eastern Finland would look today without the UEF and her predecessors the University of Joensuu and the University of Kuopio.

The long-term medical research by our university on the health and diseases of the population of Eastern Finland is a global success story and continues to be so. The practical outcome is longer life expectancy and healthier lives for the people of Eastern Finland. Our research saves lives! Many modern companies in Eastern Finland in areas such as medical technology, photonics and ICT are doing very well. Their home base for ideas and personnel is usually the university. Another example is the National Service Centres, which find their way to Eastern Finland. One of the key grounds for the siting of these offices is the availability of highly skilled professionals in the area – here, again because of the university. We will continue to contribute to the society in the future. One of the cornerstones of Eastern Finland has always been its forest resources and their refinement of a variety of products. This research area is one of UEF’s strengths and will definitely be one of the boosters of the North Karelian and Savonian bioeconomy in the future. This is just one example.

Today, UEF is seeking donations and has launched a fundraising campaign. The donations will be complemented by the government in the form of grants of up to three euros for each euro donated to the university. This matched funding scheme will multiply the effect of the fundraising. This support is important for UEF to achieve the strategic goals set for research and education. There’s no doubt that this campaign will also end up improving the lives and successes of us Eastern Finns. It’s time to be smart.

Jaakko_Puhakka_TTY_100x130_3Jaakko Puhakka

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.

filppula

Markku Filppula

Power naps for hard workers

Chancellor Angela Merkel dashes from one meeting to the next between cities in Europe, and sometimes pops across the Atlantic, too. Negotiations often stretch into the small hours, and getting enough sleep is a scarce luxury, not to mention the jet lag on top of all.  Angela Merkel, however, has said that four hours of sleep is enough for her. We’ve seen similar stretching here in Finland at the time of collective bargaining. In pressing situations where a solution must be reached, long hours and marathon meetings are nothing new under the sun. But are we talking about conscious negotiation tactics or about something the situation requires? One can’t help but wonder in how sound mind and body important decisions are being made. A massive machinery is at work behind negotiations, of course, but it still takes stamina.

The need for sleep is individual. Most of us need seven or eight hours of sleep per night, some do fine with just four. But we all know from experience that too little sleep lowers our performance. Our energy levels sink, we lose concentration, we have trouble remembering things and we get irritated. Long-term lack of sleep makes us susceptible to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, overweight, stress, memory problems and even memory diseases and depression, and it weakens our immune system.

Here at the university, both students and staff members put in long hours every week. There’s a lot to do and deadlines to meet.  Moreover, involvement in international networks requires travelling: early starts and late returns. Students, too, can find themselves in cross pressure between work and exams. There’s nothing like stress and work-related worries when it comes to losing sleep.

After a tough week, one needs to recover. It’s a good thing that a night of little sleep and sleep debt can be compensated for.  During the weekend, for example, recovery sleep can be used to help the body recover. In other words, power napping is something to be recommended: it’s free and good for health.

Hilkka Soininen (2)Hilkka Soininen

Je suis Charlie

What gives anyone the right to define what others can and cannot say? This is a question one inevitably has to think about when looking at the tragedy that took place at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. The entire Western concept of justice is based on the rights of the individual, while not forgetting our democratic decision-making and social systems. I’ve been baffled by some of the recent comments looking at the terrorist attack in Paris from the viewpoint that it was “self-inflicted”, a result of publishing provocative pictures. Under no circumstances is the killing of defenceless people justified, not even if their writings or drawings might leave some room for stylistic critique.

It’s a short way from limiting the freedom of speech to limiting the freedom of science. All one has to do is to look back on the early days of the scholars advocating the heliocentric model in the Middle Ages, for example, and what happened to them.  However, it’s the very freedom of science that has given birth to the society we live in today. Unlimited thinking, unlimited research and unlimited publishing of research findings are the only way to create new things that, at best, can benefit the entire mankind. We can’t let anything or anyone stop us from doing what we think is best in the fields of science and communication, just as long as we remember our own ethical obligations.

meriläinen tuomo-100x130 Tuomo Meriläinen

Challenge of parallel publishing

“Publish or perish,” as the old academic saying goes. The saying has many sides to it, depending on whether it is looked at from the viewpoint of an individual or an institution. Back in the day when university positions were public offices rather than employment relationships, professorships were filled almost exclusively on the basis of the applicant’s scientific merits – assessed by publishing activities. Even today, the extent and quality of the applicant’s publishing activities continue to be major factors affecting the evaluation; however, also other factors have gained importance. From the viewpoint of the university, the old system looked at publishing activities as just one, rather loosely defined entity in the ministry’s funding model, whereas in today’s funding model, publishing activities are defined very rigorously and given significant weight in the earning logic.

Since 2011, the Publication Forum project coordinated by the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies has been tasked with the classification of different publication channels on the basis of their quality. This work is now in the final stretch, and researchers representing the fields of my faculty are increasingly choosing to publish in journals and with publishers that have been assigned a Publication Forum classification. In other words, researchers’ publishing behaviour has changed significantly.

Satisfying the requirements of the ministry isn’t enough anymore, as also research funders have their demands. The European Union and the Academy of Finland have expressed their strong preference, or even demand, for publishing research findings in open access channels. In many fields, this demand is currently conflicting with the Publication Forum classification. In human sciences, open access publishing is still in its infancy. The majority of open access channels are so new that they have not been given a Publication Forum classification. The Bell’s Predatory Publishers List, on the other hand, reveals that open access publishing has brought about hundreds of fraudulent journals seeking to make money off of researchers.

The schizophrenic situation was recently noted in a meeting of the chairs of the Publication Forum panels, a role in which I have acted for a year now and, before that, as a member of a panel ever since its establishment. At worst, publishing in a journal with a Publication Forum classification can be in conflict with funders’ requirements. Furthermore, from the viewpoint a researcher’s merits, it is usually better to publish in a high-impact, Publication Forum classified journal than in an open access channel still finding its place.

As a solution to the problem, setting up a system of parallel publishing in the universities has been proposed, allowing researchers to make their articles accepted for publication in scientific journals available to everyone without infringing any copyrights. The idea is good, but the legal jungle is really thick. Parallel publishing would require contracts with hundreds if not thousands of publishers. This is something that cannot remain at the responsibility of researchers, and I suspect that without additional resources, the task is also beyond the scope of the library.

In my opinion, publishing research findings in forums that have the highest scientific and social impact is crucial for promoting science.  A journal with a high Publication Forum classification doesn’t necessarily guarantee the best impact.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen

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

Problematics of university rankings

I got an SMS late in the evening congratulating me for our university’s ranking success. I was a little baffled about the timing of the message, but thought that the person sending it wanted to take part in the joy we had felt at the university for the past week due to our excellent performance in a ranking list of the young universities. In the morning, when my brain worked faster, I remembered that a new ranking list had been published at midnight. Indeed: the sender’s home university had succeeded well and, for the first time in its history, they were ranked among the world’s leading universities. Our university didn’t do quite as well.

Although none of the rankings are perfect in terms of the data and methodology used, their significance for the reputation of universities is unpredictably great. They tell about something else, too. However, one should stop and think about whether they tell about genuine differences in quality, or about something that should not be forced on the same scale to begin with. Or whether they tell about overall indexes, which are basically indicative of nothing with real-life importance.

It is a known fact that measuring anything other than the number of scientific articles published in international journals is difficult. The quantitative indicators used in the first rankings were favourable to some fields, and this has now been corrected by introducing field-specific weightings which, in turn, can accumulate success for fields in which the competition isn’t that hard. The distortion caused by the weight of the quantitative indicators has also been tried to be fixed by various reputation surveys. A multidisciplinary university from a small language area faces inevitable disadvantage in the competition.

In my opinion, continued success in several different rankings constitutes a good goal for us. This year again, the UEF was one of the three Finnish universities which all the three major ranking list publishers (ARWU, QS and THE) recognise as being among the world’s leading 400 or 500 universities. It’s good to continue from here, and also to increase people’s awareness of us, which in our case has been a weak spot in all rankings.

PerttuVartiainen3_100x130px

Perttu Vartiainen