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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 https://aeon.co/essays/the-humanities-are-booming-only-the-professors-can-t-see-it ). 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

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


Excellence – something to strive for

In Finland, we tend to see excellence in our activities. A good example is our education system, the best in the world in our minds. In many cases, although certainly not in all, this is also true in the light of international comparisons. In industry, we respect innovation and manufacturing of high-quality products, instead of bulk products that make financial profit only when sold in high quantities. Finnish design is a trademark of high quality, too.

In universities, we must also strive for excellence, both in education and research. Carrying out our academic activities at a level comparable to the highest international standards is also a way to financial success.  In the UEF strategy, the development of learning environments and international-level research areas is also pointing in the right direction. The funding system of universities in Finland relies on indicators that measure, directly or indirectly, the quality of our actions.  Success in these indicators determines our future success, not only financially but also in terms of our international reputation. Indeed, Academy of Finland professors, FiDiPro professors, ERC grants and centres of excellence (CoEs) in UEF are indicators of excellence in research. They are the flagships that can make the university famous for research.

A centre of excellence (CoE) is a team, a shared facility or an entity that provides leadership, best practices, research, support and/or training for a focus area (Wikipedia).  The Academy of Finland’s CoEs represent the very cutting edge of science in their fields, developing creative research environments and training new talented researchers for the Finnish research system and Finnish business and industry (http://www.aka.fi/en/research-and-science-policy/centres-of-excellence/). The call for letters of intent for the new CoE programme will open in April 2016. According to the Academy of Finland, the new CoE programme enables the renewal of science, with improved support to utilise research findings in society. The CoE programme 2018-2025 is expected to include new research groups, new research themes and new openings embracing a high gain-high risk approach. What does this mean? Does this offer new possibilities for UEF researchers? We will learn more during this spring. Let’s actively collect all the information available to find out what we can expect from this round and prepare ourselves for tough competition.

Indeed, it is time to establish consortiums that will be competitive in the coming application round.  Most importantly, competitive consortiums must include not only a high quality director, research groups and members, but also fresh research ideas with potential for new scientific openings and breakthroughs. Obviously, UEF researchers have to collaborate with top scientists in other national and international research organisations. Even the weakest partner in a consortium must be strong enough. Typically, only the maximum grades in the review process are good enough for success. Also typically, the director of a CoE is a prominent, experienced researcher of the highest international level. It is interesting to see if younger candidates will be considered more seriously as directors for the next long programme term (2018-2025). A young director cannot have hundreds of scientific papers, as is characteristic of directors of the present CoE programmes.  Let’s hope that also young talents have chances for success.

Jukka JurvelinJukka Jurvelin
dean, Faculty of Science and Forestry

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

Multidisciplinarity – interdisciplinarity in tackling global challenges

A special issue of Nature, September 17, 2015 published articles on interdisciplinarity in science. The article by Robert Van Noorden shows some interesting figures and numbers on this topic. The popularity of interdisciplinary has been varying over time, but currently it seems to be on the rise and is the most popular ever now in the twenty-first century.

Is interdisciplinarity needed? Scientists, policymakers and also funders consider it important in solving complicated questions. Horizon2020 programmes, for example, strongly emphasise interdisciplinary approaches and also require an evaluation of impact of the proposed research from different points of view.

Does interdisciplinarity have impact? It depends on how you measure it and what is the timeframe. In terms of citations, papers with less interdisciplinarity gained more citations compared to those with more interdisciplinarity over a 3-year period. However, in a longer period up to 13 years citations of the more interdisciplinary papers overcame those with a less diverse scope. Of course, impact is not only counting citations but considering other impact such as societal, health, technological and economic impact as well.

Is interdisciplinary research easy to do? Nowadays, research often needs expertise of different fields of science. “Low hanging fruit” in science are not easy to catch any more. It may take time to find the common language between experts from different disciplines. It takes time to deliver, but it can be rewarding.

Is it related to the field of science? It is notable that e.g. clinical medicine papers rarely cite papers from other disciplines of science. On the other hand “health science” in a broader sense and social studies of medicine in particular seem be very interdisciplinary.

Does it work in Finland? There are still too many barriers between universities, faculties, departments, professions, and research groups. The strategic research funding (STN) funding instrument is one way to facilitate interdisciplinarity – however, top down. I think that it is better to promote science across borders and spontaneous interaction between research groups with different expertise – bottom up.

It is not easy but it may be rewarding and productive. I recommend it!

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

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

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

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

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

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