Tag Archives: higher education

Natural sciences – A joint challenge in Finland

Last week, the Deans of universities offering natural sciences in Finland came together in Kuopio to discuss the challenges we are facing in university level education. A common view on the challenging situation of natural sciences in Finland was shared, and universities are also seeking ways to improve the attractiveness of natural sciences in the Finnish school system in general. At all levels of education, starting from the elementary school, there are serious attempts also by UEF to contribute to a better future of natural sciences in Finland. As a negative mood or giving up is not helping us, we must seek new ideas and practices, even if everything we try may not be a success.

The development of Bachelor’s programmes with a wide scope and, subsequently, highly focused Master’s programmes is a strategic approach in the Faculty of Science and Forestry in UEF. However, we should probably think the scope of our Bachelor’s programmes similarly as they do in the University of Helsinki. At the first stage of planning in UEF, these programmes were planned to include a maximum number of compulsory courses for all students. However, following the Helsinki model, at Bachelor’s level, the contents should be based on the individual choices of each student. Of course, we have to link the contents of the Bachelor’s programmes to the Master’s programmes the student is eligible to take later on. Personal guidance and supervision of each student then plays a critical role.

We have to share experiences from the initiatives of other Finnish universities and apply the good practices we learn from each other. Indeed, this is a learning process for us all, and failures will be part of the game. At the Master’s level, we have to design programmes that are unique to UEF, build on the strengths of our university and address problems of the modern world. Then, I believe, the programmes can be attractive also to future students of UEF.  Based on the discussion in the Deans’ meeting, I am confident that the faculties of natural sciences in Finnish universities will do their part to promote the importance of education, also in the field of natural sciences, for the success of future societies.

Jukka Jurvelin
Dean

Students make the university

A research institute is an organisation with active scientists working on chosen scientific fields and topics. Based on that, any university is also a research institute. In UEF, the Faculty of Science and Forestry can call itself an intensive research institute.   An institute with teaching activity is traditionally called a school. A university also has a commitment to teaching its students. Actually, through teaching universities educate new researchers and professionals. As research and teaching are thus linked, to be a true university, both activities must be in order. In the strategy of UEF, both missions are appreciated and ideas for development are provided. My faculty makes 2/3 of its income from output that is related to research. It does not mean that our departments with a high level of research can ignore teaching; instead we must make a significant effort in the development of teaching to be convincing as a university faculty.  The development of learning environments is not the only instrument that is needed for future success in teaching.

In UEF, university students will judge if our teaching activities are of high quality. Students can also tell us potential flaws in our teaching arrangements and practices. Therefore, students’ feedback, and our analysis of that feedback should provide the basis for the development of our teaching activities. The feedback should not only guide us for the optimal development of our teaching system as a whole, but also help individual teachers to develop their own ways of teaching. As many of us recognise, the university’s feedback systems may not be optimal and development is obviously needed. However, I am sure that useful feedback can be received any moment provided that we appreciate its importance, have regular contacts and informal relationships with our students.  The quality system of UEF, when functioning as expected, will certainly pinpoint potential problems in teaching.

In natural sciences, the recruitment of new, talented students is a true challenge. We have to work in many ways to be successful in the future. To help ourselves, we need the support of our present students. Their positive experience and satisfaction with the university education they have received serves as the most important basis for success in the competition for future students.

Jukka Jurvelin

Jukka Jurvelin
Dean of the Faculty of Science and Forestry

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

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

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.

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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

From knowledge dosing to open access

A learning environment is a whole created by the physical, social and pedagogical environment, and on many levels, it affects what and how we learn. For the outcome, the way we learn is at least as important as the things we learn: it affects our ability to utilise the skills we have learned in working life later on.

Dating back to medieval convent schools, the traditional unidirectional teaching method in which the teacher transfers knowledge to the student continues to prevail, although the world around us has changed drastically. In some specific fields, this method can produce good individual players, but it doesn’t train the skills of collaborative working needed in today’s working life.

Thanks to digitization, the production and sharing of knowledge has experienced a revolution. This, too, calls for new skills which we do not gain from traditional learning methods. When working to solve complex problems, we need to be able to produce and share information both alone and together. We need expertise that is built on a diverse base combining formal knowledge, non-formal knowledge and experiential knowledge. In today’s world, lifelong learning is supplemented by lifewide learning.

We live in a world that is characterised by fundamentally open access to information, and we need to make fundamental changes to our philosophy of teaching and learning. We need to move from controlled, unidirectional dosing of knowledge to collaborative learning between teachers and learners, which enhances social sharing of knowledge, networked expertise and teamwork skills. Teaching facilities and technologies are tools we can use to support this, but first and foremost, we need to change our operating culture.

A change in the operating culture requires that we take an open attitude towards knowledge and that we have the courage to give our ideas to be tested in larger forums. An important task of the teachers is to encourage students to solve problems and help them mine their way through open and extensive data resources.

Jukka_Monkkonen_100X130Jukka Mönkkönen

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.

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