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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.

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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.

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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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