Dr. Gareth Rice: How open is Finnish higher education?

by , under Gareth Rice

Dr. Gareth Rice

gareth

 

 

 

 

 

I had been sufficiently impressed by the work of some Finnish geographers, though I knew little about the Nordic country’s higher education system before I accepted the position of postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki in December 2007.

I had been bent on visiting Finland for as long as I can remember. The country, its people and their culture intrigued me. Before 2008 the closest I had been to Finland was reading a school geography atlas. I spent hours studying the figures and photographs thinking that if I stared at them for long enough and longingly enough I would, by some means of teleportation, be transported into their beauty and silence.

I eventually relocated from the UK to Helsinki in April 2008. I appreciated the space I was given in the Department of Geosciences and Geography: a big corner desk in a shared office with three other Finnish researchers. I had time to work on my publications and I also received helpful tips on where to apply for more funding – my postdoc was fixed term for two years. I was also asked to offer some teaching in English to mainly Erasmus students. This was a great experience. It enabled me to engage in fruitful discussions with Finnish and other students from a number of different countries. The feedback on my teaching was generally very positive. My line manager was pleased with my work, told me that I was good for the university’s ambition to “become more international.” I also got positive vibes from my colleagues. I felt valued.

“I appreciated the space I was given in the Department of Geosciences and Geography: a big corner desk in a shared office with three other Finnish researchers.”

For the first six months I made a concerted effort to learn about Finland’s history and to appreciate its culture and etiquette. I became fascinated by the folklore and mythology in The Kalevala, the epic Finnish poem. I quickly saw that the Finns were good at many things (I have never needed to whip out my Finnish dictionary out of my pocket and embarrass myself with villainous Finnish: most Finns, at least those who live in Helsinki, speak very good English) but not at getting back to me. It’s that silence again, so notorious that even the Finns themselves make jokes about it. The silence can be trying for those who, say, want to get feedback on their unsuccessful job applications.

As a guest in Finland I promised myself that I would try not to complain about how the Finns run their country, but complaining is instinctive, and almost every foreigner living in Finland has, I am sure, done it at least once. How unreactive I once was; how frustrated now! My patience has since been worn down over the years and is now threadbare.

At the start of 2009, I began making plans to become a permanent fixture in the Finnish higher education system. I started by asking about contracts in my own department – more on this later – and approaching other departments within the faculty. There was nothing available at the time. Thankfully in December of 2009 I was informed that I would receive one year’s research funding from the Kone Foundation in Helsinki. This was slightly less money than my previous faculty postdoc position, but funding is funding and besides, I didn’t think it wise to have a gap on my CV.

Before my Kone funding ran out in April 2011, I had already applied for more funding to various Finnish funding bodies so that I could continue with the same research. None were successful. This was my first taste of how life in Finnish academia was going to pan out over the next few years. I also continued to look for permanent academic contracts in universities throughout Finland. I was prepared to move north to Oulu or Rovaniemi to the University of Lapland. How lovely it would have been to have lived so close to the Santa Claus Village! Instead I was only offered part-time teaching in southern Finland. Departments ‘bought in’ my courses for the eight weeks which they each lasted. I delivered high quality lectures – again the student feedback is testament to this – in my own department, the University of Helsinki Summer School and night classes at the Finnish Open University. I had no holiday pay or health insurance like the full time and permanent staff.

The more experience of the Finnish higher education I gained the less baffled I became. I missed rejection. When one applies for academic posts in UK universities they can expect to be informed about the outcome of their applications, even if they are unsuccessful. Finnish universities do not work in this way. Finns do everything in silence. Applicants have no idea what happens to their paperwork after they submit it. When you ask the decision makers for feedback you feel like you are unnecessarily hassling them. You are met with silence. I suggested to a Finnish colleague that this silence might be viewed as discourteous to the applicants. My colleague informed me that Finns would rather not be seen to be rejecting people, “we would rather not be ones to say no.” I remember thinking at the time that keeping people in the dark about an issue as important as employment was furtive and thus a more frustrating type of rejection.

There has been some progress in opening up the Finnish Higher education system to more foreign academic talent, but progress has been slow. To get a sense of this, I emailed all universities in Finland and asked them for statistics on numbers of foreign staff. The University of Turku reflects the national picture. Out of its 500 academic staff currently holding permanent contracts, only 21 are not Finnish citizens and only 8 have a mother tongue other than Finnish, Swedish or Sámi. I have lost count of the number of brilliant foreign academics who have upped and left this supposedly fair and open Nordic country because they are made to feel belittled and marginalised by a system apparently designed to guarantee that Finns progress the fastest.

I have wondered about these statistics and similar ones before them. After doing some digging and speaking to academic colleagues based at different Finnish universities, I was left with four different explanations. The first is the Finnish language; without speaking, or at least being able to read it so much of the country’s higher education system and wider culture is closed off to the foreigner. Secondly, Finns feel more comfortable to appoint their ‘their own’ over foreigners, irrespective of talent. Thirdly, there are some Finns who believe that they are more entitled to permanent academic contracts in Finland simply because it is ‘their’ country and that knowledge should be reproduced in certain ways. Finally, and this was most surprising to me, Finnish academics feel insecure and don’t wish to be challenged by foreign scholars, who may eventually come to undermine them.

In December 2013, I was excited to see an advert for a permanent lectureship in my own department. I remember the words “open” and “international” being used in the advert for the post. It had been a long time coming and due to the absence of a proper contract I had thought about leaving Finland earlier that year. I was encouraged to apply by my line manager, who also acted as a referee, namely because my contribution to the department was valued and, I was told, “important.” The advert also said that, teaching and publications were to be in English and that whoever was appointed should have learned Finnish to the required level within five years from their start date. Excellent! Although I was struggling with the Finnish language, this sounded fair enough and doable to me. I submitted a strong application before heading up north to Oulu to celebrate Christmas with my Finnish partner and her father.

I knew three of the nineteen candidates who had also applied for the permanent lectureship: a Greek, an Italian and my Finnish colleague, who had just completed their PhD. I hadn’t heard anything for over two months so at the end of February 2014 I stopped by the Head of Department’s office – I was still working on a part-time teaching contract at the time – to ask when the outcome might be known. It was impossible to tell from his deadpan face that my Finnish colleague had already been interviewed at the end of January 2014 and was, I think, already lined up for the lectureship.

I thought it unusual that I first received the official correspondence about the lectureship from one of the other candidates. The letter stated that my Finnish colleague was to be appointed. Congratulations! But I remember thinking how odd that the letter had only been prepared in Finnish for a post which the Head of Department had told me was “totally open” and that the search had been international in scope. Also, most scholars would agree that it is near impossible to walk straight out of a PhD into a permanent lectureship, especially when one is up against international competition with more experience. I emailed the Head of Department and asked to see how the nineteen candidates had been ranked, at least in terms of teaching contact hours, years of research experience and publications in international journals. According to his email, sent to me on 3rd March 2014, there was no ranking: “Unfortunately, the statement you received is all what you can get. This was a strategic recruitment, where we hired a qualified person with strong existing ties to the research group…”

It would be unfair of me not to mention that there has been some progress in opening up the Finnish Higher education system to more foreign academic talent. Highlights include a snatch of Professorial appointments: Sarah Green in the Department of Social Research at the University of Helsinki, John Moore at the University of Lapland and Craig Primmer at the University of Turku are cases in point. The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers is doing its best to ensure fair play in the Finnish academic community. The systemic changes are, however, happening much too slowly. I have lost count of the number of brilliant foreign academics who have up and left Finland (a measure which you will not find in Finnish statistics) because, they are made to feel belittled and marginalised by the Finnish oligarchy who ultimately decide who gets appointed. “If you create an elite you are saying that not everyone can achieve their ultimate goals” as the Scottish writer Irvine Welsh put in his recent piece for Prospect. Who could blame those foreign academics for thinking that the Finnish higher education system is designed to guarantee that Finns “progress” the fastest, and end up in the most senior positions? This, of course, also impacts upon Finnish academics, especially females, who are more likely to not be favoured by the decision makers when compared with their male colleagues.

This doesn’t feel like the Finland I read about in that geography atlas all those years ago. It was more like a country which has allowed a myth of being open and fair to congeal and coagulate around its borders; a country where reverence is at its most unshakeable between Finns, who seem generally indifferent to the talents and academic credentials of foreigners; hierarchal higher education which turns on hereditary principles that ensure that elites continue to be grandfathered into the system. But still I am grateful to the Finnish higher education system for the many things it has revealed to me. The most important of these was succinctly put by Michael Ignatieff in his insightful memoir Fire and Ashes: “When you live in other people’s countries, you eventually bang up against glass doors and cordoned-off areas reserved for insiders. You realize you understand only what the insiders say, not what they really mean.”

See also: Gareth Rice: Finland Warm welcome, then cold shoulder

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

 

  1. Yossie

    I think this guy come out very arrogant and entitled. He refers to number of foreigners in finnish universities and makes it sound like they should be entitled to get more spots just because they are foreigners. Also he comes out as how brilliant foreigners are held back by less brilliant finnish oligarchy.

    He is happy people speak good English but seems it never crossed his mind that he should learn the language if he intends to be “a permanent fixture in the Finnish higher education system”. Very typical thing to see in native English speakers that they expect not to need to do any language studies. Also he moans about cultural differences expecting everything work like home

    The worst of course is how he sees it all as some kind of conspiracy against foreigners. This is most likely why Enrique has picked this up. This is the image he wants to reinforce. What this guy needs to understand that there is A LOT of highly educated people here in Finland. There is a lot competition to get any kind of employment in universities. There is a joke in universities about this: “are you gonna do the PhD?” “-No, I don’t want be unemployed”.

    Also, I find it odd that his friends didn’t mention this, there is this one finnish recruitment method. I´m pretty sure it is what happened in his case:

    They already had chosen the person before the spot because available. Most likely the spot was waiting for the chosen person to get his PhD done and be formally qualified. Too much of a coincidence for him to get it done and get the job straight away. They kinda admitted it too: “we hired a qualified person with strong existing ties to the research group…”.

    Key words are qualified and strong ties. Qualified reinforces what I said earlier and strong ties refer to the fact that in Finland, contacts are really really important. Finns start the process of getting the job in their first summer in uni. You don’t send millions of applications for factory floor summer job for the money but the contacts that help you land the office internship and the proper job later on.

    Most likely the chosen applicant had worked with the people in research group for years, and they knew the chosen applicant very well already. This wasn’t a case where foreigners were held back so finns could progress faster like this article hints, it was a case where the chosen applicant could progress fastest. The other finnish applicants were equally screwed as the foreigners were. They were all years too late to apply.

    • JusticeDemon

      Yossie

      I understand that Dr Rice applied for a position to lecture and teach in English. Like many foreign academics, he is a native speaker of English with limited Finnish language skills so far. He has nevertheless already been lecturing and teaching full-time in the Finnish higher education system for a few years. He lost out to a native speaker of Finnish who speaks English as a foreign language and has no full-time teaching experience at all.

      You just characterised a fundamentally fraudulent (and unlawful) procedure as a Finnish recruitment method. Please explain to our readers why the university did not simply announce in advance that this method would be applied? Something along the lines of sisäpiiriin kuulumattomat älköön vaivauduko at the bottom of the job advertisement would save everyone a great deal of trouble. And why did they dishonestly explain the appointment in retrospect as a matter of language skills when the real reason was nepotism?

    • Yossie

      JusticeDemon

      “You just characterised a fundamentally fraudulent (and unlawful) procedure as a Finnish recruitment method”

      I suppose it would be wrong to say it was finnish methdod. I´m sure it happens elsewhere too.

      Is it unlawful? Is there is a law that says who is the best candidate? You just count the experience hours and the winner is the one who has them most? Like what is the point of the interview then if the papers already tell you who is “the best”?

      Why the whole bias is possible, is ofcourse because they can say his familiarity with the group is a bonus for him like experience is bonus for Dr. Rice. Both of them are formally qualified.

      In fact, at least the guy who got the job was formally qualified and the requirements were not altered in middle to fit the political buddy. We have seen this happen with political appointments.

      “Please explain to our readers why the university did not simply announce in advance that this method would be applied? Something along the lines of sisäpiiriin kuulumattomat älköön vaivauduko at the bottom of the job advertisement would save everyone a great deal of trouble”

      Because you think they could do that? Ofcourse not. Most likely they had to do “open” recruitment to fill in some rules.

      “And why did they dishonestly explain the appointment in retrospect as a matter of language skills when the real reason was nepotism?”

      Were they dishonest? Dr. Gare told us they said:

      “This was a strategic recruitment, where we hired a qualified person with strong existing ties to the research group…”

      I don’t think it gets any clearer than that

      Tbh, what annoys me the most is how this site and foreigners seem to think this is somekind of finnish conspiracy against foreigners. There are a lot of finnish candidates that get hurt by this too. You just want to concentrate on foreigner part.

    • JusticeDemon

      Yossie

      Is there is a law that says who is the best candidate?

      There is a law that prohibits discrimination and there is another law that requires objectivity in administrative decisions. Both of these laws are infringed when a publicly funded organisation massages the selection criteria to suit a particular individual candidate without reference to the demands of the job.

      And as you admitted:

      Most likely they had to do “open” recruitment to fill in some rules.

      These “rules” are usually official requirements that affect access to finance. The job only exists because the university agrees to comply with them.

      You ask about the point of the interview, but in this case the appointment was not justified by referring to anyone’s interview performance anyway.

  2. Yossie

    “There is a law that prohibits discrimination and there is another law that requires objectivity in administrative decisions. Both of these laws are infringed when a publicly funded organisation massages the selection criteria to suit a particular individual candidate without reference to the demands of the job.”

    Does these mean anything in practice? Do you remember the selection of Eva Biaudet as minority ombudsman? She did not have the required degree, any degree for that matter. In the end, did it matter? They said her experience was enough. She got chosen and all complaints were declined.

    What I want to say is that ultimately it is hard to prove someone is discriminated when they can just say the chosen applicant’s other qualities were valued more.

    offnote to previous: Why the hell did I said Dr. Gare….?!? I wish you could edit stuff in here. Meant Dr. Rice of course.

    • JusticeDemon

      Yossie

      Yes, these provisions are certainly meaningful, and we have seen several less highly publicised and politicised cases in which compensation has been awarded for infringing them.

      The problem is that people tend not to apply these laws and insist on their rights. The Eva Biaudet case is interesting, as you point out, but not for showing the alleged toothlessness of laws that were never applied. My own view is that Husein Muhammed should have pursued that case through the courts as blatant [sex] discrimination, but I suppose that his choice not to do so was motivated by personal (and indeed political) considerations. The findings of the Attorney General in that case were obviously limited by the role of that office, whereas legal proceedings proper would not have been so constrained.

      So I think the main problem with the Biaudet appointment is that nobody followed through on the complaint by taking the case to court. In such a high profile case, this creates the unfortunate public impression that the associated laws are ineffective.

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