I did my PhD in urban geography at the University of Strathclyde and had been lecturing there for more than three years before I accepted my postdoctoral position at the University of Helsinki in December 2007. I had never been to Finland before, but the country, its people and their culture had long intrigued me. Once I had arrived in the April of the following year, I made a concerted effort to learn about Finland’s history and to appreciate its culture and etiquette.
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I also appreciated the space that I was given: a big corner desk in a shared office with three other researchers. I had time to work on my publications, and I received helpful tips about where to apply for funding when my two-year contract ran out. I also offered quality teaching in English, mainly to Erasmus exchange students – an experience that I enjoyed. The feedback on my teaching was generally positive, and my line manager told me that I was good for the university’s ambition to “become more international”. I also got positive vibes from colleagues. I felt valued.
At the start of 2009, I began making plans to become a permanent fixture in Finnish higher education. No positions were available in my faculty, but I won a year’s funding from a Finnish foundation to keep me going – albeit on a lower salary. However, subsequent applications to Finnish funding bodies were unsuccessful, as were my attempts to secure a permanent academic contract. I could get only part-time teaching jobs in a variety of universities in the south of the country.
The most frustrating aspect of applying for a position in Finnish higher education is the silence. When you apply for academic posts in UK universities, you can expect to be informed about the outcome even if you are unsuccessful. Finnish universities do not work in this way. It feels as though you are hassling human resources staff when you ask them for feedback. I suggested to a Finnish colleague that this silence might be viewed as discourteous, only to be told that Finns would rather not be seen to be rejecting people.
Still without a proper contract, my Finnish partner and I thought about leaving Finland last year. But then, in December, a permanent lectureship was finally advertised in my own department, the details for which included the words “open” and “international”, and I was encouraged to apply by my line manager. But again, I heard nothing for several months until one of the other candidates, based in France, sent me a copy of the official letter which stated that a Finn who had only just completed their PhD had been appointed to the post. The letter had not been translated from Finnish despite the supposedly international nature of the search. The head of department told me that no ranking of candidates existed and explained that it was “a strategic recruitment, where we hired a qualified person with strong existing ties to the research group”.
There has been some progress in opening up the Finnish higher education system to more foreign academic talent, but it has been slow. To get a sense of the wider view, I emailed all universities in Finland and asked them for statistics about their foreign staff. The University of Turku reflects the national picture. Of its 500 academic staff currently holding permanent contracts, only 21 are not Finnish citizens and just eight have a mother tongue other than Finnish, Swedish or Sami. 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 higher education system apparently designed to guarantee that Finns progress the fastest.
Finnish colleagues have given me four different explanations for this. One is foreigners’ difficulties with learning Finnish – from which I am certainly not immune. Another is that Finns trust other Finns and thus prefer to employ them. A third is that some Finns believe that they are more entitled to permanent academic contracts because it is “their” country. But the most surprising reason is that Finnish academics feel insecure and don’t wish to be challenged and undermined by foreign scholars.
The most important lesson I have learned was succinctly put by Michael Ignatieff in his recent 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 realise you understand only what the insiders say, not what they really mean.”
Gareth Rice has just finished his last part-time lecturing contract with the University of Helsinki.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.