How Open is Finnish Higher Education?

Editor’s note: While the globalization of higher education and research is a process associated with the enhanced mobility of faculty, staff, and students, the frictions shaping the process are many. They include not just regulations related to skilled migration, but also a myriad of less tangible frictions, including the unwritten taken-for-granted assumptions about how job search processes operate.  I remember applying for two jobs in Sweden in the late 1990s and was surprised to learn that the jobs would be offered with no expectation of a visit to give a talk, meet colleagues, or check out the local housing market. In the end, the entire Swedish faculty search process was conducted via courier and email; not even a telephone call was in the books. Everyone knew everyone else, so it seemed, with the search procedure built upon assumptions of a very small national labour market and dense local networks to draw upon. In contrast, the US & UK academic labour markets, at least in the discipline of Geography, were and are remarkably open, with the expectation (in the US) of a 48 hour visit, complete with a talk, meetings with faculty, meetings with staff, meetings with graduate students, and offers of a tour of the host city. And we do this for all short-listed candidates, regardless of nationality. As a department chair here in Madison, I have to coordinate these and while they are exhausting for all parties involved, they help us assess each other, and are built on an assumption we need to court candidates and do our best to communicate what we have on offer. Coordinating searches this way also signifies that a faculty search is indeed a search, an open event where, yes, only one person will be hired, but also that everyone who applies will be fairly considered.

It is in such a context that we’re pleased to post this guest entry by Dr. Gareth Rice. Dr. Rice is a freelance journalist at various magazines and newspapers, including National Geographic Traveler, Monocle, Times Higher Education, Runway, Wonderland, The Skinny, Counterpunch, Global Politics, Helsingin Sanomat, and Helsinki Times. He is also a lecturer in Geography at Helsinki University and Open University, Finland/Avoinyliopisto. His Twitter feed is located at @belfastnomad. Our thanks to Dr. Rice for his insights and interest in engendering discussion and debate on this important topic.

Kris Olds

ps: Please link here for the Inside Higher Ed version of this entry.



How Open is Finnish Higher Education?

By Dr. Gareth Rice

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.

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.

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.”


4 thoughts on “How Open is Finnish Higher Education?

  1. I have heard many things about the education system in Finland, and was very intrigued when I first began reading this article. I was also surprised of your findings. It was definitely eye-opening to read about what is truly occurring.

    Thank you for a great read,
    Amber Martinez

  2. Interesting perspective of the Finish higher educational system. The lack of internal communication is surprising in an environment where communication can be essential in establishing good lines of communication to developing learning strategies,, to assess program and course outcomes and when planning for academia in the next 10 years. Functioning on principles of only addressing positives can have a negative impact. Negatives can establish where weaknesses are within program and where improvements need to be made. Additionally, prioritizing hiring Finish staff limits the diversity of your staff in addition limiting the educational diversity brought by the variety of values, ethics, and teaching experience.
    Sharon Baker

  3. This was a very interesting reading but disturbing to find out that the Finland’s uncertainties prohibits them from allowing others the opportunity to excel within their country and limiting their own educational knowledge. It is truly unfair and unprofessional for the Finland’s not to have enough respect for others to advise one that they appreciate their interest, but that they decided to go with another candidate whom they felt was better suited for the position even if this statement wasn’t true. They rather stay within their own circle and keep silence, but silence really speaks for itself. It is becoming too common not just with the Finns, but here in the US with applications been submitted online.

  4. This was a very interesting reading, but very disturbing to find out that the Finland’s uncertainties prohibit them from allowing others the opportunity to excel within their country and limiting their own educational knowledge. It is truly unfair and unprofessional for the Finland’s not to have enough respect for others to advise one that they appreciate their interest, but that they have decided to go with another candidate whom they felt was better suited for the position. Even if this statement wasn’t true. It seems that they rather stay within their own circle and keep silence, but silence really speaks for itself. It is becoming too common not just with the Finns, but here in the US with applications been submitted online.

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