United by an Uncommon Language
A major challenge for the Finnish universities in the next decade will be to adapt to the use of English as one of the primary languages of teaching, discourse and perhaps even administration.
Of course, this is no manner obligatory. With universities now free to set their own strategic goals and policies, some may opt to eschew this challenge completely, focusing on becoming centres of academic excellence operating uniquely in the Finnish (or Swedish) language. Others will doubtless embrace the Anglophone future as an integral part of an inherently desirable process of internationalization. There is most probably room for both types of institution in the national landscape of higher education, and certainly for hybrid models of the kind that are effectively already with us. But in most institutions and disciplines, an increasing use of English is virtually inescapable.
Facility with studying, teaching and publishing in English is obviously essential for Finns to be part of a truly international academic community. It’s true that, at bachelor level, it will continue to be possible for students to use textbooks written in a ‘minor’ national language such as Finnish, Catalan or Hebrew. However, at Masters level and beyond, when advanced education in virtually any subject requires access to the international research literature, those who are not fluent in English and accustomed to using it will be at a severe disadvantage. If we are to continue to produce highly trained graduates capable of competing in the global jobs market, and of becoming research leaders in their own right, there is simply no alternative. Only a few niche areas such as specialist literature or historical studies, and perhaps fine arts, are likely to remain exempt from this compelling trend. Economics, maths, pharmacology or planetary sciences are the same in every country. Even applied subjects such as journalism, administration and law increasingly require at the very least an equal facility with English as with a national language. As Finland becomes more and more integrated in European and global structures, this need will only grow.
Another obvious aspect of internationalization is the need to recruit and retain academics from abroad, as well as encouraging Finns to take advantage of research opportunities elsewhere to broaden their expertise. The hope must be that most of them will one day return home bringing new knowledge and skills with them to enrich the national academic environment. A small country such as Finland cannot possibly provide the full breadth of academic expertise needed in today’s world, both to sustain teaching quality and nurture international competitiveness in all its aspects. Indeed, this would be true irrespective of the language issue. Whilst playing to our strengths, focusing on well-defined specialist areas where we can achieve global pre-eminence, our universities must also engage in constant renewal, recruiting from the pool of global experts in emerging fields. Obviously, hardly any of them will speak Finnish on arrival, and they will take years to become sufficiently fluent to teach at an advanced level in Finnish; time which anyway would be far better devoted to developing their research areas and maintaining leadership of their fields. Developing an English-speaking environment is not the sole pre-requisite for active recruitment of academic leaders from abroad. However, it is surely indispensable.
The greatest pressure for adopting English in the Finnish universities undoubtedly comes from another direction. The financial changes which have already been implemented effectively require that universities devise new revenue streams in order to survive, let alone flourish. In a nutshell, we are in the process of marketizing higher education in Finland. This process now seems unstoppable, especially as it is part of a worldwide trend. Whilst it is not impossible that a future government might attempt to limit its impact on Finnish society, such actions might actually increase the need to commercialize Finnish university courses in the form they are offered to the outside world. Some 99.9% of our potential students out there do not (yet) speak Finnish, although the majority of them can cope with studying in English even where it is not their mother tongue. Thus, either we offer courses in English, or we will simply not attract paying customers from abroad, starving our universities of badly needed funds. A university which finds itself on a downward slope of both income and academic reputation is, moreover, unlikely to be an attractive investment target for a future Finnish Minister of Education; or anyone else.
It may seem grossly unfair to impose a requirement for higher education to be conducted in a foreign language, upon a gifted student who wishes to study say chemistry or electronic engineering, but who has no flair for languages. Thus, the current ‘hybrid’ model, in which some specific or parallel courses are offered in English, with the majority still taught uniquely in Finnish or Swedish, could provide a way of safeguarding quality higher education in the national language(s). However, in order to endure it will require a substantial subsidy operating at many levels. Since it will be English-language courses which generate the bulk of external income, it is inevitable that they will also attract or demand the best resourcing, in order to ensure their profitability in a highly competitive international market. Courses taught in national language will generate no income other than whatever the state chooses to pay per degree, which at the moment is in long-term decline in real terms. There is thus a distinct danger that degrees taught in Finnish in Finland will come to be regarded, with justification, as ‘second- rate’ qualifications. Furthermore, Finnish universities that teach only in English could rapidly become the elite tier of the national system unless the balance is restored by major investment. In effect, universities that wish to continue to teach in Finnish or Swedish will need to ‘charge’ higher fees to the state, and if the state refuses to pay then many such courses could disappear. An intensive lobbying exercise will be needed to persuade the state (or its citizens individually) to pay the going rate for degrees taught in Finnish, or else those degrees will no longer be viable.
Nevertheless, I believe there is an altogether more creative way to safeguard national language and culture, whilst nevertheless shifting to the wholesale use of English as the major language of university-level teaching. If Finland is to sell the high quality of its universities to the world, why not include the language of the country as part of the package? In other words make Finnish a compulsory minor subject for all non-Finnish speaking students accepted to study here. This would give a university education in Finland a very special dimension, propagating a global awareness of Finnish language, traditions and values, and spreading knowledge of the country far beyond its borders. The first Finnish university to embrace this concept and offer a comprehensive, top-quality immersion programme to foreign students stands to gain a lot.
English as a language is no longer owned by the small minority of its speakers who happen to have been born in the UK. Instead it is a global brand, which also provides huge ‘invisible’ benefits to the UK in terms of trade and goodwill. Spreading knowledge of the Finnish language, making its literature, music, movies and even its public affairs widely accessible, could have a similarly positive impact on Finland’s own international standing and its prosperity, assisting also what can be regarded as its national mission to promote human rights worldwide.
Howy Jacobs on akatemiaprofessori. Professoriliitto valitsi hänet Vuoden Professoriksi 2009.