The productivity of academic work
In the summer, professors have the opportunity to focus on three key tasks in their work: research, teaching and community relations. This summer was no exception, even though the news has been confusing in Finland.
The themes that were discussed during the summer included a “social contract”. The concept is a loan from Jean- Jacques Rousseau from the eighteenth century, but this summer it was used to refer to something entirely different from its original meaning. It was used to refer to an agreement between the government and key labour market organisations that would improve the competitive ability of Finland.
The idea was to measure changes in nominal unit costs in Finland compared to other countries in the eurozone. Unit costs would be calculated by dividing employee-specific salaries by the productivity of the work.
Unit costs can be affected by lowering salaries in relation to other countries. However, unit costs are also dependent on the productivity of work, meaning that the unit cost will not necessarily decrease if the productivity of the work decreases at the same time.
All this must somehow be applied to the framework of universities. Salaries at universities have already effectively decreased, as recent raises have been lower than the rate of inflation. This means that the unit costs should already be on the decline. Longer working hours have also been brought up as a way to reduce costs.
Teaching and research staff at universities mainly work full-time, which means a total of 1,600 hours per year. Longer working time would mean an increase in the total number of hours. According to a time-management study carried out by Statistics Finland some ten years ago, professors actually put in 2,250 hours per year. With regard to other teaching and research staff, the total number of hours actually put in is hundreds of hours higher than what is stated in the general collective agreement. For this reason, an increase in the official working time would hardly have any effect on the actual number of hours worked.
The competitiveness of universities and research institutes must be improved in other ways – by improving the productivity of the work. This is possible when the conditions are favourable for sufficient input into and proper concentration on key tasks: research and teaching. Possible means to increase productivity include investment in technological development, training and innovation. In expert work, increasing productivity means leaping forward instead of sticking to old patterns with reduced resources.
My workplace community at the University of Helsinki has been quite shocked about the government’s actions and budget plans. Other universities must be equally worried. According to the budget proposal published by the Ministry of Finance in August 2015, funding for universities will be cut by around EUR 100 million in 2016.
The figure is not entirely accurate, as the figures presented by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Education and Culture are different. In addition, the university index will be frozen, which further reduces the funding. These are tough figures, and the reductions will be implemented over an unreasonably short period of time. Investment in new, high-quality operations will be practically nonexistent, and the plan to improve productivity may well never materialise.