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    Finnish Higher Education Is Not So International

    To say so is to be met with mildly amusing casuistry from those in powerful positions; they hopelessly hold onto the fantasy that Finnish higher education already is international and runs as a meritocracy. The reality is that what they say and what is actually done are completely out of synch with one another. International academics — those with a mother tongue other than Finnish or Swedish — who have applied for “open” permanent contracts in Finnish universities know this all too well. Where social sciences are concerned at least, if Finnish higher education is to become truly international then a root and branch change is required.

    When it comes to being open, international and playing fair, Finnish universities talk a good game. The University of Oulu prides itself on being “an international, multidisciplinary research university with a rich pool of creative and intellectual talent.” Turku’s Human Resources Policy states that, “The University will be open and public in its recruitment, select the best possible candidate for each post and enhance its image as an employer.” On the University of Helsinki’s website it states that: “The goal is always to find the most talented and motivated people for the job. They may come from Finland or elsewhere, but the competition in the academic world is nevertheless international and intense.” To avoid being hoodwinked by these sorts of statements, one needs to look closely at the fairness and accountability of the recruitment process, especially where Finnish and international candidates have competed against one another for permanent academic positions at Finnish universities.

    To the embarrassment of the University of Helsinki, the Department of Geosciences and Geography made national and international headlines in 2014 when it advertised for an “open” permanent lectureship. It was obvious that the post was earmarked for a Professor’s (I will not name and shame them here) favourite candidate, who had just finished their PhD. - the only one ‘interviewed’ for the post and subsequently appointed. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that had an international committee looked at the CVs of all the applicants with objective eyes the outcome would have been quite different.

    The behaviour of Geosciences and Geography highlights a wider concern within Finnish higher education: university departments are not sufficiently held to account. They should be made to prove that they have followed regulations which ensure that all candidates who have applied for permanent academic contracts are ranked purely on the basis of merit. This would at least prevent certain Professors from ensuring that their favourite candidates get the best jobs and would also lead to a more transparent recruitment process which would be a real credit to Finnish higher education.

    Why are Finnish universities so afraid of fastening their recruitment policies more tightly to criteria which has helped other universities to secure some of the world’s best academic talent? Internationalisation and HR staff in some of the world’s most successful universities ensure that when recruiting, academic departments adhere to criteria which includes, number of publications in high impact factor international journals, quality of the teaching portfolio and a track record in securing research funds in the candidate’s own name.

    The ability of Finnish higher education to become more international also turns on the experiences of the few international academics who are already employed in the system. Many are struggling with the depressing discovery that their departments are replete with broken promises about teaching to research ratios, meaningless employment contracts and rampant skulduggery. Because these international academics will never be made proper members of ‘the club’, they may decide to not waste their time currying favour with their Finnish superiors and instead seek to better themselves at universities elsewhere in the world.

    Truly international universities provide space for their staff to speak truth to power. The distinguished intellectual Noam Chomsky once said that those in power probably know the truth already, and are mainly interested in suppressing or limiting or distorting it. This is certainly true of Finnish higher education. This is to recognise that those who manage Finnish higher education are behaving like they are ambidextrous: On the one hand they appear to want to increase the numbers of international staff working in Finnish universities, but on the other hand they do their damnedest to protect a system which ensures that Finnish academics land the most secure job contracts and progress up the hierarchy the fastest. This is not the best environment for international staff to thrive in.

    When one starts asking questions and looking at the statistics, it quickly becomes clear that Finnish higher education is not so international. The international outlook which features on the websites of Finnish universities is largely bogus, part of the defunct utopian myth which has been allowed to congeal and coagulate around Finland. Those who maintain that Finnish higher education is international and meritocratic need to realise that there will soon be no one left to lie to.

    To end on a positive note which I received by email from Thomas Wilhelmsson, the Chancellor of the University of Helsinki “We are in the process of renewing our recruitment processes quite thoroughly, and the Board of the University has already adopted amendments of our statutes in this direction. I hope we will be able to address at least some of the problems in this reform.” I do too.

    Dr. Gareth Rice
    is an experienced academic who spent some years working in Finnish higher education

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