Universities or Finland in Crisis?
Universities have been going through times that are characterized by disbelief, despair and uncomfortable truth. A time of disbelief came in the spring, when the "S's" of the government came out to speak in public and sneered about their actions directed at universities, accompanied with awkward jokes. I remember that when I heard about this, I was standing with a phone on my ear and looking at the light well below me and at the students and teachers moving around in there. I could not believe what I had heard and said, in one fell swoop, that we need to react to this. I was not so much thinking about myself, but about all the colleagues for whom I had been authorized to act. How was it possible that they could be insulted so? How was it possible that their work and commitment was publicly questioned? Disbelief is the word that best describes my feeling.
Reality did not quite become evident at first, and hope was predominant at universities. The chairmen who had formed the government had, after all, made promises before the election that there would be no education cuts. Many people probably believed this until the plans were announced in their entirety. The budget figures were harsh to read. University funding was intervened on with unprecedentedly large cuts. Despair started to take hold of the university community.
There was also confusion at universities. The politicians' perspective towards research and education seemed very strange. University budget funding and also funding channelled through Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation, towards R&D&I activities were seen straightforwardly and simply as an item of expenditure. A perspective that sees funding research and education as an investment for the future received no response from the government, and they also did not issue any concrete definitions of research policy. We were in a new and unfamiliar situation.
Many people wondered where the visions of Finland as the most educated nation of the world had disappeared. Where did the belief in investing in research and education go? A recent historical point of comparison can be found in the recession of the early 1990s. At the time, the state government started to invest heavily in research and a large portion of the additional funding was channelled through Tekes.
In the midst of the deepest recession, Tekes funding was increased by almost about a third. In 1993, Tekes made a record number of new funding decisions: 1908, which was 700 more than in the previous year (Tekes 25 years). This was not only about concretely encouraging many companies that were striving to move forward, but also a strong societal message: better times are ahead, and they are certainly within reach.
Later in the 1990s, more investments were made in research. In 1997, an unusually large rate increase was implemented: the real value of the state research funding rose by no less than 23 per cent from the previous year. A major part of the addition was channelled through Tekes.
These times are now gone. These times were also characterized by the slow growth of the economy and the technology companies' rise to the top level, with Nokia in the lead. It is time for the uncomfortable truth.
The Finnish government has decided to respond to the challenges of the present day with unprecedented cuts to both the direct budget funding of the universities and to the competitive funding channelled through Tekes. The decision makers have lost their faith in expertise.
All that is left are the cooperation negotiations, and their size and extent no longer came as a surprise. In the metropolitan area, the University of Helsinki and Aalto University together are trying to cut over 1500 people. Proportionally similar cuts are being planned in different areas of Finland. Even those universities that are not embarking on the cooperation negotiations process this year will face great budgetary challenges in the future.
The uncomfortable truth will slowly turn into a desperate fight for survival.