Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An appeal for KOTUS

Dear readers, if you have not yet signed the appeal for KOTUS (Research Institute for the Languages of Finland), please do it now. The institute is going to be hit hard by the so-called governmental productivity program I was ranting about in an earlier post. With the new additions to the program, they will lose 34 offices - about a third of the total they have.

The state has the policy for giving at least BA level education to 60% of each age group. At the same time they are heavily cutting down the number of civil servants - the governemental sector has traditionally been a large employer for those with education in humanities or social science. Young people, don't do like I did and train for something you will never get a job in. Go to vocational training and learn to be plumbers and electricians! At least those jobs cannot be outsourced to China.

Friday, November 14, 2008

More ranting about university policy

Today's Helsingin Sanomat again made me choke on my morning coffee. University of Helsinki is going to cut the number of different departments from the current 80 down to 40. The aim is to get departments with at least 10 professors each. (Here a link to the news at the University internet site, in Finnish only. I tried to find it in English but apparently this is not something the University wants to make internationally known.)

This massive amalgamation of departments is ostensibly related to the change of the legislation concerning universities. After the new law comes into force the departments will become financial units, which is argued to justify this shake-up. The people responsible for the decision also claim that it will enable more flexible resources for teaching and research and improve the possibilities for departmental co-operation with external partners. Bulls*t.

Let us take an example from real life. Several years ago now, the departments of archaeology, ethnology and folklore were incorporated into the Institute of Cultural Studies, and to this cocktail were added the fields of museology and marine history, which have no professorships. This statistically raised the number of professors within one department from one to three. However, because the three fields are rather different from each other, it did not in any way influence the resources available for teaching. Each field continued to teach and research as before. It did not become easier for students to do minors in the other subjects within the same department. I have understood that the fight about who gets the money did intensify, though.

What I would see as a reform beneficial for teaching and research would be getting more teaching and research staff in a particular field. I can't help turning black* with envy every time I recall the number of staff at the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History.

*According to a friend of mine, being green with envy means just feeling envious. Black with envy embodies also feeling murderous.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Virtual teaching

or: If a tree falls in a forest but there is no-one to hear it, will it still make a sound falling?

I am not convinced by my experience in virtual teaching so far. For one thing, it is a really dreary monologue for the teacher, who has no means of judging how the audience is responding. If it is as dull for the students, they are probably half-asleep, or else most of them have left and gone home. All potential for interaction is lost by the fact that the students are sitting in a classroom and each group has only one computer for communicating back to me and to the other groups, with no microphone, so the only means of asking questions is by typing them. Finnish students are not famous for being communicative anyway, quite on the contrary, but in comparison with this virtual course the discussion on the other one I have been teaching is lively. Despite all the technology involved, I feel this is going backwards in time, to the good old days when a professor would enter the classroom, give his lecture and leave, without any interruption from the students intent on absorbing his words of wisdom.

However, in the light of recent discussion revolving around Finnish university policies , I fear I am really witnessing the future. The government is also planning to cut down thousands of governmental jobs in the name of a productivity program - as if e.g. social security or educational sector is a company operating by the laws of quartal capitalism*. That is so absurd it would make you laugh if it was not real. So, I can see how alluring the idea must be for the decision-makers: By employing one teacher only you can teach (in a very broad sense of the word, but who cares as long as the statistics look nice?) students anywhere in the country with negligible material costs. Lo and behold, we have invented the next best thing after the duck laying gold eggs.

*And see where that principle has led us... It never fails to confound me how these companies can make more and more money by constantly closing factories and kicking out workers. In the past having to close down factories would have been a sign of impending disaster for the company but now it just causes their share price to soar. I confess my utter and absolute bafflement.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Brain drain

I recently read in Helsingin Sanomat (the leading Finnish newspaper) that Finland is one of the few OECD countries to suffer from brain drain. After reading the article, I have had a couple of discussions with colleagues, and they have confirmed my initial reaction to the news. It is no wonder that educated young Finns pack their suitcases and leave the country, when there is so little chance for a person with a doctoral degree to find a decent job!

Finnish free education system is held in high regard. Our schoolchildren get top results in PISA, although I dare say the same quality is not quite met in the higher education where the emphasis seems to be mainly on quantity rather than quality - maximum number of degrees for minimum input in terms teaching staff and facilities. (In fact, considering the ridiculously low numbers of teaching staff in universities we are not doing THAT badly...) What I find incredible that we have this free education system with good-quality schooling up to the doctoral level and then we just WASTE it.

My own experience comes from archaeology, of course, but I have understood the situation is much the same regardless the field. As long as you are a wanna-be researcher doing your PhD, you may get funding through grants or a PhD school (if you are lucky and in a suitable field likely to get that kind of funding). But when you emerge from the university, a fledgeling researcher, you will find out that nobody will fund your research. The reason is that while there are quite a few grants for PhD students, there a significantly fewer of those for young researchers - to get post-doctoral research funding you have to be at first established in your field, but how to achieve that in the first place? Moreover, no employer wants you. You are considered over-educated, too theoretical and alienated from "real" work. Besides, heavens forbid, you might want to have a bigger salary because of your higher education! If your background is in humanities, there is the additional problem of being a specialist in a non-productive field. Here in Finland we have a firm belief in education also in that sense that you are not fit to do anything else than what you were educated for - unless, of course, that "else" is working in an institutional cleaning company.

No wonder there have not been any Nobel prizes in science coming to Finland since A.I.Virtanen in 1945. Those bright enough to do so leave the country and do not come back. In fact, even if they wanted to return, they will find it very hard because the experience and skills they have gained abroad is not valued - not in the sense of money nor in the sense of job opportunities. (This insular attitude is, of course, even more pronounced when it comes to foreigners, but that is another story.)

Somebody tell me, how can we afford this?!

PS. Btw, I've been considering trying to get a post-doc post abroad when my doctoral thesis is finally finished... Specializing in any field in archaeology in Finland seems to be a career suicide. Well... you might actually say that studying archaeology is a career suicide. :)