A strike would have been unthinkable in 1995, 2005 or 2015, but in 2018 also the usually conservative Union of University Professors was ready to pursue industrial action. [This article was originally published by Brave New Europe on 17 March 2018 and is available also at our “turn in university politics” site.]
Education-employers wanted to dictate the terms: more flexible conditions implying among other things lower salaries, more teaching, and more powers to the employers. The unions appeared willing – for many all too willing – to compromise. Yet the employers rejected the deal forged by the government arbitrator, even though it would have been rather favourable to their terms. The first step in this course of industrial action was a one-day strike at the University of Helsinki on 28 February. A few days later, however, a deal was struck involving modest salary increases and ambiguous commitments with regard to the salary system, amount and timing of teaching, and employers’ powers.
The story may sound rather unremarkable – if you do not know the context. For a while, the Finnish universities were not only relatively well funded but probably the most democratic and collegial in the world. In his new book on repurposing higher education and research, Implausible Dream, James H. Mittelman discusses the Finnish system under the rubric of social democracy, partly because there are still no tuition fees (except now for non-EU students). The Finnish students also receive financial aid and subsidies for living. Yet the model started to change already in the 1990s, with the introduction of management by results, creating a parallel hierarchy of power alongside the democratic, three-tier council-system. Funding for research continued to increase, but was now channelled through the systems of competitive funding (Academy of Finland, TEKES). A new salary system, based on the idea of stimulating efforts through constant surveillance and carrots and sticks, was introduced in 2004-5. Its introduction led to a nationwide rebellion in which I played a small role (resigning publicly in protest from my position as Head of Department, collecting thousands of names for a petition, and writing a book called University Inc). The rebellion achieved only some minor concessions from the government.
In summer 2009, the Parliament adopted a new university law, which in effect privatised Finnish universities and replaced the democratic council-system with a hierarchical top-down system of “professional” management. Moreover, according to that law, which has been in force since 2010, nearly half of the board-members of the universities consist of external representatives of business, politics and culture. As a result of the new law, universities became private employers joining forces with the Confederation of Finnish Industries. Although state-funding remains crucial, its share is declining. The top managers of the universities and some polytechnics formed an association, Sivista, which has increasingly assumed a role similar to that of business corporations, pushing for power and wage disparities.
The new university law generated a lot of resistance but almost to no avail. Because opposition to the law was particularly strong at the University of Helsinki, the Faculty Councils in Helsinki retained the right to elect Deans. The top management succeeded in abolishing that system in 2015, further concentrating powers in the hands of the Rector and the Board, but only for two years. Due to continuous internal turmoil and criticism, further agitated by the drastic cuts imposed by Juha Sipilä’s right-wing (neoliberal nationalist) government, the Faculty Councils regained the right to elect Deans, alongside some other powers. Moreover, in the October 2017 Board elections, active critics of the managerial system gained most votes (in Helsinki, the Board consists of seven internal and six external members).
The mayhem at the Finnish universities is not limited to these episodes or to the one-day strike. Just before the strike in February 2018, the students and employees of the University of Tampere marched out in protest against the direction of fusion with the local Technical University and Polytechnic. The official plan was to transfer, in effect, the relevant governing powers to the Union of Technology Industry and other “owners” of Tampere3 (the new fusion university) – in spite of the fact that legal experts had declared the plan unconstitutional. Fighting also against the general trend toward the erosion of the rule of law, the protestors succeeded in taming the excesses of the plan – but only the excesses and only for the time being. Tampere3 is a laboratory for the future of universities in Finland.
As is familiar from the English-speaking world – providing model for the Finnish “reformers” too – the ultimate end of these changes is in no way confined to management per se. What is at stake is the very purpose of the universities. In a world market society dominated by big corporations, the CEOs and other members of the transnational managerial class, as well as their lackeys in state bureaucracies, want to remake the universities after their own image. To paraphrase Marx and Engels, the current ideology compels all universities, on pain of extinction, to adopt the business corporate model of production; it compels them to become business corporations themselves. In the process, the substance of education, research, organization and the context of the universities is being transformed:
- Education – the aim is to produce as efficiently and quickly as possible professionals with disciplined minds, ready to accomplish without questioning whatever task is given to them by corporate leaders
- Research – the aim is to produce the kind of knowledge that is immediately useful for business corporations (creating ready-made solutions to their practical problems; generating commercially successful innovations that benefit corporations; providing justifications for corporate power etc)
- Organization – hierarchical and managerial business corporations provide the basic model, while the changing fads of the business world provide further ideas to the tumult of never-ending organizational change (e.g. academic disciplines are depicted as “silos” that must be get rid of)
- Context: the universities are forced to compete against each other in the simulated competitive market of university rankings and, simultaneously, to sell their products in the real world markets of higher education and research
Although the prevailing common sense is shifting with the overall transformational process, most university teachers and researchers remain strongly committed to the civic ideals of free and democratic university aiming at truth, education, edification and emancipation. More trouble and turmoil is clearly lying ahead also in Finland, unless we, the critics, succeed in changing the university law.
Local resistance is likely to succeed only in slowing down the on-going process or gaining a degree of freedom and autonomy for individual universities. National alternatives remain possible, but clearly we need an alternative global vision of the purpose of the university in the 21st century and beyond. In conclusion, I would like to paraphrase Marx and Engels again: united action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of universities.