1.4.2020 | Staff members from the Collegium
Open letter from staff to the University of Helsinki
In its meeting of 26 February 2020, the Board of the University of Helsinki approved the University’s strategic plan for 2021–2030. It declares the University to be “a community founded on science, scholarship, learning and bold thinking” and sets continuous development of knowledge and research-based education as the core duties of the University. However, the increasing precarisation of research work, casualisation of teaching, “optimisation” of administration, and business-oriented, quantity-focused measures of academic output are destroying the very conditions of sustained scholarship, let alone possibilities for bold thinking.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic and the forthcoming economic crisis, the University of Helsinki’s strategy for the next years has become even more important. We, Finnish and international staff of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS), express our concern with the current employment and management practices at the University of Helsinki. We strongly urge the University to reverse the on-going depreciation of the University’s own declared goals, ensure that core academic values are retained and temptations of further marketization of Higher Education resisted.
As the results of the 2019 wellbeing survey show, only a handful of institutes and units of the University have relatively high rates of satisfaction with their working conditions. As staff of one of such institutes, we believe the reasons for high quality of working conditions at HCAS are clear: It is a small, well-defined unit, with a bottom-up process of decision making, with management who is in direct contact with staff and therefore efficient, with a clear division of research and administrative duties and therefore higher efficiency in both of these areas, and, crucially, time and space to focus on scholarship. Fostering such working conditions is vital for the University of Helsinki if it is to successfully implement the 2021-2030 strategy and support production of top-class research. However, HCAS is a rare exception when it comes to the majority of the University’s units. As the situation stands right now, the University is in danger not only of falling short of its declared future goals but also of losing its past and present along the way.
The University’s past legacies and sense of continuity and community have been most recently damaged by the dramatic staff cuts in the 2010s. This corroded the University’s institutional memory, wiped out the tacit knowledge of best practices and generated chronic inefficiency where the remaining administrative as well as teaching and research staff all struggle to keep up with various non-specialised, overwhelming and overlapping tasks. As a result, students are also affected, their queries to administration or teachers often left unanswered and other concerns neglected. At the same time, the University’s present is being suspended by short-term employment contracts as they generate endless application writing and job search in conditions of toxic competitiveness. Precarisation of the present and emphasis on superficial but immediate “outputs” obscures its future as in-depth and slow research scarcely survives in these conditions.
The clearest detriment to knowledge development at the University of Helsinki is the increasing precarisation of employment. Underpaid, stressed and overworked; paid by hour, on extremely short fixed-term contracts, deprived of working spaces in the name of flexibility and detached from collegial communities: the list of grievances of the university employees is long and well-known. In the name of promoting workplace wellbeing, the University attempts to patch these problems by offering workshops and info events aimed at training its staff to navigate the increasingly unbearable workloads and amounts of funding applications, forms and emails to prepare, fill and process. At the same time, no tangible action is launched against the real reasons behind this situation, including funding cuts and the loss of specialized staff with the ca. 1000 persons fired since the government austerity policies of 2010s, according to the data provided by the Tieteentekijöiden Liitto.
“The strength of our University lies in the development of wide-ranging scientific thought and research skills,” declares the new University strategy. This is a laudable claim since scientific breakthroughs often come from clashes between competing approaches and cross-disciplinary dialogue. In practice, however, the University pursues a specific kind of output – increased quantity of publications in the article format and marketable innovation – which creates one-sided preferences in research support and funding distribution between the Faculties. As Collegium Core Fellow Miia Halme-Tuomisaari observes, the University is turning into “an innovation research factory” delivering strategic solutions to predetermined problems that meet the needs of business. Thus, it is telling that the University press releases habitually equate “top research” with “highly cited research,” explicitly valorizing strategies for increased citations rather than offering meaningful discussions of theoretical contributions. In the end, such policies promote a handful of disciplines whose models allow for quick and tangible results, neglecting fields with slower output, narrow specialization or speculative outcomes. They encourage research on trending topics, not bold thinking. They create a flashy illusion of productivity, not breakthroughs across the full spectrum of human knowledge.
With this letter, we urge our colleagues at the University of Helsinki to join us in calling upon the management of the University to change its practices into those that actively resists harmful social pressures, such as commodification of education and research and casualisation of workforce, instead of tailoring its employment models, teaching programmes, and funding channels to encourage and adapt to such pressures. Small, well-functioning units fostering the spirit of curiosity-driven research, such as the Collegium, are increasingly becoming a rarity also internationally. We wish to emphasize that precisely such units make the University of Helsinki attractive for top international scholars, thus directly serving the goals highlighted by the University’s strategy.
In sum, education is a social benefit, not a quantifiable product. Knowledge is acquired and created through sustained intellectual effort, not in the spare time between application writing, emailing, and administrative duties. Quality of both education and knowledge cannot be measured in statistical figures of their short-term results. In short: Universities are not businesses and should not be made to compete according to the logic of market economics. The University must push back when it comes to the pressures to optimise and re-organise itself according to the rules of the market. The University must take tangible action when it comes to combatting the practices that corrode the very essence of its social goals and duties. Along with its ambitious 2021-2030 strategy, the University must make concrete commitments towards tackling the increasingly precarious position of its staff, permanent and casualised.
Helsinki, 30 March 2020
Molly Andrews, Jane and Aatos Erkko Professor
Natalya Bekhta, HCAS Core Fellow, Postdoctoral Researcher
Niko Besnier, HCAS Core Fellow, Research Director
Andreas Bieler, HCAS Core Fellow, Research Director
Miia Halme-Tuomisaari, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Kaisa Kaakinen, HCAS Research Coordinator
Tuukka Kaidesoja, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Matti Kangaskoski, HCAS Postdoctoral Fellow in the Arts
Susanna Lindberg, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, HCAS Core Fellow, Postdoctoral Researcher
Alexandre Nikolaev, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Silva Nurmio, HCAS Core Fellow, Postdoctoral Researcher
Ritva Palmén, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Tuomas Pernu, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Kinga Polynczuk-Alenius, HCAS Core Fellow, Postdoctoral Researcher
Merja Polvinen, University Lecturer, Docent; HCAS Alumna
Hanna-Riikka Roine, HCAS Core Fellow, Postdoctoral Researcher
Louise Settle, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Eila Stepanova, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Esko Suoranta, Doctoral Candidate, University of Helsinki
Ilya Sverdlov, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Alexandra Urakova, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Anna Usacheva, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
Alexei Zadorozhny, HCAS Core Fellow, University Researcher
You can express your solidarity with the HCAS open letter by sending your signature – i.e., name and unit affiliation – to Natalya Bekhta at natalya.bekhta [at] helsinki.fi