Climbing the career steps

In recent years, many universities have created new career paths for teachers. Though they are a welcome sign of appreciation, many still consider the opportunities for teachers to progress to be too limited.

Text Tuomo Tamminen Images Minna Raitavuo

University careers have traditionally progressed and earned merit through research. Teaching is the second cornerstone of universities, but teaching-focused tasks have been perceived as a dead end. For example, those whose jobs emphasize teaching don’t have enough time to perform research to advance in their careers, and there haven’t been many other options for upward mobility either. 

The problem has been known for a long time, but only in recent years have universities begun to address it. Currently, career systems for teaching-focused assignments are in use at seven universities, but they have been or are being studied in several others as well.

There are differences in career models, and in many of them the systems are so new that not enough knowledge and experience have yet been earned to properly assess them. Most think that such development has been for the better, but is it enough? Will the new career models ultimately lead anywhere? 

Kati Kasanen

Feeling inadequate 

Kati Kasanen often felt outright worry and shame that she didn’t have enough time to do research. She defended her dissertation in 2003 and has been a university lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) since 2012, but she has also done full-time research throughout her career.

She has also been involved in projects as a researcher among other researchers, being, in her opinion, unable to invest in research in the same manner as her colleagues. 

“Even during the projects, I have had quite extensive teaching responsibilities and the type of teaching and guidance that works nonstop all year round. More time should have been spent on research in the evenings, on weekends and over holidays. This created conflicting emotions and feelings of inadequacy,” says Kasanen. 

“Although efforts were made to get me substitutes, due to the nature of teaching responsibilities, my focus on research was not always as expected.” 

“Due to the nature of teaching responsibilities, my focus on research was not always as expected.” 

Kati Kasanen

Thus, Kasanen, who turns 50 this year, has focused her career on teaching and its development, a topic that has always interested her anyway. In 2018 the University of Eastern Finland became the second Finnish university to introduce a career model for teachers, and the following year UEF appointed the first senior university lecturers. 

At the time, Kasanen noted for the first time that even a teacher could advance in her career. However, such an opportunity did not materialize until the spring of 2021, when the UEF clarified its selection process and made it more transparent. An application for a senior university lecturer is made annually as part of the strategic human resources plan. 

An application for a senior university lecturer is made annually as part of the strategic human resources plan.

Kasanen was encouraged to tell her supervisor that she was interested in advancing on her career path. Following discussions, paperwork and adjustments to her CV, Kasanen was told by the head of department in April that he was proposing to raise the requirement level of the job from 6.5 to 7.

Just before the summer, however, the director returned to the matter and said that he would be ready to present the title of senior university lecturer to Kasanen as well. In August the motion went to the dean, and on December first, Kasanen officially became a senior university lecturer. 

Aalto University unifies its criteria 

There are only nine senior university lecturers at the University of Eastern Finland, and therefore the new career model has not yet really been put to the test. The longest period of use was at Aalto University, where the career model for teachers was introduced as early as 2010.

From then on, those who worked as lecturers were steadily transferred to the new system with three career steps: university teacher, university lecturer and finally senior university lecturer.  

“The change was not dramatic for me,” recalls Stina Giesecke, who became a senior university lecturer at the time. She has also served as a shop steward (luottamusmies) and chair of Aalto University’s Researchers and Teachers, a branch of FUURT. 

“I had to create documents for the position of senior university lecturer, teaching portfolio and so on. The payslip then showed that the title had changed.“ 

In Aalto University’s career model, the differences in titles are reflected in the proportions of working time allocated to teaching: 70–80% of a university teacher’s time is spent on teaching, 60–70% on university lecturers and 50–60% on senior university lecturers. In the monthly salary, the difference between a university lecturer and a senior university lecturer is roughly 500–800 euros. 

In Aalto University’s career model, the differences in titles are reflected in the proportions of working time allocated to teaching.

In 2020 the model was updated to include a fourth step: principal university lecturer. There aren’t any of them at Aalto yet, however. Prior to the update, different schools within the university had varying criteria for advancing on their career paths. Now the criteria are the same throughout the university. 

According to Giesecke, the career model arouses a wide range of opinions among researchers and teachers. 

“People see upsides, but there is also a certain unfairness. There are still two branches, the professor path and the lecturer path, and on the lecturer path, people feel they are quickly heading into a dead end.”  

“There are still two branches, the professor path and the lecturer path, and on the lecturer path, people feel they are quickly heading into a dead end.”

Stina Giesecke

The discussion is inextricably linked to the tenure track. It is seen as favoring promising young researchers over experience, Giesecke says. Those who have gained experience and years on the lecturer path feel that they are left out of the real competition. 

“In theory it is possible to move from the lecturer path to the professor path, but in practice it has proved difficult. We do have a few examples who have succeeded, however.“ 

The connection to the tenure track irritates 

A similar discussion has taken place at the University of Helsinki, which introduced a career model for university lecturers and clinical teachers in 2020. There, as at the University of Eastern Finland, university teachers are not involved in the model, unlike at Aalto, for example. 

University lecturers from the working group who investigated the matter criticized the measures as too cautious. 

“The proposal went in the right direction, but it did not suitably meet our long-term expectations for our career path,” says Seppo Sainio, a university lecturer and chief shop steward. 

“The proposal went in the right direction, but it did not suitably meet our long-term expectations for our career path.”

Seppo Sainio

The main career path will be the internal transition from a university lecturer to a senior university lecturer. This is complemented by the opportunity to shift to the position of assistant professor at the invitation of the dean, but everything is ultimately up to the needs of the employer.

Staff, on the other hand, expect a genuine, regular and equal opportunity to advance on their path within the career model, Sainio says. The connection of the career model to the tenure track, which has become a key recruitment channel for the professor’s duties, remains unsolved, in his view. The tenure track is perceived as an unequal and limited opportunity to apply for a professorship. 

In Helsinki as well, the starting point was to define criteria related to teaching for advancing in the career model. However, the debate quickly turned to the fact that the model must not discriminate against university lecturers in research-focused positions. 

“Even those with really high teaching volumes and little time to do research supported the need for the model to support the link between teaching and research. There was a great deal of consensus on this, and I find it admirable,” says Sainio. 

More experience is expected 

“The most positive aspect of career models is, of course, the recognition in universities of the role of education and teaching and their inclusion as a meriting factor alongside advancement in researcher merits,” says Santeri Palviainen, Chair of The Union for University Teachers and Researchers in Finland. 

He does not yet want to evaluate the functionality of the new models more widely, as there is too little experience so far. According to Palviainen, it should be possible for a senior or a principal university lecturer to progress on his or her path to professorship, but it is not yet known to what extent this is practically possible. 

“It should be possible for a senior or a principal university lecturer to progress on his or her path to professorship, but it is not yet known to what extent this is practically possible.”

Santeri Palviainen

“Just as we don’t know enough about how the tenure track works, even though it’s a slightly older system.” 

Palviainen says he is worried about how the titles of senior and principal university lecturer will affect the salaries of all lecturers. Is it the case, for example, that level 7 of the university requirement system is reserved only for senior and principal university lecturers and that university lecturers have to be content with level 6? 

“That’s not right either. The pay must follow the requirement level charts.” 

Teaching pressure is increasing 

One of the universities where teachers do not yet have their own career model is the University of Oulu. In the autumn of 2019, the university convened a working group to study the career development of university lecturers.

The group gathered information from other universities and met half a dozen times but ended up not recommending any model or structure, says HR Director Jarmo Okkonen

“The conversation started to culminate in the direction that the stand-alone solutions felt glued on top. Another recurring theme was that the best way to strengthen lecturers’ career development is to strengthen their ability to conduct research,” says Okkonen. 

“There was also a lot of discussion in the group that general collective agreement’s entry point of ‘everyone researches and everyone teaches’ is a good principle. Those who perceive teaching as their main focus can do so, but this must not lead to lecturers having no way to become a professor.”

“Those who perceive teaching as their main focus can do so, but this must not lead to lecturers having no way to become a professor.”

Jarmo Okkonen

It is now being considered in Oulu whether a new working group should be set up to promote the career development of teachers. Okkonen says that he is concerned about well-being surveys, according to which those who work in teaching-oriented tasks seem to be more dissatisfied than other academic personnel. 

“It’s hard to say if it’s just because of career prospects or whatever else is involved.” 

However, the number of students is growing everywhere, and no additional funding is promised, at least in the same proportion. This means that teachers’ opportunities to research are not improving. In fact, it’ quite the contrary. 

“I am concerned about how we will be able to provide quality research-based teaching.” 

Jarmo Okkonen

“I am concerned about how we will be able to provide quality research-based teaching. It requires that we have satisfied, forward-looking people working in teaching-focused tasks. If they feel pressured in their role, it will be reflected in the results: how good it is to study at university.” 

The right choice after all 

Kati Kasanen’s job description has not changed much with the title of senior university lecturer. She is currently working in a two-year part-time facilitator position in online and multidisciplinary pedagogy, with the entire university as her turf. She is satisfied with her job description and is not interested in, for example, a professorship with research funding applications and such. 

“It would still have been good if the options for my academic career path had been known to me earlier. Progress and merit in teaching-focused work has not always seemed like a realistic outlook.” 

Kasanen emphasizes the importance of initiative in advancing her career – now that it is possible for teachers in at least some universities. 

“The opportunity to move forward is important to be aware of and to disseminate information about. If I hadn’t expressed an interest myself, I don’t know if I would be here.” 

“The opportunity to move forward is important to be aware of and to disseminate information about.” 

Kati Kasanen

With the rise in requirement level and with the new title, her salary rose too, but the most important thing has been the experience of having her teaching being valued. 

“I have commented to my own work community that the appointment is important to me because of my ability to cope and continue working,” Kasanen says. 

“The feeling that I have done the right thing in my career after all has strengthened. In the past, I have felt ashamed even of the emphasis on teaching and the inadequacy of research time. That is why this title is of enormous importance at this point in my life and career. “ 

Special Advisor (Labour Market, Higher Education and Science Policy) Hanna Tanskanen from OAJ, Director of Human Resources Riitta Silvennoinen from Aalto University, and Director of Human Resources Elina Kaunismäki from the University of Vaasa have also been interviewed for this article. 

Vaasa introduces a project path

Last autumn the University of Vaasa introduced a new career model in which, in addition to the tenure track and teaching-oriented path, academic staff have the alternative of a project- and research-oriented path.

As far as we know, there is no such project-oriented path anywhere else in Finland. The titles are project researcher, senior researcher and research director. 

“Our thinking starts from the fact that our worldview is so diverse now and that in the future the path of teaching and the path to qualifying as a professor will not be enough. The university’s researchers and staff are required to do so much other research than basic research through project activities and external research funding,” says Vice Rector Minna Martikainen

Of course, there have been project activities before, but those involved have usually worked on temporary projects with external funding. In the new model, project researchers also have the opportunity for permanent employment.

“The purpose is to show that people are committed and that this career path also has the opportunity to move forward.” 

Minna Martikainen

“The purpose is to show that people are committed and that this career path also has the opportunity to move forward.” 

It is also possible to move from one of Vaasa’s three academic career paths to another through an internal transition, if the criteria are met. 

“A researcher who would not progress through the tenure track system can progress to a well-merited research position through this.”

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