Towards the Parliamentary Election

FUURT, The Finnish Union of University Professors, and YLL want sufficient funding for science and improved university employment relationships. But what are the parties promising?

Text terhi hautamäki Images Outi Kainiemi Translation MArko saajanaho

Energy, the national economy, security, and NATO… Our society is currently concerned about various crises, which can definitely be seen in the themes of this spring’s election. With everything that is going on, will there be enough interest in education, science, and research?

FUURT, The Finnish Union of University Professors, and YLL are highlighting how uncertain times mean considering the future is of utmost importance. These unions have drafted their election programme, whose main point is that education and research require sufficient and stable funding. Any added university entries and new tasks given to places or higher education must be fully financed.

Under Sanna Marin’s government, higher education institutions have received additional funding and the funding has been index-linked, but this is not enough to repair the damage caused by prior cuts.

With everything that is going on, is there enough interest in education, science, and research?

Pressure for more cuts is everywhere. The Ministry of Finance has suggested that public finances must be improved by at least nine million euros over the next parliamentary terms.

What are the parties promising as they prepare for the parliamentary election? They offered Acatiimi information about their election themes pertaining to higher education, science, and research.

Four percent goal

The union programmes feature several common goals with certain different points of emphasis. The Finnish Union of University Professors emphasises research and science politics and wants to bring the science politics vision to Finland. FUURT looks to address employment relation and the livelihood of grant-funded researchers, for example. YLL’s goals are centred around teaching and the position of teaching staff in particular.  

All parliamentary parties are committed to the same goal also highlighted by the unions: the RDI investment from the public sector and businesses is to be increased to four percent of the GDP by 2030. The Finns Party added a qualification: the goal can be achieved in two terms, but it can be difficult early on.

University of Helsinki Vice-Dean and Political Science lecturer Hanna Wass is concerned about what might happen to these promises as austerity talk takes over society and the Ministry of Finance suggests enormous adjustments. According to Wass, the importance of universities as key drivers of the future instead of just another expense should be highlighted as we approach the election.

“The austerity framework should be challenged while clearly communicating what will happen if science and research are not advanced – what effects the earlier cuts have had, what could have been achieved with better resources, and what will happen in the event of more cuts.”

The Green League specified the concrete sum needed to accomplish the goal – an extra 200 million euros from the public sector per year. On the other hand, the Finns Party’s response suggests the goal can be extended.

“The universities have made the mistake of generously accommodating to all the cuts. That invites people to interpret these things are flexible.”

More core financing

The fragmented nature of funding stresses researchers and makes research work erratic. Higher education institution staff unions want stable funding, especially more core financing. Extra funding instruments are unnecessary, as the funding should be directed through the existing channels.

“It is easy to support the unions’ wishes of sufficient core financing. Begging for project funding is not only exhausting but demeaning to academics and in no way a sensible use of highly educated individuals’ time resources”, says Mikko Poutanen, post-doctoral researcher for the Tampere University.

The importance of core financing can be seen in some parties’ responses. The Left Alliance want funding to be based on study credits rather than degrees while the funding models should improve scientific autonomy and emphasise qualitative metrics.

“The austerity framework should be challenged while clearly communicating what will happen if science and research are not advanced”

Hanna Wass, University of Helsinki Vice-Dean and Political Science lecturer

The Green League aim to secure university autonomy with sufficient core financing, increase the Academy of Finland’s grants, improve the funding of public research institutes, and develop cooperation between the universities and the government.

The Centre Party believe the sources of funding should be diversified, private funding increased, and EU funding utilised more effectively. The Coalition looks to capitalise higher education and increase the Academy of Finland’s grants. They want the extensive RDI tax deduction for business to be permanent.

The SDP mention that the results of publicly funded research should be usable by the whole society, with scientific publications openly available.

According to Movement Now, science and research must be invested in for the benefit of the financial and social development. The party also emphasise the importance of research as a basis of political decision-making. In the party’s opinion, the problem in Finland is that both admittance to and graduation from higher education institutions takes too long.

“We should determine whether it is sensible from the society’s point of view for every university student to get a master’s degree, or if a bachelor’s degree should be a general undergraduate degree like in the US and UK”, their response states.

The Finns Party talk about synergy and combining and paring down university bureaucracy. Public policy has an interest for the common good, which means an obligation to ensure any funding is used properly and effectively. Science must be free and must not be “politicised”.

Unions want to improve the academic community’s decision-making authority.

According to Mikko Poutanen’s interpretation, the synergy talk suggests an idea that perhaps the universities could manage with even less. As for politicisation, that appears to refer to right-wing conservative “woke criticism” that has also made its way to Finland recently.

“The idea of universities being places for questionable social values to gestate is part of the Finns Party’s discourse. This is an international import.”

Funding for study places

The goal of the education policy review is that 50 percent of the age group obtains a higher education degree. The Green League specified their goal for increasing study places by 5,400 entries per year.

The parties also have their own opinions on study place allocation. The Centre Party find it important for study places to be added throughout Finland. Every region of Finland should have at least one higher education institution, and university hubs should be developed in areas that lack them. The Coalition want to increase study places especially in areas with large youth populations and support the profiling and division of labour for higher education institutes.

Hanna Wass reminds us that any study place development must be clearly communicated.

The fragmented nature of funding stresses researchers and makes research work erratic.

“When you start an education programme, that means committing to it for years and years. It must be methodical and part of larger infrastructure.”

When you are looking to offer higher education to half the age group, money becomes an obstacle. One potential option is to charge tuition fees, which the Ministry of Finance recently addressed in their background memo. The core philosophy of the Finnish education system emphasises equality, and tuition fees have not been part of this. In their responses to Acatiimi, the SDP, the Left Alliance, the Green League, and the Centre Party specifically mentioned free higher education.

The Left Alliance would also do away with tuition fees for non-EU/EEA students, whereas the Centre Party supports these fees.

According to Wass, tuition fees in the so-called Vihriälä model are not as discriminatory as they might first seem. The objective would be to fund tuition fees with student loans, which should be paid off based on one’s post-graduation income. However, Wass emphasises the University of Helsinki believes higher education should remain free of charge.

Poutanen considers the tuition fee suggestion dangerous. Current promises regarding payment amounts and loan terms are not necessarily valid in the future.

“For example, the UK just decided to extend the loan payoff period in the hopes that people would still be able to find work. Even if you offer a deal that is reasonable at this moment in time, it will not be binding to later governments.”

Poutanen doubts any party would implement tuition fees into their government programme. Instead, it seems they might be pushed through via official consensus, as an “apolitical” decision most parties might accept in at least some conditions when part of the government.

Attracting experts is left behind

As the unions’ election programmes emphasise the viewpoints of science and higher education institute work, the parties were more focused on the current themes of studying and education, such as the student selections widely discussed in media. 

The first-timer quota is facing the axe from the Centre Party, the SFP, and the Left Alliance. The Left Alliance would leave matriculation examination behind and support entrance exams. The Centre Party believe transitions between different higher education institutions and study programmes should be developed while supporting open paths. The SFP would investigate the option to acknowledge upper secondary school diplomas and basic art education degrees in the application process.

The SDP suggest that one higher education institution should offer both vocational and academic higher education degrees. They also propose new “working life education” and short-term degrees, i.e., higher education diplomas. The Green League want to develop the credit system for prior studies and opportunities to re-orient studies during degree programmes.

All three unions also mention international mobility in their election programmes, but Hanna Wass finds the relative lack of attracting foreign experts in the party responses rather surprising. The attractiveness of Finland is based on factors such as approving foreign degrees, postgraduate education and career prospects, and how family life and your spouse’s career are arranged.

“We cannot assume there is a reserve of top experts waiting by the borders, chomping at the bit to work here.” Finland has plenty to do in terms of attracting them and keeping them here.

Full-time university work

University staff unions have many goals aimed at improving academia employment and working conditions. The party responses did not address these.

According to YLL, gaining merit through teaching should happen systematically. In teaching-focused tasks, research leave and working periods should be enabled.

30 percent of university teaching and research staff consists of full-time employees, with 70 percent on fixed-term contracts. FUURT wants to reverse these percentages. They also aim to improve the social security and livelihood of grant-funded researchers and raise the amount of tax-free grant funding to 30,000 euros. In addition, the union’s objective is to develop models in which all dissertation work is done under an employment contract.

Mikko Poutanen finds this a beautiful but rather optimistic goal. The universities are encouraged to take on many doctoral researchers to earn money from everyone who graduates. On the other hand, they have little interest in funding all dissertation work.

One of the unions’ shared goals is a reform of occupational safety legislation to better take harmful psychosocial stress into account. Poutanen considers this a very important overture.

“All too often, burnout is seen as a question of individual workplace wellbeing without seeing the connection to the stacks of applications and other structural problems.”

An important topic of discussion in academia is university democracy and the academic community’s dwindling influence on decisions. The unions want to improve the decision-making authority of the academic community. Their election programmes feature a revision to the Universities Act, so that the statute is decided by the university’s representative operating body such as the college, consistory or Academic Affairs Committee. The Union of University Professors propose the colleges should approve strategy, budgets, and operating and financial plans.

Despite the fact the topic is prominent in academia, it is easily marginalised by politicians. Only the Left Alliance expressed support for the proposal to revise the Universities Act. They believe governance by business and administration experts and submitting to the business sector are not meant for higher education institutions. Hanna Wass finds it encouraging that even one response mentioned university democracy.

“Not everything needs to have a price tag or finances allocated to it”, she remarks.

What is the significance of trade unions?

Coalition: “Trade unions are highly respectable defenders of workers’ rights, supporting their members in problem situations and offering various important services. The right to organise is an important value in working life.”

Centre: “Trade unions are an undisputable part of western democracy. The right to unite must be upheld regardless of situation. The significance of unions is highlighted through representation of their members, and they also carry a wider significance as a developer and trailblazer for Finnish education policy, for example.”

Finns Party: “Trade unions have been and continue to be important in the defence of worker rights.”

SFP: “Labour market organisations have an important role in our society. Both unions and employer organisations must promote a stable job market through their actions.

SDP: “Trade unions are a core part of a welfare state. A strong labour union movement is needed to safeguard worker rights and improve working life. These unions operate locally, nationally, and even globally. Their role as a facilitator for fair wages and better working conditions is extremely important.”

Left Alliance: “Trade unions are incredibly important to society. The labour union movement protects everyone’s right to decent work under fair terms of employment. Organisation and collective bargaining bring security to working life and facilitate the improvement of everyone’s working conditions.”

Green League: “Trade unions are central bargaining parties in the employment market and uphold the balance of labour and employer positions. They also offer important advice and guidance to people working in their respective industries or professions. They have also been a central pillar in the construction of a Finnish welfare state.”

Extensive support for income-related benefit

Acatiimi asked the parties their opinions on the importance of trade unions and the unemployment fund system.

Coalition: “The Coalition support income-related unemployment benefit being available to everyone. Since everyone in gainful employment pays unemployment insurance fees, everyone must also be eligible for benefits funded this way.”

Centre: “The Centre Party want to extend income-related unemployment benefit to everyone through the current private unemployment fund system. We want to retain the existing system but increase the functions of the fund by allowing change security services to be provided. The quantitative goal is four functional unemployment funds in Finland, instead of the current 21.”

Finns Party: “The unemployment fund system is a suitable option. The Finns Party have always taken a positive view on fund operations and development.”

SFP: “We want tangible measures to protect those in disadvantaged positions. The current model and its bureaucracy can cause problems for many and lead to inactivity traps.” We must continue reforming social security as a whole to ensure an affirmative system and reasonable income for everyone. Accepting short-term work must also be gainful. All unemployed individuals should be entitled to income-related benefits.

SDP: “Income-related unemployment benefit must be implemented through unemployment funds. They are the most knowledgeable about different industries and determining income-based unemployment security. If you want to develop the system towards general unemployment insurance, it should first be determined how this can be done in the framework of the existing system. No reform should be funded by decreasing the quality or length of unemployment benefit.”

Left Alliance: “Income-related unemployment benefit must be extended to all through automatic unemployment fund membership.”

Green League: “Income-based benefit should also be extended to workers outside the fund. More and more are alternately working as entrepreneurs and salaried workers, or both at once. Unemployment security for entrepreneurs should be improved by treating business income like salary income in pension and unemployment insurance and other social security. In addition, a combined benefit accrued from both salaried work and entrepreneurial work should be implemented.”

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