Nov 16, 2015

Sipilänomics, part 4: Wrecking the universities

In my previous Sipilänomics posts, I've looked at the current Finnish government's economic policies in general, and more specifically at their attempts to cut unit labor costs and restructure health care. It's high time to take a closer look at another great controversy of the Sipilä administration: higher education.

This is going to be a bit more personal than my previous Sipilänomics posts, quite simply because it's the closest to my everyday life. I graduated from the University of Helsinki with a Master's degree in political history this October, and my plan was to apply to a doctoral program there in the spring. So not only have I had a front-row seat for much of this process, but it very directly affects my future as well.


The current administration's attitude to the Finnish university system has been made abundantly clear. The current minister of finance and head of the coalition party, Alexander Stubb, has publicly declared that he has no interest in "the concoctions of docents", and prefers reports from civil servants to academic research. Last summer, when the Sipilä cabinet's swingeing education cuts were announced, he mocked university professors by making fun of their three-month summer vacations.

Here I'd like to interrupt with a personal anecdote. I wrote my master's thesis during that same summer, supervised by one of these afore-mentioned professors. We had a long meeting on my thesis in Midsummer week, after which he took his annual vacation. Our next meeting was when he had returned from vacation and had time to read my thesis in its then-latest incarnation. This was at the very beginning of August. It may seem slightly worrying that a former prime minister and current financial minister thinks that the distance from Midsummer to the beginning of August is three months, but on the other hand, math skills of that caliber would explain many of his fiscal policies.

This same attitude was put into slightly more practical form by minister for education Sanni Grahn-Laasonen in an astonishing open letter to the universities. She accused the universities of a "sleeping contentment", maintaining that Finnish tertiary education doesn't suffer at all from a lack of resources, but rather from gross inefficiency. If politicians have been at fault, she says, it's been because they've trusted the universities too blindly in giving them too many resources. Now other countries are "running faster", accomplishing more with less, because of our universities' lackadaisical approach.

Jouni Tilli, currently of the University of Alabama at Huntsville, has presented an excellent analysis of the minister's rhetoric, pointing out its reliance on scapegoating, and connecting it to the similar blame and atonement rhetoric of prime minister Sipilä's televised speech.

So the thinking behind the massive education cuts seems to be clear: the government has done everything to provide for the universities, but they have become entitled and inefficient, resting on past laurels, and are therefore falling behind in international competition. A more vulgar version of these notions can be seen in the comments to just about every news article on higher education: universities are entitled, politicized, left-wing wastes of money.

Is any of this true?


There are several rankings that compare different universities to each other; one of the most prominent is the Academic Ranking of World Universities, generally known as the Shanghai ranking. In the latest iteration, the University of Helsinki is reckoned the 67th-best university in the world. It's also the only Finnish university to crack the top 300, although I'm not sure if that accurately respects the achievements of some portions of the Aalto university conglomerate. So we're doing extremely well globally, but then again, so are the rest of the Nordic countries. In fact, the top universities in the Scandinavian countries rank higher than ours. Are we falling behind? Not on the Shanghai ranking, where the University of Helsinki has improved its position. Similarly, in 2015 Helsinki cracked the top 100 in the Times Higher Education ranking for the first time, so not only is Helsinki very highly ranked, but its position has also been improving. As far as my alma mater is concerned, minister Grahn-Laasonen's accusations seem completely unfounded.

How inefficient is the system, though? The University of Helsinki may be ranking very high, but what about the system as a whole?

One way of assessing this is through the Universitas 21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems. It ranks 50 countries' higher education systems in Resources, Connectivity, Output and overall performance. In terms of resources, Finland is well-ranked, showing we do make - or have made - a considerable national investment in tertiary education.

What are we getting in return? Simply put, one of the highest outputs of any higher education system in the world.

In the overall ranking, ours is reckoned the fourth-best tertiary education system in the world.

In pure monetary terms, as one of my former teachers, Juhana Aunesluoma, points out, the University of Helsinki is competitive in world rankings with universities that have a larger budget than the entire Finnish university system, fully bearing out the findings of the U21 report. So there's really no two ways about it: the notion that the Finnish university system is inefficient is ludicrously false.


Minister Grahn-Laasonen has responded to some of the criticisms of her letter. One of the points she addresses is the complaint that actual research is becoming more and more difficult to do because of the constantly growing administrative demands on researchers. The minister sympathizes with this, and calls on universities and researchers to innovate ways to focus more clearly on research.

This is either fantastically dishonest or deeply ignorant - as usual, take your pick. The reason for this burgeoning bureaucracy is the minister's own Coalition party. As Jouni Tilli pointed out in his analysis, the Finnish university system went through extensive reforms in 2010, initiated by Vanhanen agrarian-coalition cabinet, which made universities nominally independent. What this meant in practice was that they remained dependent on government funding, but all research staff became increasingly preoccupied with constantly searching for funding. The following Katainen-Stubb coalition cabinet not only cut that funding, but introduced a "strategic research council" to assess research projects and distribute funds, leading directly to hundreds of doctoral work-hours wasted on drawing up funding requests for government bureaucrats. It's amazing for a minister to completely ignore the political decisions that have led to this situation and demand the people being regulated "innovate" around the regulations put in place by her party. Again, in the rhetoric of the Finnish right wing, the consequences of their decisions can be blamed on the people who suffer from them. Looking at their track record with science and education policy, the only innovation that would seem to have real consequences would be getting rid of the Coalition party.

The one relevant statistic Grahn-Laasonen could quote to support her position was an OECD finding, according to which Finland was spending more on tertiary education than some comparison countries and getting less in return. As I hope the previous section demonstrates, this is gravely misleading. But if there are inefficiencies in the Finnish university system, where are they?

Professor Roope Uusitalo of the University of Jyväskylä had a fascinating post over at Akateeminen talousblogi, on university policy in Finland. It's generally known that university admissions have increased considerably over the last half-century; a perfectly natural and necessary consequence of transitioning from an agrarian to a service and high-tech economy. But where has the growth taken place? Here's a graph he made, which I stole:

The overall number of university students in Finland has quadrupled over the last 50 years or so. However, what's striking is that the University of Helsinki has barely grown at all. Instead, the growth of university education has mostly taken place outside of Helsinki, for reasons of area politics. Minister Grahn-Laasonen has also pointed to the proliferation of regional universities as a key inefficiency of the system: with limited resources, we can't do everything everywhere. However, the Sipilä government's cuts specifically target the University of Helsinki. If the point of the reforms is supposedly to make the system more efficient, why are the largest cuts being targeted at the best-performing university in the country? Again, because of area politics. No agrarian administration will tamper with the regional universities. For Coalition politicians to talk about there being too many universities is completely dishonest, because they know perfectly well that they're in a cabinet that will never under any circumstances see this as a problem.

As professor Petri Mäntysaari of Hanken puts it, Finnish higher education policy as a whole is based on thinking that the ruling parties would never countenance in any other sector of society. Instead of encouraging competition and individual effort, the universities and their researchers are being choked with bureaucracy, and their funding is being increasingly placed in the hands of government bureaucrats. Minister for economic affairs Olli Rehn just announced that they will seek tighter controls on assessing university research, again increasing bureaucracy.

It remains utterly hypocritical that a government that claims to be liberalizing the Finnish economy and society is monomaniacally dedicated to bringing every single aspect of university research under tighter and tighter bureaucratical control. Their talk of consolidating the universities and eliminating inefficiencies is complete nonsense when they make the heaviest cuts to the best-performing institution. The key values of Finnish university politics are bureaucracy, government control and area politics.


Last week, Alexander Stubb spoke at an event at our university, and was met by a massive demonstration. I wish I could have been there. Stubb has since apologized for the education cuts, because they've made people at universities feel bad. As Janne Saarikivi says in the previous link, this is the worthless rhetoric of a politician: supposedly feeling sorry for decisions you've made, but not actually doing anything about them. It's also part of a deeply pernicious political trend of framing all discussions as emotional speech. I was absolutely appalled by the Finnish researchers' union's response to Grahn-Laasonen's epistle; the title they went with was "Minister's letter feels insulting to university people". Feels insulting? Feels? I've tried to go to some lengths here to demonstrate that the picture the minister gave of Finland's university system is in many ways completely false, and at best seriously misleading and dishonest when compared to the policies it's defending. And the best that the researchers' union can come up with is to comment on how it makes them feel? With unions like these, do we even need the right to wreck the universities?

The response of the University of Helsinki has also been thoroughly disappointing. Despite an unprecedented frontal assault on the universities by the cabinet, the university still meekly invites the ministers in charge of gutting its finances and mocking it in public to speak at its events, and deploys the staff these same politicians want to see sacked to wrestle for the doors to auditoriums to keep the poor ministers from hearing student protests. Their only conception of university autonomy seems to be which direction to roll over in when kicked. For those of us evaluating the University of Helsinki as a potential future employer, it's painfully clear that the university administration is not going to fight our corner.

In general, the mood among my demographic is captured perfectly by Sophy Bergenheim in her blog. None of us have at any point been under the illusion that pursuing an academic career of any description would be easy. However, the actions of the previous administration, followed directly by this current one, make us wonder whether there's any point any more. We've gone from a country that saw education as a key component of nation-building and competitiveness to one where universities are the targets of savage cuts and public derision. Certainly none of us expect young academics to be hailed as heroes, but an atmosphere that celebrates anti-intellectualism and vilifies science and research as socialist lies is deeply depressing. The financial and general working realities of postgraduate study in the humanities and social sciences are miserable enough today, and are constantly getting worse. Anyone considering postgraduate study now has to deal with the fact that there will be unprecedented layoffs that will still be glutting the job market when they graduate, and university funding as well as research funding in general will be at record lows, locked away behind a planned economy of byzantine bureaucracies. What's the point?

I don't have an answer to that.


As the excellent Soh Wan Wei puts it, the tertiary education cuts have no economic basis. My goal here has been to demonstrate that the view of the university system that they are based on is completely wrong. As I've explained before in the context of unit labor costs, there is no reasonable economic philosophy that considers stripping a national economy of its human capital to be a way toward growth. Instead, what the Sipilä government is doing can more accurately be characterized as a project to undevelop the Finnish economy.

If the current administration's economic and education policies make no sense, why are they doing all this? It's not because they're stupid or evil, at least in any more significant sense than politicians and people in general are. It's because the Sipilä administration's policies are essentially a performance designed to pander to a certain segment of voters. Their overall economic policy is designed to give a false impression of "austerity", while channeling money to the government parties' main supporters. The focus on reducing unit labor costs was similarly designed to give an impression of creating competitiveness while actually sacrificing it in favor of short-term benefits. The great health and social services reform project masqueraded as savings and rationalization while entrenching a massively expensive system of area subsidies. In sum, the main policy of the Sipilä administration is to pretend to reform the Finnish economy. The cabinet poses as rational business administrators making tough decisions and fighting a bloated, lazy, entitled public sector.

In the context of this grand narrative, it doesn't matter that the university system is none of these things. The kind of Audi-driving engineer with A Real Job who passionately supports the Sipilä administration knows that the universities are corrupt, stagnant pools of left-wing social justice warriors leeching on public funds, and the administration is putting into effect an education policy designed specifically to pander to him. The universities are convenient scapegoats, not only as examples of the supposedly gigantic and wasteful public sector, but especially for the failures of previous administrations' educational policies. This is manifestly obvious in the ways in which minister Grahn-Laasonen demands that universities innovate around the difficulties created by her party, as if the problem wasn't stupid and short-sighted policy but rather researchers' failures to think up ways to get around it. Facts don't matter; responsibility doesn't exist. The only coin of the realm is the public image of the cabinet parties as stalwart warriors fighting entitled fatcat professors with three-month summer holidays.

In pursuing this image, the current administration is doing deep and long-lasting damage to one of the best university systems in the world. As so many other aspects of the Sipilä cabinet's policies, their university policy poses as tough thinking on long-term problems, but is actually cheap populism of the worst kind, which sacrifices the long-term health of the economy and the entire country to score cheap political points by pandering to voters' prejudices.

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