Blog of the International Sociological Association (ISA)

Returning to the Past: Central Planning Plays Havoc with Finnish Universities

July 27, 2010 119 Comments

Pekka Sulkunen, University of Helsinki

The new Estonian Museum of Art hosts a very beautiful painting by Elmar Kits of 1956, showing young women and strong men harvesting grain in a yellow autumn field in Soviet Estonia. They look happy and proud. In the foreground, two women seem to be talking, one with a notebook and a pencil in her hand. There is a weighing scale at the side.

When I saw the picture could not help thinking about the university reform Finland is going through at the moment. State universities that earlier were an integral part of the state bureaucracy, controlled financially by the Ministry of Education and in the last instance by the parliament, have become financially “autonomous” units, still mostly financed by the Ministry of Education but no longer within its budget. Instead, the universities now have their own budgets, with contributions from the state to cover immediate costs due to teaching and some research. Additional funds are sought at the Finnish national research council (misleadingly called the Academy of Finland), the national fund for science and technology, several ministries and private sources. The model is much the same as in American state universities.

The objective of the reform was to improve the universities’ capacity to compete for research funding, their responsiveness to societal needs and their strategic specialisation. The administrative structures were streamlined so that the idea of representativeness through democratic elections was replaced by increased power of the university presidents (called Rectors in Finland) and an appointed Board with significant personalities from outside of the academic world: (ex)politicians, businessmen and other authorities. Faculties are led by deans, and amalgamated units that combine what used to be disciplinary autonomous departments are led by directors. Deans and directors have consulting bodies to support them but they are personally responsible for the management of the system.  The old disciplinary departments are to go for good.

The management structures were changed to stress strategic agility of the units in selecting their strengths and to eliminate unproductive diversity and amateurishness. The expressed targets of the reform policy have from the beginning been international competitiveness and quality. For example the University of Helsinki seeks to become one of the world’s twenty-five best universities.

All this sounds very good, even inspiring. The old bureaucratic structures were stiff, not very dynamic and very individualistic, measuring merits and allocating resources mainly on the basis of personal achievements, whereas the new system encourages collaboration and strategic planning.

What in theory makes sense, stumbles on what seems to be an epidemic of counting in the academic world in widely different contexts. What is this counting for? What function does the counting serve in Elmar Kits’ painting? It does not add to the grain, it does not seem to have anything to do with agricultural technology (the level of agricultural productivity dropped to one third of the pre-war level after the collectivisation), and it is not part of the distributional system either. It is needed for, and symbolizes the presence of the Central Planning Agency, whose only contact with the production and distribution process is mediated by numbers produced by people like the women in the middle of the painting. The academic system likewise seems to be on its way back to the managerial organization of the second industrial revolution. The expansion of mass production and immense speed of social change was based on  huge singular production units of mass-consumables, centrally planned labour power policies, regional coordination and nationally regulated energy supply and logistic systems (railways, roads, harbours). These were dreams of such men and women as William Beveridge, Alva and Gunnar Myrdal or Pierre Mendes-France. For these people the success of the invasion of Normandy probably was the most admirable achievement of planned social organization in human history, with two million men operating in concert under one centralised leadership.

In this discussion forum we have already read about the numerous disadvantages that evaluations based on numbers carry for knowledge production: the supremacy of form over content in the refereed article, linguistic distortions in favour of English, a world view in which relevance is measured by the local standards of Western Europe, and others related to the thin ritualism of enumerating outputs rather than assessing the worth of research results. My comment on this adds one problem that has been much less discussed: the growing distance of planning, resourcing and strategic management from knowledge production itself. This distance is apparent in the hostility towards disciplinary organization, indeed, disciplinary identities at large, demonstrated by the reformers.

It seems that the radical programme of Mode 2 science as knowledge production in the context of application that Gibbons, Nowotny and others proposed twenty years ago does not seem to lead away from centralism, as was the original intention. Mode 1 science, they argued, was based on academic disciplinary authority, and for this reason not accountable by any objective outsiders’ criteria.  The Finnish science and technology policy, which aims at competitiveness and quality, is hostile to disciplinary identities, because they are seen as obstacles to usefulness. This is what the proponents of Mode 2 science also argued. It appears, though, that the true discomfort that disciplinary identities causes for the new funding and reporting system is resistance to measurable homogeneity and quantification. Respect for disciplinary differences is hostile to such quantification.

The Estonian Museum for Art houses another beautiful picture from the same era, by the first President of the Artists’ Union of the Estonian SSR, Adamson-Eric. The painting is called “Exemplary brigade of Young Communists”, showing seven female textile workers and their supervisor, also a notebook and a pencil in her hand, “discussing the details of the socialist competition of labour”, as the gallery text informs us. This, it seems, is also the fate of the new brave university structure. As we are seriously under-resourced, we are obliged to seek “efficiency” from coordinating activities, harmonising practices, writing up rules – and reporting, of course. We have been given new administrative staff to help, but what in fact happens is that before they can help us they need to know what university teachers and researchers do, individually and as a group, and for that we must deliver information to them. And that information must also be homogeneous, preferably in numeric form. This means that the organisation has indeed become leaner: not by reducing administrative workloads but by adding new organisational levels to old ones by replacing teaching and research staff with administrators, and filling up academics’ time with bureaucratic communication. We sit in meetings, discussing details, collecting information, writing up plans and priorities, procedural rules and evaluation criteria — interpreting plans sent forth to us by the Rector, the Board, the Administrative and Fiscal departments, and the university lawyers.

Universities are fragile and ambiguous organizations. The three golden As – Autonomy, Accountability and Authority – are difficult to combine. The centralized managerialism of the current Finnish reform seems to be a much worse solution than I personally expected. Its worst outcome is not that it encourages to the production of trivia; it may bury itself altogether in its own bureaucracy that increases its own resources at the expense of the productive classes in the name of “administrative efficiency”.

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