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Vesa Puttonen: The Innovation University falls short as a project

Finland's innovation university project has roused passions in all directions. What the opponents see as the major problem is that according to current plans, one university would receive resources that others are not entitled to. But if Finland genuinely wants to have top-league universities, a single innovation university project is a step in the right direction but is by no means sufficient in itself, argues Prof. Vesa Puttonen.

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Finland’s innovation university project has roused passions in all directions. The project has opponents the length and breadth of the country, from the left wing to the right. What the opponents see as the major problem is that according to current plans, one university would receive resources that others are not entitled to. Nobody dares to use the original name for the project, the top university. 

If Finland genuinely wants to have top-league universities, a single innovation university project is a step in the right direction but is by no means sufficient in itself. 

Research efforts need to be concentrated

Finland boasts a nationwide network of universities, which was originally created for the purposes of regional policies, and is currently outmoded. The most important measure would be to divide universities into teaching and research universities. All plans to start research activities in polytechnics should be discontinued.  Finland is already churning out too much poor or run-of-the-mill research, which is valueless even as a tool for researcher training. Universities should agree with each other as to which units will concentrate on research and which will focus exclusively on teaching. Moreover, all research units should be made national.  

Students should be treated like customers

Finland has great university departments, great professors and great students. On the whole, however, students lack the necessary incentive to complete their studies quickly, just as the teachers lack the incentive to teach to the best of their abilities. This is so because mediocre has come to mean good enough. It is not clear to anyone who the customer of the university is. Students feel that they are the customers, but are unwilling to pay for the services they receive. Student organisations strongly oppose term fees or restrictions on study times. This is very short-sighted of them and such thinking is like shooting oneself in the leg. Studying should be subject to a term fee, which would ensure that students would be treated as customers whom the university is obliged to serve. Restricting study times would mean that it would make sense for teachers to invest their efforts in students without the fear of them disappearing because they have found a nice job or have gone travelling.    

Universities should be aware of the reality of competition. Competition for students and teachers requires that studies are subject to a fee and that the salaries are freely and individually negotiable. The best universities will have the best students, teachers and researchers. These centres of excellence will be just that without any administrative decisions required.   

Decision making needs to be reviewed

Decision making in universities needs to be reviewed. Students should not be members of university boards, just as customers are not present at corporate board meetings. Neither should teachers be members of university boards, just as the staff representatives should not be present at corporate board meetings. In the current system, the university boards comprise a group of teachers and students. This naturally discourages any structural reformations that might be needed. Can you imagine a company in which the board would comprise the customers and staff?  

Marathon or doctorate?

As a professor I am far too familiar with the situation in which someone who is retiring from or otherwise leaving his or her career in business wants to become a postgraduate student just to have some meaningful goals in life, but his or her legs are too weak to train for the marathon. Another problem are recent graduates who have not managed to find a job. Both types of student smother the supervisor’s inspiration.   

All postgraduate programmes should be made nationwide. Producing a maximum number of doctorates should be replaced by quality as the main priority. The length of postgraduate studies should be limited to five years. The current practice, by which aged directors or those between jobs sign up (free of any charge) as postgraduate students is gross abuse of public resources. To complete a doctorate is a licence to carry our research as a career, not an end in itself. Universities are partly to blame for the current situation, in which the most visible type of research results are the “results” of a completed doctorate. These are widely quoted and referred to in the press, without realising that the findings produced while writing the dissertation are not even supposed to have any practical significance.   

Hanken and Helsinki School of Economics should join forces

It is clear that in the field of economics and business administration the leading Finnish higher education institutions are the Helsinki School of Economics and the Swedish School of Economics and Business Administration (Hanken).  The most natural thing to do is to start creating a centre of excellence in this field by merging these two universities. However, the language policies of Hanken have so far put paid to these plans, regardless of the fact that in both institutions, standing opposite each other on the same street, most of the instruction is already given in English. And this trend is on the increase. It is imperative that Hanken should not let its language policy ruin the project which would see the merger of the two schools and their foundations. Substance should rule over principle.  

An innovation university is a step in the right direction

The aim of the so-called innovation university currently planned is to create an institution that would attract the best students and teachers under its roof. It has been proposed that students would pay a term fee, albeit small. It has also been proposed that the university should have an external board. According to the plans, the funding of the university would be based on the international model, in which a (small) fund would enable a more market-oriented running of activities. This is a good but nonetheless insufficient start in taking the Finnish university system in the right direction.  

Dr. Vesa Puttonen
Professor of Finance
Helsinki School of Economics

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