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Global competition a challenge to Finnish universities

Global competition a challenge to Finnish universities

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Press release 4 November 2004 Sitra’s latest book Kansainvälistyvä yliopisto (The Internationalising University) has arisen out of the need to carry the debate about universities further. The topic is one that features strongly in Sitra’s new Innovations programme and has also been discussed in the state’s Finland in the Global Economy project. This provocative contribution to the debate has occupied Prof. Karl-Erik Michelsen of the University of Lappeenranta during the summer of 2004. The book addresses the position of the universities and the international challenges they face. The Finnish university education system is in the throes of a revolution. External pressures such as globalisation, internationalisation, the information society, political integration in Europe and the increasing flood of scientific knowledge and technology pose major challenges. Internally the universities are faced with strong economic, social and cultural strains. Many initiatives have been taken in recent years to cut the length of time students take to graduate and get them on to the labour market more rapidly. The Ministry of Education has placed economic demands on the universities in its endeavours to make the university in­stitution more efficient. The Finnish university system needs to make radical changes if the 20 universities and 29 polytechnics are to be able to face both external and internal pressures. Reformation of the system of higher education has provoked considerable public debate and a number of expert reports on the problem have been published this year. They have a common message. The economic and operational autonomy of the universities and polytechnics must be increased and Finland has to gradually reduce state and public-sector control over academic and uni­versity policy. This book examines the past, present and future of Finnish higher education. The focus, instead of being on research, is on the highest scientific and academic teaching. The increas­ingly international nature of science and the standardising effect of the Bologna Process on Europe’s universities place strong demands on the teaching given in universities and poly­technics. The Bologna Process, which is due to come into effect after the year 2005, gives students the opportunity to change their place of study when they have completed their first degree. This will increase mobility but at the same time it will open up competition between the European universities and polytechnics. It is quite likely that the most talented students at least will want to study for a further degree at the top European universities. Changes in the environment demand rapid innovations The Finnish system of higher education was set up in the 1960’s and 70’s to satisfy the demands of industrialisation. Finnish universities and polytechnics are typically mass institutions where the number of degrees is more important than their quality. Efforts have been made to improve standards of academic teaching but it continues to take the form of lectures with large audiences and over-full seminars. The size of groups has increased because the economic resources of the universities are not sufficient to permit them to employ more teaching staff. The mass universities have reached the end of the road. In a world that is becoming more and more international more flexible academic institutions able to educate not only large numbers of top-level experts but also very specialised researchers are needed. The mass university cannot meet either of these aims because it is constructed to serve industrialisation and limited national targets. The question facing the Finnish system of higher education is whether it can renew its organisation without any major structural reform. Professor Karl-Erik Michelsen sums up his recommendations under the following six headings: 1. Finnish universities should renounce their present Master’s-based system and concentrate their resources on a Bachelor’s degree that can be completed in approximately four years as laid down in the Bologna Process. It should be free and open to all students. The new Bachelor’s degree would provide a broad cultural education and skills needed in the private and public sectors. 2. The universities should be given a completely free hand to develop their own Master’s degrees. These would be a) international, b) multidisciplinary, c) academically ambitious and d) lead directly towards an internationally competitive Doctor’s degree. 3. Universities should be given complete economic autonomy with the right to acquire, save and accumulate their own financial resources. 4. They should also be given the right to organise fee-based Master’s degrees to which they could recruit students from both Finland and abroad. 5. Bachelor’s degrees at the universities and polytechnics should be closely integrated with secondary school studies in order to obviate the need for entrance exams and gap years. 6. The relations between the universities, polytechnics and Ministry of Education should be redefined. Instead of the present system of results-based funding the Ministry of Education could buy degrees of different levels from the universities and polytechnics. To ensure the quality of these the Ministry could open them up to competition be­tween the universities and polytechnics and also buy degrees from abroad if necessary. Further information: Research: Antti Hautamäki, Sitra, tel. +358-9-6189 9232 Book: Prof. Karl-Erik Michelsen, University of Lappeenranta, tel. +358-40-512 0527 Publication details Kansainvälistyvä yliopisto – Suomalaisen yliopistojärjestelmän haasteet, Karl-Erik Michelsen, Sitra 270, ISBN 951-37-4333-0, ISSN 0785-8388 (Sitra), 103 pages, Edita Publishing Oy. Helsinki 2004, Rrp €22. Sales: Edita customer service and bookshops.

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