Vice Rector Harri Melin is satisfied, but admits there are places of improvement, as well
The external evaluation group considers that the education reform of 2010 2015 was a success at the University of Tampere. According to the group, the work done in Tampere is ‘nationally groundbreaking,’ and the university community seems to be extensively committed to the reform.
‘We must be satisfied, while remembering that there is a lot to improve. The most essential success has been that all our people, from professors and teachers to students, have welcomed the reform warmly,’ says Vice Rector Harri Melin.
Melin values the evaluation group’s recommendations highly, even though the evaluation report did not present any extreme surprises.
‘We could have missed some things, because we are too close to many things.’
Degree programmes out of subjects
As Vice Rector, Harri Melin participated in launching the education reform in 2010, when the University of Tampere, led by Rector Kaija Holli, decided to carry out a big leap in education.
‘We had many small but overlapping degree programmes, and the same things were being taught by two people in two different rooms,’ Melin says.
Through the education reform, subjects were compiled to form new degree programmes. The key words in the reform were broadness of approach and basing operations on expertise. The first students started the new bachelor’s programmes in 2012. It was clear from the start that an external evaluation must be performed when the work was finished.
As Professor of Sociology, Harri Melin is familiar with social sciences, in which field it was feared that the identities of many subjects would disappear as sociology, social psychology and social policy were combined into one bachelor’s programme. However, the fears soon dissipated.
‘After using the new degree programme in social sciences for a few years, nobody wanted to go back.’
The broad scope proved a good model for social sciences and administrative sciences as well as business studies. Professional fields leading directly to a certain profession, such as medicine, were left outside the broad approach.
In addition to the broad approach, expertise-based operations were another key theme which Harri Melin considers to be a national groundbreaker.
‘To dramatise a little, every professor used to have to have their own subject, for which the professor picked exam books out of their own bookshelf. Now the working groups first consider what the students will need to know after completing their studies in each field. Producing that knowledge and expertise is then considered separately. Now, expertise is considered as a whole, and the new way of thinking has been well adopted. This is where the University of Tampere is a definite forerunner in Finland,’ Melin says.
Already in the early stages of the reform it was clear that many, if not all, subjects had similar thoughts on competence and capabilities. Communication and interaction skills were considered important everywhere. It also became clear that the subjects varied greatly in the kinds of capabilities they offered their students.
Through the education reform, every student was guaranteed a certain level of studies in a foreign language and their first language, or the so-called generic skills, which are also emphasised in the evaluation report. Differences remain between degree programmes.
Melin feels that certain differences between medicine and social sciences, for example, are quite natural, and that not everyone has to fit the same mould.
‘Social sciences and humanities still differ from other fields that require one particular skill. I don’t think every programme has to be clones of each other; why not have some individuality there, as well,’ Melin compares.
Bachelor’s degrees remain unknown
According to the evaluation group, broad university degrees are facing a challenge in that society and working life do not sufficiently value or recognise the bachelor’s degree.
Melin feels this to be a national question for the entire labour market, and one which a university cannot solve.
Universities have traditionally produced experts with graduate degrees. The requirement for a master’s degree is deeply rooted in the competency requirements within the public and private sectors.
‘We don’t have a labour market for bachelors, and I’m not quite sure whether this is a situation that should be completely changed,’ Melin says.
Melin finds two fields at the University of Tampere from which the labour market draws out students already at their undergraduate phase. One of these is computer science, where completed master’s degrees have been excessively rare.
Class teachers are required to have a master’s degree, but early childhood education students often start work when they have their bachelor’s degree. Those studying for the higher degree often end up as kindergarten principals, even though the salary is not much higher, regardless of the higher requirements of the job.
During times of good employment, journalism has also been a field where students often enter working life with their bachelor’s degree. However, sociologists are only employed as researchers when they have a master’s degree.
‘The employment market for people with bachelor’s degrees only exists on a few fields. There’s nothing the university can do about it, not even if we put up a full-page ad in every newspaper for a week.’
Recommended packages for students
Students are offered plenty of guidance, but they still say there’s not enough. According to the evaluation group, the problem is mostly one of incidence.
Harri Melin is not surprised of this criticism. The problem is related to the freedom of choice regarding minor subjects, which in the reform became known as optional studies.
‘The difficulty is the same as when you go to a supermarket to select a yoghurt. We offer too many alternatives, and the students don’t have enough information about the consequences.’
Melin is in favour of the evaluation group’s suggestion: recommended packages to make the selection easier for the students.
But does this not contradict freedom of choice?
‘The situation is extremely difficult, and made more so by the education reform. Overlapping courses have been removed, and the students are now offered more alternatives than before. It’s bound to make things more difficult.’
According to Melin, the idea should not be to provide an abundant buffet, but rather to offer gourmet meals. His interpretation of the situation is that buffet tables are still far too common, whereas gourmet alternatives are few and far between.
‘Not to undermine anyone’s teaching, my advice would be to teach less. I’d rather see less of higher quality, than teaching so much that no-one can acquire the information. It isn’t easy. People complain that they have to teach more than their share, but when they’re asked to teach less, they come up with a dozen reasons why not.’
Tampere believes in its attractiveness
The University of Tampere is well-known, respected, and popular. The education evaluation group felt that the attractiveness is on a good level now, but was reserved regarding the continued popularity.
Harri Melin is not worried about student recruitments. He believes that Tampere will remain an attractive city, and that Tampere3 will improve the situation even further.
‘All tracks lead to Tampere. It’s the most popular place to live in Finland. We have 35,000 students, and almost everything is within walking distance. The culture and restaurants are good, and there are lots of young people. Besides, this university really works,’ Melin lists.
According to Melin, international student marketing is a difficult task which requires active work. In the applications for international master’s degrees, the University of Tampere succeeded in being the only university to increase its number of applicants, regardless of the new tuition fees.
‘We were extremely lucky this time, but we shouldn’t become complacent with our position. The essential thing is the number of students starting the programmes which are subject to a charge next autumn. Then, we’ll see how it really starts out. The first year is a learning process, and the future will show the true direction.’
Facing the challenge of the sense of community
According to the evaluation group, the pedagogical management of the education reform was a success. However, uncertainties remain regarding some responsibilities and assignments.
Harri Melin calls this a question of identities. Previously, people were identified through the break rooms for sociology, political science, or literature. After the reform, the break rooms are not the same.
Units used to be formed out of subjects taught by one or two professors and a handful of lecturers. Now, these are replaced with degree programmes of dozens of professors and lecturers.
‘If instead of six employees we now have 60, maintaining the clarity in the immediate work communities and chains of command is not always simple. We have a lot to work on and learn.’
Melin doesn’t have a quick solution, but he recognises the challenges with the sense of community.
‘The challenges of identity and communality are something these broad programmes still need to work on.’
Text: Heikki Laurinolli