Universities must embrace the need for change

Submitted on Wed, 05/03/2017 - 15:06
Rebecca Boden/ Kuva: Jonne Renvall
“Finns are quite humble about their achievements. You shouldn’t keep your successes to yourselves,” says Professor Rebecca Boden who recently moved to Tampere from the UK. Photograph: Jonne Renvall

Professor Rebecca Boden suggests that universities should help to address societal challenges in return for society’s gift of funding

The best way to cope with the government’s increasingly tightening higher education policy is not to resist but to embrace change and to make it reflect what you think is valuable and important, says professor Rebecca Boden.

“Our work should be of significant benefit to society or economy: addressing major social challenges and making our social, economic and cultural lives better. That way government and the electorate will recognize universities as valuable social resources,” Boden says.

As Research Director of the New Social Research programme at the University of Tampere, the British Boden works on social challenges and change with the aim of providing wider society and government with useful knowledge that will enable good solutions.

Boden once worked as senior tax inspector in the United Kingdom and investigated tax evasion undertaken through trusts and charities. At one point, she inspected the taxes of eleven World Cup footballers.

Boden admits being a tax lover; she insists that universities should give taxpayers something in return for their tax euros by providing high-level research and education.

“A storm is coming,
so get ready”

Boden has investigated the university reform in the United Kingdom and she says that the cutbacks and changes that the Finnish government has implemented in higher education are not a passing fad.

“However, when you know that a storm is coming, you can get ready,” she says.

The storm is the English disease of university reform, which is spreading to the rest of Europe. In Britain, budget cuts and tuition fees have largely destroyed an excellent higher education system in three decades.

Governments all over Europe now believe they are doing the right thing when they introduce innovations such as business principles, tuition fees and the strict regulation of research in higher education.

Boden recommends that the cutbacks are not fought by resisting change. Instead, she hopes that universities embrace the need for change and engage in deciding how universities change. That way, researchers can be influential in shaping the future of the universities.

Giving back
to the taxpayers

According to Boden, fair taxation works for everyone’s benefit.

“When we have pressure to provide the Finnish taxpayer with something in return of their tax euros, we should give it to them. We should work with different social groups to address societal problems. Very often universities here in Finland are doing just that – but the national characteristic of humility means that they don’t tell enough people what they are doing,” Boden suggests.

Universities should be able to show that they are an invaluable social resource in society.

“Ordinary people pay our salaries. We are sitting here talking because at the same time someone else somewhere is working in a factory. We have to show that we are doing our fair share of the work,” Boden continues.

“Finland has one of the world’s best
higher education systems”

Boden has written that universities in the United Kingdom need radical alternative management models. Do we need those also in Finland?

“Possibly also in Finland – but not in the same way as in England. I have travelled all over the world and know that Finland has one of the best higher education systems, even though Finns sometimes have a hard time believing that,” Boden says.

According to Boden, the higher education system is broken in the United Kingdom.

“Universities in Britain really need radical changes. Finnish universities must very carefully contemplate how they can meet the pressures that are coming towards them,” Boden says.

Boden has written that academic work at universities is evaluated and measured, but university management seems to be beyond such control.

Boden says that universities rely upon good administration, but that management in itself should not become the core task of universities.

“Good management means acknowledging that academics and students are the reason why we have universities. The management’s job is to facilitate their work and ensure high-quality research and teaching. If academics are committed to serving society through their teaching and research then they won’t need much management”.

“Tuition fees
are cheating”

Boden is very critical of the tuition fee system and English universities. As the result of 10,000-euro a year tuition fees, students may have as much as 60,000 euros worth of debt when they graduate in their early twenties.

“If tuition fees are introduced in Finland, I think it is very bad news. It means cheating the next generation,” Boden says.

Finland is now experimenting by charging tuition fees of non-EU/EEA students.

Boden has heard tuition fees justified by saying that ordinary people should not pay for letting people who will ultimately get good salaries as a result study for free.

“Taxpayers should pay for universities and for students’ education, because they will need a doctor, a lawyer, an architect, an engineer or a teacher at some point of their lives. People who have higher education are in the vanguard of social progress,” Boden says.

Young people in Britain are now contemplating whether it is worth their while to study at an expensive university when the consequence is high debts.

“Tuition fees do not promote social mobility. They are a step towards a hierarchical society and fundamentally contradictory to the idea of the Finnish welfare state,” Boden adds.

New problems,
new research

In January 2017, Professor Boden started in her job as the Research Director of the University of Tampere’s New Social Research programme.

The new social challenges call for a new kind of social research.

“Brexit, Trump, terrorism, Syria, fake news. The whole horrible mess,” Boden lists.

Many of the above are associated with the so-called wicked problems, which the old theories can no longer solve.

“In the New Social Research programme, we will develop fresh avenues of investigation and look for ways to cooperate with the surrounding society in order to help tackle these problems. Because this is uncharted terrain, we also need new research methods,” Boden says.

Some social researchers say that it is not their job to solve the current social problems but to look at the underlying developments.

Boden says that one of the problems with the British higher education system was that the universities had become complacent and did not address real-life problems. She thinks that universities should pay back the gift of funding to society by providing useful understandings.

“It is not our task to make decisions but to provide knowledge and insights on a deeper level for decision-makers. Our work has to be theoretically robust and sound, but we should also have the capacity for hope and new ways of thinking and tackling the problems. We cannot just sit around in our ivory tower and think our own thoughts,” Boden explains.

Finland can use the English language
to tell others about its success

The financial model of Finnish universities has been criticised for favouring English-language scientific publications even though having social impact would require communicating with the Finnish audience in Finnish. Boden does not think that using English is a problem.

“We live in a global world and Finland, like everyone else, is connected to other countries. Finnish researchers must be a part of the international scientific community,” Boden says.

Finnish problems are not just Finnish phenomena but reflect the problems elsewhere in Europe; for instance, the migration crisis hits both Finland and the United Kingdom.

“The other side of the coin is that Finland is a very humble and understated country. You do not advertise what you are doing much, but yours is also a successful society as people all over Europe have noticed,” Boden continues.

According to Boden, some of the solutions to social challenges undertaken in Finland should be shared with others. One such solution is the world’s best educational system.

“Talking about such things is not irrelevant hype; you should share what you are good at. That would help people to build better societies elsewhere in the world. Please don’t keep your knowledge only to yourselves,” Boden says.

Boden says that she is serious when she talks about Finland as a particularly interesting country in the world.

“I don’t mean to say that Finland is without problems, but that you have a stable mechanism, which has helped to build an excellent educational system and a well-functioning welfare state,” Boden concludes.

Text: Heikki Laurinolli