Overrun by the Big Wheel?

University of Helsinki

Despite focus on internationalization English information about education reform incomplete and late
The Big Wheel reform is rolling over me and I don't notice it. There has been some information in English about the process on the University's intranet. However, during the drafting, most of the documents were initially only available in Finnish and due to the delay caused by translation, foreign staff without English language proficiency was largely excluded from the process. Loosing this input was certainly not helpful, since several goals of the Big Wheel reform are related to internationalization, e.g. harmonizing the degree structures within Europe ("3+2+3 system") and making the degree programmes internationally attractive and competitive.

Excellent students potentially excluded from studying at our University
Concluding from the application numbers for the Master's programmes that'll start in September 2017, there is still much work to be done to make the programmes "internationally attractive and competitive". Virtually all programmes reported a decline in applications from Non-EU/EEA countries, which probably will result in much less income from tuition fees than the university would like (Master's thesis tuition fees at the University of Helsinki are between 13000 and 18000€/year depending on the programme). We probably loose potentially excellent students and there is a diffuse suspicion that the general level of education might suffer. 30 scholarships of varying amounts are available for Non-EU/EEA students. However, only about 10 of the recipients will be able to completely recoup the tuition fee with their scholarship (see here: https://www.helsinki.fi/en/studying/how-to-apply/scholarship-programme). I also think that the advertisement for the study programmes could be definitely improved.

Information about available scholarships: clear enough or confusing?
I also fear that many potential applicants were confused about the scholarship programme (so was I, and still am). Our own Master's programme's web pages (https://www.helsinki.fi/en/programmes/master/translational-medicine-tran...) do not mention the scholarships prominently (or was that on purpose?). Even worse, the link on the Helsinki University's pages to check whether or not a student is required to pay the tuition fee has been half dead for a while ("You can check this FAQ at the Studyinfo website whether or not you are required to pay tuition fees" (original on this page). Hopefully it died only after the application deadline finished...

Educational reform of the PhD degree
The Big Wheel reform concerns all three degrees: Bachelor's, Master's and Doctorate (PhD). Internationalization is especially relevant to the PhD degree and those Master's programmes that are entirely in English (e.g. Translational Medicine or Life Science Informatics). Even though about half all PhD students in my unit (Research Programs Unit) are foreigners, hardly any of them knows what the "Big Wheel" is about.

Big Wheel discussion at Meilahti campus
After almost all is set and done, an info event about the Big Wheel was announced for the Meilahti campus (31.3.2017). The e-mail message was exclusively in Finnish. I often have given feedback when important events were not announced in English (more often than not getting no response). That's why I wrote a message straight to the rector and the vice rector of the university. The e-mail conversation is attached below. Suffice to say that the university is still dedicated to increase internationalization despite this not being without problems...

What was discussed at the hearing
The part of the discussion that happened in English was circling around the PhD education. A very valid request was not to fix something that is not broken. In the international comparison, PhD education is for the most part excellent in Finland and the only perceived problem is its length.
At the moment a Finnish PhD thesis in life science requires the graduate student to publish in scientific journals. As a consequence, most of the research in Finland is done by PhD students. The exact number and quality of publications required differs between faculties as there is no formal consensus. Typical are 3-5 papers, sharing of authorship is accepted to a certain degree not all need to be first-author contributions.

Finish PhD graduates are competitive
While a PhD from a Finnish University is internationally very competitive, PhD graduates are typically much older than those from most other countries. This begs the question: so what? The typical length of PhD studies in Finland has been generally assumed to be around 7 years. However, nobody knows exactly (not even the university itself, since tight rules to register PhD studies have not existed until recently), but there seems to be a very slow movement towards a shorter duration (and less requirements).

Strong forces act against shortening of PhD studies
The fact that the PhD studies last so long in Finland is the result of natural selection. Pushing with regulation for faster PhD education will have many unintended consequences. There are strong forces acting against shortening the PhD studies, especially for highly talented students that aim at an academic career: E.g. the relative ease to get scholarship funding during the PhD studies and the high unemployment among fresh PhDs in Finland.

Age limits for PhD degrees for funding
Pointed out by Kalle Saksela, a major obstacle to shorting the PhD education is the general funding situation of academic research. With every funding cycle, funding rates are pushing new all time lows. Successful applicants have a very compelling portfolio of high quality publications, which needs time to acquire. However, major competitive research funding (Academy of Finland, ERC) puts limits on applicants (e.g. "no more than 7 years after PhD completion"), which have no relationship to the quality of the application.

Four years
The very clear message from vice rector Hämäläinen (Jukka Kola had already left the discussion, when it switched from Finnish to English) was that the PhD studies must be shortened in order to reach comparability with other countries. The target is 3+2+4 (3 years for the Bachelor's studies, 2 more years for the Master's studies, and then 4 years for the PhD studies). The idea put forward by the vice rector was to simply move some of the studies that are done at the moment under the PhD umbrella into the early postdoctoral period. A big question is obviously who is going to pay for this move? There needs to be a substantial increase in research funding to be able to pay salaries for postdocs unless we want to lower the overall domestic research output. Already now it borders to financial suicide to employ a postdoc with an Academy Research Fellow budget.


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