On university mergers, and “Tampere 3”

As UTA staff representative in the Tampere 3 steering group, I have been asked to talk next week in the UTA professors’ forum event. Much is still in the air, and open, but here are some key themes that relate to this topic:

  • The primary goals of the university merger. There has been some unclarity how various parties (state government, university administration, students, staff, etc.) see the primary aims of this merger, but often the primary driver for starting this kind of merger processes has been economic one: consolidating education, research and services into larger units will supposedly open doors for savings. The quality reasons for improvements on the other hand are commonly expressed in terms of the “big is beautiful” model: various reports and policy statements have long claimed that there are too many Finnish universities as compared to the population size of the country (the wide geographical reach is rarely commented in these) and that there is too much fragmentation – small one/two person programs or disciplines have no “critical mass” to systematically evolve and carry out high quality research, or provide strong education. (What is clear is that the effectiveness and focus provided by smaller units is insufficiently understood in these discussions.) It now seems that Tampere 3 merger is moving forward and that it has aspects that both are related to rationalizing, as well as aspects that relate to profiling: i.e. that Tampere region takes a stronger role in some areas (and is then also expected to scale down involvement in some others). There is much need for wisdom and hearing of experts while such crucial strategic decisions are being made. Professors, teachers, other staff and students all have their important contributions to make in this process.
  • Innovation potential vs. realities of work. Change is always a burden, and (if my memory serves me) in UTA for example, the number of staff has already gone down from c. 2.500 to 2.000 in a few years. As there has not been a radical drop in bureaucracy (new requirements for reporting, quality controlling, etc., rather have been introduced in this period), this has meant that numerous tasks that have previously been handled by some assisting personnel, are today handled by professors and other key staff members themselves. There is no longer someone who would quickly and efficiently take care of your travel receipts: after each trip (which there are many, if you collaborate nationally and internationally, as is expected), a professor will stay late at work to do a few extra hours to scan documents, manually input all numbers and explanations of cost items into the travel system, or otherwise fill in and check working hours or budget numbers of his team’s projects into various spreadsheets and administrative databases. This takes its toll, on top of research funding (to give another example) becoming an increasingly competitive and collaborative effort, which, in turn, also means an increase in meetings of various kinds, as well as plenty of grant and plan writing, report writing and form filling work. The university staff is already overburdened, some are seriously struggling in keeping up with the various requests coming into their overflowing inboxes and shared electronic calendars, and the atmosphere towards starting yet another radical round of restructuration is therefore not exactly optimal. In UTA, there used to be over 30 discipline-based departments and a mid-layer of faculty structures on top of that, but in 2011 this was restructured into nine larger Schools, and some aspects of that change have yet not been properly processed, and continue to create their own challenges (see: http://www.uta.fi/ajankohtaista/yliopistouutiset/1010/0510/yksikkojako.pdf). Yet, that said, there is nevertheless also genuine potential to find mutually complementing counterparts in the Tampere 3 restructuration – or at least get an opportunity to fix some of the errors that were made in the previous restructuration rounds. “Change is good” mantra might sound like a joke for a tired and overworked academic staff member, but there truly is also catalysing potential and opportunities for genuine innovation when the wide range of UTA, TUT and TAMK education, research and societal collaboration activities are brought together in sensible and clever, new ways. But this sense and cleverness requires that the best expertise in understanding complex phenomena, and the true substance of research and other academic work is used and activated as this process moves forward.
  • Resources and promises. Much of this boils down to how the extra overhead related to the merger will be resourced and managed. Many members of staff are currently cautious, due to seeing all too well the dangers of committing to overambitious objectives with insufficient resources. On the other hand, there is also pent-up energy and need for taking the next steps and building the new university: there are highly dynamic young (and older) researchers, teachers and administrators who have witnessed the societal transformations, seen the potential for innovation, who have published research or piloted new models in their individual projects, but who have not yet been provided an opportunity to apply these lessons to wider scale in their own institution. Such best experts and research-based solutions are now in crucial demand, as the excellent opportunity potential in Tampere 3 finally starts to open up in a big way. The unique profile of Tampere 3 in societal, cultural, technical and health related research areas, as well as the strong expertise in some really interesting, collaborative and experimental work that has been carried out in Tampere means that a new and interesting university can be created that can in flexible and multidisciplinary manner tackle many of the challenges related to the future societal developments. But that creation process requires a lot of work. And when work needs to be done, both energy, enthusiasm, expertise – and money – need to come together, and be channelled in a wise manner. Let’s hope that we are lucky enough to have that wisdom in Tampere, as well as in the Finnish government.

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the University of Tampere, Finland.