The University’s administration was an easy target for the government’s massive budget cuts. So much was slashed from it, in fact, that the quality of teaching and research suffered.
Over a year ago, the University of Helsinki’s board were handed a document drafted by the rector Jukka Kola, director of administration Esa Hämäläinen and director of finance Marjo Berglund, titled: Memo on the necessary measures of Prime Minister Sipilä’s government programme.
The drafting of that 24-page list of measures had begun immediately after the government programme Finland, a land of solutions made by the Centre Party, the Finns Party and the National Coalition Party had been released and announced in parliament in May 2015. The education budget cuts presented in the programme called for cuts in the University’s expenditure of about 55 million euros in 2016, and even as much as 106 million euros by the year 2020.
The measures contained in Kola, Hämäläinen and Berglund’s memo had been mulled over in taskforces over the summer. The task of the adjustment group appointed by rector Kola was to coordinate the reduction of expenses. The revenue group’s responsibility, in turn, was to seek new routes of funding for the university. Several smaller groups looked for ways of enhancing performance and cutting expenses. The university community also provided suggestions for cost-saving measures, as well as for acquiring new revenues.
The central proposal of the memo was the initiation of a reform programme, which would aim at 86 million euros worth of cost savings. The cost-saving measures varied all the way from increasing energy efficiency (over half a million euros in annual cost savings) to better tendering and centralization of acquisitions (estimated cost savings of 10-15 million euros by the year 2020).
General streamlining was not enough, however. That is due to the simple fact that the largest expenditure in the university’s budget is staff expenses. Consequently, the reform programme also proposed the initiation of cooperation procedures concerning the whole staff. They aimed at reducing even up to 1,200 people. The rector, along with the directors of administration and finance, proposed to board that the rector be given use of all the employer tools available for reducing expenses.
The proposal passed as it stood.
The news about employee co-operation negotiations coming to an end broke in January. The university would reduce the number of their employees by nearly a thousand people by the end of 2017, of whom 570 would be laid off. The majority were to leave from the administration – less than 100 teachers and researchers would be laid off.
Administrative services were assembled under a unit called University Services, which started its activity in May. The unit employs about 800 people. Early on in the year, 1,450 employees were still working in the central administration as well as in the faculties’ administrative and service jobs.
Administrative cost savings have been easy to justify, because they have not been deemed to affect the university’s basic tasks of research and education. External pressure has also been applied on the cost savings. Among others, the director general of the economics department at the Ministry of Finance, Markus Sovala, estimated that universities have not done enough to streamline their administrations in an interview for Nykypäivä in May. The extensive layoffs in administration were already public knowledge at that time.
In reality, administrative cost savings have had significant effects on teaching as well. The Student Union of the University of Helsinki (HYY) has conducted a student survey on the matter.
“We have received a very large amount of responses. The biggest problem that came up is that there is no student guidance, or if there is, you cannot get it. Students are bounced around from one place to another, and no one really seems to know anything,” reveals HYY’s board member Maria Loima.
According to Loima, problems have surfaced in the submission of theses and dissertations, for example. Graduations may have been delayed when students have had to wait for their paper work to go through for months on end.
“Judging from the contents of the feedback, students are feeling really concerned, burdened and stressed about this situation.”
In the first half of September, Helsingin Sanomat reported that the effects of the cuts are visible in courses that have not been appointed with a teacher.
The University of Helsinki’s rector Jukka Kola tells Ylioppilaslehti that the cost savings have been tried to be implement in a manner that would not influence the organization of compulsory courses. He does not have an answer to the problems highlighted in Helsingin Sanomat’s piece.
“I cannot comment on the individual situations of faculties or departments.”
Kola emphasizes that it is not the University of Helsinki who has decided to save money; the cost savings have been stipulated the state’s budget cuts.
Doesn’t the university does have the power to decide where the cuts are directed?
“Yes, but with what kinds of measures could these layoffs have been avoided? What would have been the alternatives? Less than half of the adjustment measures come from staff cutbacks, and less than half of those come from layoffs. We are still left with carrying out 50 million euro cost savings through other means,” Kola says.
“Alternative models were certainly explored, but this way we minimized interference with the university’s basic tasks. The other alternative is probably easy for everyone to figure out.”
In the beginning of October, the Finnish Union of University Professors announced that the availability of assistant staff has significantly decreased at the University of Helsinki, among others. The professors only gave the university a satisfactory grade as an employer.
“The concern is genuine, of course. But in what way could a different solution have been implemented, where as much assistant staff or more would be available? That there is already a more difficult equation,” Kola says.
The rector nonetheless assures us that the situation will stabilize at some point.
“The autumn is this kind of a transitional period. At some point we will reach a normal situation consistent with the new policy. At the moment, composure and patience is required.”
Translated by Kristoffer Westlake.