Monday, 18 April 2016

Comparing Finnish universities: A new tool for students

Very occasionally, hidden government bureaucracy makes new and interesting information accessible to service users. It’s not widely known, but this is now the case for Finnish universities.

In the United Kingdom, a large and public industry exists for comparing and ranking universities. Overall rankings and subject-specific ranking lists – like the Sunday Times Good University Guide or the Guardian University Guide – are standard tools for British universities, and they are now joined by a large number of other measures, from the WhatUni? Student Choice Awards[1] (where rankings are determined by asking students to score the university) to the University Free Speech Rankings[2] (where universities are scored based on their attitudes to controversial speakers or unpopular newspapers). These lists are usually intended to help students choose universities, and help universities differentiate themselves on their particular priority areas.

Finnish universities and polytechnics are less experienced at differentiating themselves. Traditionally, a Finnish university has attracted applicants mainly by its location, or perhaps by offering a degree in an unusual subject. However, it now seems that a comparison tool is on the horizon for those prospective students who want to know if the university cares about the student experience. Finnish universities and polytechnics are beginning to use sophisticated methods of Quality Assurance[3], and clever students will use the public quality audit reports to examine their options.

Of course, the demand for information has been a response to the “consumerisation” of higher education. Tuition fees were introduced in England in 1998, and increased in 2006 and 2012, to their current level of £9,000 pounds (€11,500) per academic year. Now, 18 years after the introduction of tuition fees, and 4 years after the last major increase in the fee level, it is clear that students are demanding value for money.

British students, when choosing which universities to apply to, are intimately aware of the university’s academic ranking and its prestige in the eyes of employers, but also increasingly the quality of the student experience. Crucially, the attention of students does not focus only on simple pleasures, such as sports facilities and local nightlife, but also on serious things, such as the quality of careers advice, or whether the university in fact listens to the student voice and makes changes in response.

Finnish applicants are now starting to have similar information at their disposal[4]. All Finnish universities and polytechnics underwent a quality assurance audit between 2005 and 2012. The current, second, round of audits is underway, to conclude by 2018. An institution, on passing the audit, is given a quality label that is valid for 6 years, and a detailed report is issued about its efforts.

In Finland, like it did in the UK, quality concerns coincide with the introduction of tuition fees. From 2016, overseas students at Finnish universities will be required to pay a minimum of €1,500 (£1,173) per academic year. Both universities and polytechnics are increasingly aware that they are in competition for both good students and good staff. Priorities are being quietly set as we speak, through extremely dull and bureaucratic, but rather powerful, quality assurance processes.

Current Quality Assurance in Finnish higher education largely resembles that of the British Quality Assurance Agency (QAA): continuous, systematic, and evidence-based periodic reviews, done by independent experts who work in the higher education sector.

However, there is one major difference between the two systems. In the UK, Quality Assurance is almost exclusively focused on the quality of the student experience. Staff recruitment or career progression are not part of the process. Neither is the potential for the institution to export its good practice to other countries, or indeed its contributions to wider society.

In Finland, Quality Assurance processes cover a far wider range of topics. Each audit must address how well the university or polytechnic carries out all the statutory duties of a Finnish higher education institution:

1. University-level degree education;
2. Research, development and innovation activities (RDI), as well as artistic activities;
3. Societal impact and regional development work.

In addition, each Finnish university or polytechnic may choose an optional target, which gives interesting information about the institution’s priorities. The self-selected targets – which are set for six years at a time, an eternity in the fast-changing world of education – speak volumes about each university’s long-run priorities.

To date, 8 Finnish universities and 10 polytechnics have declared their chosen targets for 2014-2021. Polytechnics (ammattikorkeakoulut) are clearly prioritising student professional development and entrepreneurial skills. Universities (yliopistot) split their priorities evenly between staff recruitment and career development on the one hand, and the student experience on the other. Of the Finnish universities that have already declared their priority area, only one – Jyväskylä – has chosen to focus on the employability of its students.

On the contrary, in the UK, the Quality Assurance Agency sets the themes nationally. For example, in 2015, every UK Higher Education institution was required to give a detailed report of its efforts on either Student Employability or Digital Literacy. In other words, it is impossible to study in a British university in 2016 without receiving some training in either professional or digital skills.

Today’s students, in Finland and elsewhere, are competing with a global labour force. Graduates from other countries will not only be trained in academic theories and technical problem-solving, but also in professional skills and highly employable behaviours. Finnish universities have not traditionally marketed themselves as preparing students for the real world. It is right that students have access to comparative information about the commitment of universities and polytechnics to student success.

The new procedures of Quality Assurance are, I hope, only the first step in Finnish universities’ strategic transparency. The existence of open, committed, and honest long-term priorities is a direct improvement in the student experience. The first step has been taken. I would welcome more.

Dr Marianna Koli is Senior Lecturer and Head of the Faculty of Economics at New College of the Humanities, London. She has previously taught at the University of Manchester and the University of Birmingham. 


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Troubling ‘Gender’

Feminism and ‘gender’ politics
Today in many countries and international organisations the language of ‘gender’ has replaced ‘women’ in policy-making. Rather than representing a more comprehensive attempt to tackle sexism, however, feminists have lamented that ‘gender’, understood as a social construction, has become a mere synonym for biological sex. Moreover, when gender equality policies are not being diluted through the implementation of austerity measures in Europe, they are targeted mainly at mobilising women to carry on with the reproductive and care duties while pursuing paid employment in the labour market.
Gender, it is argued, has been hijacked to advance the neoliberal economic agenda. While this claim is valid, it is also a problematic one. Because of its close association with feminism, we easily forget that gender is neither a very new idea nor is it originally a feminist one. Instead, it has its much more troubling origins in 1950s US psychiatry.
Gender is not a “good” idea that is now being made to serve “bad” neoliberal interests. Rather, as I show in my book The Biopolitics of Gender (2015), the idea of ‘gender’ has been from the start a battleground of the management of the life and labour of populations, not only for psychiatrists and feminists, but also for sociologists, demographers, economists and policymakers.
Intersex and clinical violence
The idea of gender as we know it today was first introduced in 1955 by Dr John Money, a psychiatrist from New Zealand working at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. He published a series of articles with his colleagues Joan and John Hampson on intersex people; in other words, people whose biological sex characteristics do not correspond to the physiological expectations of the male or female sex.
Money and the Hampson’s argument was a radical one. They claimed, for the first time, that their studies of their biologically diverse patients demonstrated that none of the biological sex variables could be used to reliably predict the sex role that a person would acquire in adulthood. Most patients would, however, take on the social role of the sex that they were assigned at birth. Thus, Money and his colleagues argued that a person’s psychological sex was learned through socialisation, rather than being rooted in biology. They renamed this socially learned sex gender.
Money’s new idea of gender, despite acknowledging that not all people easily fitted biologically into a strict male-female dichotomy, nonetheless led to infants born with ambiguous genitals undergoing surgery - often more than once - in order to ensure the upbringing of coherently sexed, heterosexual individuals. Money’s work therefore had a normative dimension that was firmly grounded in the Western post-war ideals of White American nuclear family life, where the nuclear family was assumed to the foundation of social order.
To support this project, it was relatively easy for doctors to get parents to consent to the surgical procedures by arguing that they were doing what was best for the child. When surgery was carried out on children old enough to speak, their resistance to this violence was often dismissed as childish paranoia.
These intersex case management protocols became standardised around the world, also in Finland and the UK, and are largely still in use today.
Feminist dues, potential solidarities
This history often comes as a surprise to feminists like me who undertook gender studies in the 1990s and 2000s. Gender, I had always assumed and was repeatedly taught, was a term introduced by second-wave feminism to challenge crude notions of biological determinism. But it was actually first created to justify surgical intervention on infants in order to maintain the illusion of the truth of biological binary sex and to prevent children from growing up into homosexuals.
The first feminist of the 1970s to popularise the idea of ‘gender’ and its social construction was Kate Millett in her 1970 milestone book Sexual Politics. Millett was followed by other prominent feminists, Germaine Greer, Ann Oakley, and Gayle Rubin. They each took the term ‘gender’ directly from the work of John Money, as well as Robert Stoller, a psychoanalyst whose work focused on transgender patients and was heavily influenced by Money.
By using the concept of gender, it became possible to challenge the idea that women and men were naturally destined to act and exist differently. Money’s gender theory seemed to provide hard scientific evidence that gender roles were actually learned and that women’s liberation was possible through the overthrow of the social and cultural structures, norms, and practices that reproduced women’s subordination.
It’s now time however for contemporary feminists to acknowledge the violent past of one of its most important concepts. When Anglo-American feminists of the 1970s took the term from this psychiatric context, they ignored its abuses of infant genital surgery and the psychiatrisation of transgender people. Despite the huge gains the concept of gender brought to the feminist struggle, it was also a lost opportunity to expose the complicity of the medical profession in the maintenance the illusion of binary sex.
Feminist engagement with this past is, I believe, an opportunity to strengthen and build new solidarities and alliances across the feminist, intersex and trans rights movements.

Jemima Repo is Lecturer in the Politics of Gender at Newcastle University. She received her PhD at the University of Helsinki in 2012 and is a member of the Academy of Finland research project on Biopolitics and Democracy. Her blogpost is based on her recently published book The Biopolitics of Gender (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Monday, 8 February 2016

Hats off to multilingual families! - Teachers, schools and multilingual pupils

Hats off to multilingual families! - Teachers, schools and multilingual pupils

(blog available in Finnish here)

My blog will start with five important considerations.

I’ve been thinking about schools and teachers, here in London and in Finland, in 2016, and particularly of that Finnish teacher who said in an official Finnish report* that it would have been great it they could have been properly prepared for this change. Meaning this change of having ‘new’ children in their schools – ‘new’ children with migrant backgrounds and with different home languages. And this teacher continued and said, ‘so that we wouldn’t be in this pickle now’. 

That’s my translation. To be ‘in a soup’ (‘olla liemessä’ in Finnish) translates roughly in my view to ‘being in a pickle’. And I am thinking of all these children, their families and their teachers in Finland and in the UK and decide to focus on five key points: 

1. Nothing new under the sun
2. Language matters
3. ‘Multilingualism’ rather than ‘multiculturalism’
4. Evidence of speeding up the processes of learning school language
5. Communities

My writing draws on my professional training and work in the UK. It is informed by my own research and by my students’ research in universities and schools.  It is fuelled by my own life experiences as a migrant (from Finland to England) and by my sons’ experiences of growing up bilingually in London, and learning English and Finnish, and by my grandsons’ bilingual experiences in Helsinki where they are learning Finnish and English. 

I’m enjoying this writing process because today we can benefit from research around the world. From various studies we know that migrant families want the best for their own children. This best includes a wish for their children to do well in school and reach the highest levels of school language. We also know that too often home languages fade away during the school years as the school language begins to dominate. We also know that is does not need to be like this; the two languages, when nurtured, encouraged and maintained, can work together to raise the overall school achievement. 

Nothing new under the sun

Migration is not new. The idea that Western countries or places were once homogenous – everyone spoke the same language, for example – does not stand to scrutiny. English language, and its vocabulary alone, reveals the comings and goings of different rulers and migrants during the last two thousand years, from Romans, to Vikings, Saxons, Normans, Roma, and so on. The pace of migration, the numbers of migrating people and the routes of migration, have, however, increased and diversified since the 1950s. For example there are now more Finns living in the UK than ever before.  

The case of Finland may feel different because the overall numbers are smaller. Yet, other languages – other than the official Finnish and Swedish – have also always been used on a daily basis in school children’s homes; these have included the nine Sami languages and, of course, for centuries Romany. Sadly these languages can now be found in the UNESCO’s list of endangered languages. Tatars have lived in the Helsinki area for the past one hundred years, and when I was growing up in Espoo, near Helsinki, I remember two Jewish girls in my primary school showing off their Yiddish language skills in the playground. In the 1970s the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ arrived, and later Iranians, Ingrians, Somalis, Russians, Estonians.  

I find myself asking what exactly is ‘new’ and when did it become ‘new’? 

If in the past teachers did not recognise their pupils’ home languages, and expected them to assimilate quickly, or struggle quietly on their own, because the overall numbers were smaller, that does not justify their practice. This is as true to the UK as it is to Finland. If the current wave of migration nudges all teachers to re-evaluate and improve their practice which will lead to better outcomes later, that’s great. A positive outcome. A good thing.  

It seems to me that current ‘new’ issues about minorities, such as new linguistic minorities, are not really about minorities.  They are about us. We are all connected and what hurts one part, hurts all. 

Language matters

Language matters and the terms we use to describe people, practice and pedagogy, also matters. It is not easy to find labels for migrants, minority ethnic groups, linguistic minorities or how one might describe the support provided in schools. In Finland ‘maahanmuuttaja’ has gained acceptance. Or ‘maahanmuuttajataustainen’. Loosely translated this means ‘in-mover’ – someone who moves into a country – or whose background consists of ‘in-movers’. Yet, many American or other European children (French, British, German…) are not identified as ‘in-movers’ in Finland. On the other hand children who were born in Finland but whose parents were not, are identified as ‘in-movers’. In fact one parent born elsewhere is sufficient for a child to be identified as having an ‘in-mover background’.  How many generations will this last? At what point are these children going to be accepted as ‘Finnish’?

Multilingualism rather than multiculturalism

Culture varies within every named group and subgroup. All of us are unique and where some love sauna and sausages, others make very different choices in their lives. To identify every Finnish person as loving sauna and sausages is rather silly. There are sound reasons to avoid cultural reductionism, i.e. to think that Finnish culture is about saunas and sausages, and nothing much beyond that. Similarly there is a need to avoid cultural determinism, i.e. that all Finns will have saunas and eat loads of sausages every week. When meeting new families or linguistic groups, it is helpful to recognise that culture plays a part in their lives but this is complicated and that schools’ approaches to multiculturalism may be in danger of becoming tokenistic. Not all people from India like samosas. Not everyone from Caribbean likes steel drums. Not all Muslim women wear headscarves. It is often easier to approach people’s lives by asking what languages they use and with whom and for what purpose. 

Evidence of speeding up the processes of learning school language

There is now a wealth of evidence from different places around the world that shows that bilingualism has a positive impact on children’s cognitive development, on their problem solving – and perhaps even delaying Alzheimer’s in old age. ‘Bilingualism’ here does not mean equal fluency in two languages. Rather it means using two or more languages in their daily lives. Moreover, research evidence shows that a child who has a chance to make connections between his/her home languages and the school language, learns the school language faster. If teachers are truly committed to speeding up the process of learning the school language, they will provide maximum opportunities to use home languages at school. 


When my sons were born in London, I became very active in establishing a Finnish Saturday school for them. I wanted them to make personal relationships with other Finnish children, play in Finnish, read and write in Finnish, and connect with the Finnish community in England. Today there are 160 Finnish Schools around the world.  And guess what? Other linguistic minorities do exactly the same.  The whole world over. Particularly in urban areas. There are networks of Portuguese, Greek and Turkish schools around the world supported by their embassies. There are many, many others including Mandarin Chinese schools where they do much more than celebrate Chinese New Year and eat noodles.

If teachers are interested in cultures, and in multiculturalism, these are the best places to visit to see what kinds of cultural practices are transported. Best places to form connections, friendships even. The other fascinating aspect is to see how much these communities value education, including learning the school language, whilst aiming to keep their own languages alive. 

Every time I visit these schools it takes my breath away to see their commitment. Hats off to them all.

*Tuula Pirinen (toim.) ’Maahanmuuttajataustaiset oppijat suomalaisessa koulutusjärjestelmässä’. 2015. Kansallinen Koulutuksen Arviointikeskus.

* * *

Leena Helavaara Robertson - Short biography

Leena  grew up in Finland, and in the 1970s, between school and university, she decided to come to London for a year or so. Fate intervened and she has lived in England ever since.  She has worked in a range of professional roles and contexts in and around London: a teaching assistant, playgroup leader, Finnish community school teacher and a primary school teacher. Her PhD in 2004 was ground-breaking in that is explored young children’s early and simultaneous literacy development in three languages. As a teacher educator Leena has worked in two universities, and currently she is an associate professor at Middlesex University, London, where she coordinates research degrees and leads the professional doctorate pathway in the education department.

Leena’s long term interests, expertise and publications include culture, multilingual learning and social justice in schools. She leads an Erasmus+ funded project   focusing on Gypsy, Roma, Traveller children and their home languages. This project includes teachers’ professional development in Romania, Finland, France and the UK. 

As much as possible Leena likes to read, swim and spend time with family and friends both in Finland and England.