Saturday, 6 June 2015

Academic archaeology to the shredders?

It has been scary to read papers and check the Facebook postings of my colleagues in different European countries. Be it Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden or Finland, the governments seem to be singing from the same song sheet: we need to cut and streamline higher education. It is interesting to compare Britain and Finland, which both have currently conservative governments and both countries try to cut spending in order to cut deficit. Both discussions have some unique and internally contradictory elements.

Naturally, in Britain the different universities are separate from the state, but the government is holding the money meant for teaching undergraduates and research. Or actually, they manage the system and simultaneously try to promote British education system to foreign students, a considerable source of funds for the university system and the country. When the country needs the money from foreign students, the government simultaneously keeps their numbers as part of potentially poisonous immigration statistics and ultimately part of immigration discussion.

Of course, 80% of teaching funding was cut from the Humanities during the last round of structural changes in university funding. The 80% is now supposed to come from the students, i.e., most pay it from their student loans. Thus, if your department can get the students, you may be OK. If you are not a Russell research university and your department is not innovative and famous, you are pretty much stuffed. Universities make increasingly all decisions on the basis of business reasoning, so that is why the King's wanted to get rid of the Classics. That is why the unpopular natural science courses are also closed. That is why modern languages disappear. These developments make one wonder how there will be enough science teachers? How businesses actually think to sell anything abroad in a way that takes into account cultural differences - that can be huge even in Europe? The more 'exotic' humanities are likely to survive only in the most prestigious of institutions. Some people wonder when people dust the 1980s plans for archaeology, when the number of departments was considered to be cut down to five.

The cull of smaller departments and more 'exotic' disciplines is in full swing in Finland. There is actually funding to reward universities for getting rid of 'odd' disciplines. The universities are branding themselves, which is not always bad. The University of Oulu where I am a docent decided to change the lectureship in classical archaeology into one in archaeology and ended up hiring a human osteologist. This is wise, since the department is famous for its osteological and zoological knowhow and the previous professor covered this subdiscipline. Naturally, they need someone teaching the matter. And the arctic emphasis of the university as a whole makes sense, since the Faculty of Humanities has a Sami research institute and it is located in the north. However, the Classical antiquity and Mediterranean studies come with built-in potential international profile - something all universities are after around the world.

My Finnish colleagues have been alarmed by the value statements by different members of the new government. First the finance minister was joking about abolishing the reason professors like their job, June, July and August - the only time the teaching stuff has time to do research. The irony is that without this research the universities do not have peer-reviewed articles in respected international series or books that are the basis of the financial share and funding. There seems to be very little understanding in the government how their own system of academic funding works. In addition, they do not promise any further funding for this new summer term or take into account that in many disciplines, such as in archaeology, students are getting work experience with the employers of their fields and earning desperately needed money to cover extra cost of subsistence. At the same time, the government says that the country has to become innovative. Well, how this is achieved is unclear if there are only one or two large departments in a couple of universities and the departments are in the traditional style led by one professor, so there is a big danger of monoculture developing. Branding makes more sense.

This all happens with a background in regional internal politics. There was a time in Finland where every region wanted its university - these do bring knowledge, skills, activities and jobs to a town. However, it seemed at least to me a bit dubious, if EVERY town needed an identikit university with more of the same. Now that road has come to an end and the institutions are united, departmental staff cut and central administration mushrooming. There are hardly more jobs for the many doctors the system creates. The recently put '10 years since PhD' threshold for much of the research posts does not give directions to people how they are supposed to survive when the lectureships and especially professorships are few. A doctor easily hears that they are overqualified. The hiring culture has to change and the careers in the administration, either at the universities or in governmental bodies have to be better signposted. Otherwise, the danger is that the spiral of cuts does not support job creation or innovation.

A feature of life is the unpredictability. We do not know what will come. Nobody could see that our assyriologists and Palmyra specialists do rounds to explain the situation and relevance of recent events. The current situation in Europe requires people who know from their own experience the Mediterranean world. We can only think of Lampedusa, Turkey, Syria, Libya, Iraq... In this world, cutting from things like the Dutch Institute in Istanbul seems silly. They may be studying the Hittites or the Ottomans, but a physical building means there are people who have been living in the region and there is an institute to hold different collaborative meetings with local colleagues. How can we predict where the innovative ideas come from?

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