The painful transition of Finnish academic world

In Finland there are about 3000 private, non-profit foundations and funds. In comparison, in Norway there are ca. 7000, in Sweden 20.000, in the UK approximately 160.000 and in the USA over 600.000 foundations. When the first law on non-profit foundations was passed in Finland in 1930, the number of this kind of registered societies was close to 20. The early foundations were mainly societal charity organs and, for instance, home museum foundations of local or national dignitary men. 

But times changed and activities of foundations have become more complicated especially in terms of taxation. The economic base of foundations has been mainly donations and shares of different companies or common fundraisings (like it was in case in the Finnish Cultural Fund in 1937-39). The variation of foundations is very wide; most of them have been, and still are, quite small, and only some of them are really well-off. In Finland we have only four foundations which asset is over one milliard euro per year (Kone Foundation, Aalto University Foundation, Finnish Cultural Fund and Finnish-Swedish Svenska Litteratursällskapet/Svenska Kulturfonden).

To standardize operating principles and make rules more transparent the leading foundations established in 1970 a national co-operative organ, Delegation of Funds and Foundations to coordinate the field. Today ca. 140 of the most important Finnish foundations and funds are members of this organization: in 2013 they awarded 330 million euro as grants. In spite of the variety in size, societal significance and special focus areas, the great majority of today’s foundations is sponsoring first of all research, arts, education and housing (like student and elderly homes). 

Due to today’s economic depression and turbulences of financing systems of universities (the new university law in 2010) and re-evaluation the new roles of the leading financing institution (Finland’s Academy of Sciences), the  work of foundations has been  especially during the last five years very important for academic researchers and artists. All in all, foundations are an important part of the so called third sector and civil society. The third sector contains many non-profit communities who underline their work on the “public good” principle. These kinds of communities are, for instance, foundations, associations, parties and labor unions.

The increasing significance of private foundations is challenging the Nordic model of welfare society which has – at least until now – emphasized the leading role of the public sector especially in terms of education, research and social well-being. We can witness already now to transformation of the public sector. It is, step by step, trying to transfer more its previous duties toward the third sector. This structural change is very painful and intimate to such a small academic community as the Finnish university system is. Academic unemployment has increased, nearly one thousand PhDs were without work in 2014, young brilliant and frustrated researchers try to find some other source of living, and many professors are exhausted. In addition to research work, teaching, supervising and many societal duties, they should be visionaries, strategists and leaders of future researcher as well.

The period of transition has also questioned the previous evaluation systems of academic projects and national focus areas, and introduced many new and various funding instruments which have got a lot of resistance, especially the demand of “society sensitive” researches has got many critical comments. Is there anymore such a concept as “academic freedom”. The Finnish state – the head financier of our academic research - underlines more solid connection between the state’s interests, investments and researchers tasks and results. There will be more pre-defined calls or tenders for research than before. 

It is clear to all those working at Finnish universities that we are just now living in the academic jungle and only the best strategists and most skillful players of the game will win. As I said, this is and will be very painful and a rude operation but at the very same time absolutely necessary. We have no other way left then to comply with the new division of resources, and face both the intellectual, ideological and economic challenges.

From this viewpoint the role of foundations as financiers of academic research will be very important in the future; they could sponsor upstream or marginalized research fields, offer platforms for dialogue and promote interaction between society, academic world, cultural actors and artists. Maybe they also can provide more space also to professors who often feel themselves marginalized and overpowered by these changes.

 (More information, see for instance, the home page of the Säätiöiden ja rahastojen neuvottelukunta, www.saatiopalvelu.fi/smk.html ; Matti Virén, Yleishyödylliset yhteisöt Suomessa, 2014; Maarit Valo, Uusi, uudempi, uusin yliopistolaki, 11.11.2013. See http://blogi.professoriliitto.fi/  )