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16.5.2017 9.31

Visibility and invisibility in Finnish universities

Melissa Plath

The numbers of international staff at Finnish universities have been steadily increasing as universities pursue targets for internationalization. With these increasing numbers, the demand for better addressing the needs of international staff members in the working environment has become increasingly apparent. Yet, many members of international staff remain isolated, invisible to department-, faculty- or university-level standard operating procedures for communicating or supporting staff members. Melissa Plath, the coordinator of the Network for international researchers, writes about the situation.

The numbers of international staff at Finnish universities have been steadily increasing as universities pursue targets for internationalization. With these increasing numbers, the demand for better addressing the needs of international staff members in the working environment has become increasingly apparent. Yet, many members of international staff remain isolated, invisible to department-, faculty- or university-level standard operating procedures for communicating or supporting staff members. As a result, international staff members are increasingly finding themselves in the dichotomous position of being both very visible and invisible within the universities.  

International staff – or perhaps more accurately, the idea of international staff – have become more evident at Finnish universities. Supported by the Ministry of Education and Culture’s strategies and funding model, universities have more seriously considered questions related to international staff. University strategies highlight the need for international staff members to diversify and internationalize university research and have introduced measures for fulfilling this strategic goal. International staff recruitment has been made a priority, resulting in increased numbers of new international staff members. Not unrelated, international student recruitment continues to be a high priority and is increasingly seen as a means for attracting future talent to Finland, despite the changes that have already resulted from the introduction of tuition fees for non-EU/EAA students. Discussions about the future prospects for these international recruits, how to reap the benefits of international staff members and their networks, and around issues relevant to an international work environment – such as language policy – are becoming more commonplace.  

But for all of this visibility, international staff members are still mostly invisible in much of the working life and culture at Finnish universities. In a survey conducted by FUURT, over 90% of international staff members reported working on a temporary contract, as compared to 56% of their Finnish colleagues. Discussions on precarious academic work so often fail to consider the particularly precarious situation for international staff members, especially for those from outside the EU/EEA area, where a loss of job or gap in contracts requires the staff member to leave Finland because of restrictions imposed by residence permits. The relative invisibility of the precariousness under which international staff work serves to reinforce both the conditions which make the work itself precarious, but also the feeling of invisibility within the work community.  

The same survey found that lack of adequate information was identified as a major challenge by a majority of survey respondents. The needs of international staff still remain largely invisible in the standard communication activities of universities, particularly in issues related to Finnish employment laws and regulations, administrative information, and other issues related to Finnish culture and working life.  

This invisibility in the day-to-day functioning of universities is not surprising when international staff members are rarely asked to take part in working groups, expert groups, or in other positions of influence that provide advice and recommendations to university leadership, strategies, or policies. Information on the groups and possibilities to participate in these opportunities is often directed solely at Finnish-speaking staff members by communicating only in Finnish. In the cases of appointments, international staff are often overlooked, whether because of language considerations, perceived disinterest, or because of lack of network within the university. Including international staff members in these types of roles is important not only for the sake of better understanding their ideas, concerns, and needs, but also for making the contributions of international staff more visible. 

It’s not all dire, though. Universities are improving the services they offer for international staff and taking more notice of the potential for members of their international staff to contribute to the development of the research and working community. FUURT has started a special coordination group for international researchers, and local unions are doing more to address the needs of their international members. However, there is still a compelling need to make the invisible more visible. This is not alone served by creating separate spaces for international staff members. Normal channels of influence, communication, and interaction must also be adapted to better include all staff members. Flexibility and inclusion should be core principles for this, serving to create a better match between what is visible and what is not. For Finland to be an attractive place for international researchers, more must be done to create a working and living community where international staff members feel included and valued, with the ability to influence their working conditions and pursue fulfilling work. 

 

Melissa Plath

Coordinator of the Network for international researchers, FUURT


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