Academic freedom is stirring up debate amongst professors

Academic freedom was discussed widely in the autumnal Professor Forum. Do external pressures, such as funding sources, limit the freedom to choose one’s research subject? Are complex research questions difficult to grasp after research periods have shortened? Professor Forum brings together professors of the University of Oulu.

Finnish universities have signed the Magna Carta Universitatum, an academic declaration containing the principles of academic freedom and the institutional autonomy of universities. Research and teaching should be free from ideological, political and economic powers.

But how do experienced researchers feel about the current state of academic freedom? Apparently, the topic is of concern for professors, since academic freedom was selected as the theme for the autumnal forum during the previous Professor Forum held in the spring.

Vice Rector for Research Taina Pihlajaniemi gave opening speech of the forum.

Vice Rector for Research Taina Pihlajaniemi opened the forum by asking: "Do researchers have the freedom to study the topic of their choice, or does someone or something in society restrict what they should focus on? Do they have the freedom to communicate freely about their research results, even if they are against the prevailing dogma or socially undesirable? Can researchers speak freely about ethical questions related to research?"

From educational university to a service university

Professor of Administrative Science from the University of Lapland Timo Aarrevaara talked about surveys which had asked thousands of people in different academic occupations about their experiences concerning their work content and changes therein.

Professor Timo Aarrevaara talked about changes in the academic work.

"There is, however, a lot of variation in how people understand academic freedom”, Aarrevaara says.

"In the past twenty years, the Finnish university institution has gone through several major changes. Result-based funding, university mergers, strategic and programme-based financing, and university profiling have changed the nature of academic work, including academic freedom."

“The university as an institution has changed from an academic and collegial educational university towards a service university with its own management. Different generations feel differently about this development”, Aarrevaara says.

Science serves society

Professor of History of Science and Ideas Petteri Pietikäinen offered an insight into the history of Finnish university. The state has always had a guiding role in the Academy of Finland, and universities have strived to make profit earlier, too. In the 18th century, the university was an instrument in the building of society and exploitation of natural resources, and it supported the economic life.

"When Finland gained independence, political positions were held by professors. Prime Minister Juho Vennola said in 1919 that science should set the needs of society as its highest goal”, Pietikäinen says.

Professor Petteri Pietikäinen introduced the idea of slow science.

Science also took part in building the welfare state since the 1950s. In the 1970s, science became politicised, and it was used for the service of emancipation. In the 21st century, the idea of a competitive society has brought productivity and pursuit of profit, as well as competitiveness into universities.

"Today, we talk about slow journalism, slow food and slow travel, and I would like to welcome slow science. Slow science would stem purely from scientific curiosity and it would not be subjected to performance pressures”, Pietikäinen hopes.

Time period for measuring productivity is too short

In the group discussions, one issue rose above the rest: according to the professors, the time period for measuring research productivity is too short. Researchers do not dare to accept challenging and difficult research topics, which would take years. Scientific research has become fragmented, as each researcher works on various small projects simultaneously, and the research focus disappears.

Also, the reduction of the number of support staff and the resulting micro management were seen as factors reducing academic freedom. Various organisational changes have been necessary, but due to them, there is less time for research.

Several speakers mentioned the importance of science communication. Resistance to science and questioning it, disinformation and populism are flourishing, and it is the responsibility of each scientist to attempt to oppose these problems by communicating about their research comprehensibly and in an engaging way.

Text: Satu Räsänen
Pictures: Lasse Lehto

Watch video recordings from the event:

Opening speech by Vice Rector for Research Taina Pihlajaniemi

Professor Timo Aarrevaara's speech

Professor Petteri Pietikäinen's speech

Closing words by Taina Pihlajaniemi

Last updated: 1.11.2018