Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My Alma Mater

I graduated and now work in the Helsinki University of Technology (HUT). Since 2003 Institute of Higher Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University has maintaned a yearly ranking of the 500 best universities in the world. We were ranked as 371st, 349th, 446th, and last year 447th in an unfortunate declining trend.

Surely this must only be a coincidence with the rampant managerialism we have experienced at my Alma Mater. In a few years we've been blessed with several administrative procedures for determining salaries, counting working hours, managing travels, and accepting bills, just to name a few. The least common denominator of all these systems is that they are rigid, vaguely documented, self-contradictory, their IT implementations suck big time, and they cause a huge net increase in management work of really annoyed professors and other staff who really should concentrate on teaching and research instead.

No wonder the Shanghai list ranks us low because our own salary policies rank our degrees even lower: our M.Sc.'s teaching courses, working in or leading a research project can be paid from 50-75% of the salary paid to a person in a non-teaching position with the lowest job grade requiring a corresponding degree, typically a non-science degree from another university. For example, at default performance Linus Torvald's salary could be at most 2178 euros per month, or roughly $40000 a year, whereas if he (or some bureaucrat) neither taught nor researched he would be paid at least 2931 euros per month. No surprize that the name of this new salary system, UPJ, is widely used as a profanity among current teachers and anybody trying to recruit competent personnel to a (practically oriented) research project.

And in accordance to the Parkinson's Law the administration is growing rapidly. In addition to increasingly filling the days of teachers and researchers, administration is a major recruiter of new people. I listed every open position at HUT closing on the second half of 2006 or the first half of 2007 as they appeared on the official recruitment page. I ignored part-time positions, graduate schools and stipendiates and counted only "serious" jobs. Considering the main function of our university it was surprizing to see that barely half, 83, of the 160 positions were primarily for teaching and research. Furthermore, 62% of the 77 non-teaching positions were tenure positions, which is significantly higher than the 25% of HUT overall.

I also wish to bring into our memories the intelligent design conference that was held in the Helsinki University of Technology on the 22nd of October 2004. Our ranking on the Shanghai list dropped by nearly 100 positions in the next update.

But maybe there's hope. There are still able and hard-working people here, and in a few years HUT will be merged with two other universities and funded by a foundation with a significant industrial contribution. Some see that as a threat to academic freedom, but I'm hopeful that the board of the foundation may have the courage to tackle the managerialism and let the able and hard-working people focus on the real work: teaching and research.


Blogger Laszlo Kozma said...

I also study at HUT, though I'm abroad for a year now, and can't wait to get back in September. From what I read the Sanghai-ranking is not very reliable, puts too much weight on Nobel-prizes and similar, thus favors big, general universities against smaller ones. In other rankings I've seen (for ex. the Times Univ. list), both HUT and Univ. of Helsinki were in top 100 worldwide, and in some fields, I believe HUT is truly world-class. For ex. machine learning, telecom, etc.

9:33 PM  
Blogger cessu said...

Surely almost any ranking list is inaccurate and possibly unreliable, and certainly there are domains where HUT is excellent. But increasing managerialism takes its toll gradually, during several years.

Today we hear murmur and a few outbursts like the one from prof. Martti Valtonen I linked to. But slowly cynicism creeps in, we begin to see more and more burn-outs, and gradually we see problems in finding good, experienced research project manpower. A few data points: Nokia pays experienced project managers typically at least 4000 e/month, HUT pays perhaps 2200-2500 e/month. I personally succeeded in getting a nice project funding for a 15+ my research project, but now that I'm trying to recruit a person currently working for the local computer administration and perhaps a little over-skilled for his current tasks, I hear that he would have a 10% salary decrease if he moved from administration to researching and teaching where his skills would be greatly appreciated. In a little different setting his salary decrease could be much larger.

I'm interpreting the general sentiments from within the research and teaching, as a member of the staff. Today, at any new managerialist twist, we simply increase our personal workload. But that can't continue indefinitely, and eventually the effects begin to be evident to the students as well. We'll see how it ends.

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great work.

9:24 AM  
Blogger aelena said...

Of all places in the world, I would have never thought of Finland as a place to hold a conf on intelligent design. It's weird.

12:07 PM  

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