Decision-makers invest in universities, but employers are reluctant to keep hold of experts

In what ways are universities ready to invest in their people? The salaries of doctoral researchers, in particular, are lower than the salaries and wages in other low-income occupations that have been discussed in public.

“An investment in universities is an investment that pays back manifold. Therefore, it is an investment in the spiral of good”, stated Rector Jukka Kola in his University of Turku blog on 28 February 2023. The recent messages from the pay negotiations of university employees indicate that the management of universities has not fully realised that a university amounts to the people who work there. And these people, the university, are an investment that – to quote Kola – pays back manifold.

Our Negotiation Organisation for Public Sector Professionals JUKO announced on Friday, 2 March that, unfortunately, the parties in the pay negotiations concerning university employees have not reached an understanding with regard to pay rises. Contrary to what has been achieved in the state sector, church sector and many lines of business in the private sector this spring.

Just one day earlier, the Parliamentary Working Group on Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) presented Prime Minister Marin with its report. The report states that “to be able to increase the level of funding for research and development, a rapid increase in the number of highest-educated R&D professionals is required”, and “the shortage of skilled professionals reduces the ability of higher education institutions and research institutes to conduct high quality research”. At the same time that the intake for higher education is being given an increase, research funding is also being boosted: from 2024 onwards, the State budget will include an annual increase of approximately 280 million euro over the previous year. This is something we have truly hoped for and now it will be a reality. But how will these new resources translate into practical research activity?

The RDI report proposes the doubling of doctoral training in the coming years to provide the RDI sector with sufficient number of employees. This is a fine goal, but it requires a considerable increase in the recruitment of guidance personnel. I have no idea where we will find all the new guidance personnel at a time when universities are not willing to invest in retaining their skilled professionals, at least not with pay rises that would increase their purchasing power. Also, in order to achieve the goal, the researcher training would need to be redesigned to be fully funded along with an increase in the salary level of doctoral researchers.

Salaries of doctoral researchers lagging behind

At universities, the salaries of doctoral researchers in particular are lower than the salaries and wages in other low-income occupations that have been discussed in public. According to Tehy, the Union of Health and Social Care Professionals in Finland, “the basic pay of a nurse is 2,625 euro. The pay of a construction engineer with a similar level of education is 3,490 euro.” Against these figures, we can see that the pay of a doctoral researcher with a Master’s degree (requirement level 2) really does lag behind: the gross salary with a 17% personal performance level is 2,400 euro. Based on the investigation of Pauli Väisänen, a monthly salary exceeding 3,000 euro, which often is the starting pay for those with a Master’s degree, is often achievable in universities only after completing one’s doctoral degree.

According to the statistics of Vipunen, the education administration’s reporting portal, there are currently fields with very few Finnish-speaking early career researchers. International researchers are a valuable addition to the field of science, and we can consider ourselves lucky when they find their way to Finland and the Finnish scientific community. But if we aim at having a minimum of 60 percent of doctors working outside universities and, thus, benefiting the surrounding society with their knowledge, I truly do not understand how this would be possible with the current figures. We all know that Finnish working life does not know how to, in all respects, make use of the knowledge of doctors, not to mention that of doctors with an international background.

A while ago, I met a friend who works at an office, and they had recently had a job vacancy for an expert starting out their career. The list of applicants got my friend wondering what is happening in the universities: “Several doctors and university people with an assistant professor’s background applied for the position.”

It truly is a good question: what is happening in our universities? In what ways are universities ready to invest in their people?

Johanna Moisio, Doctor of Administrative Sciences, Executive Director, Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers

The central duty of employee organisations is to ensure the purchasing power of employees during financial fluctuations. The Negotiation Organisation for Public Sector Professionals JUKO is responsible for the pay negotiations of publicly funded sectors in the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland (Akava).