Our responses to the Ministry’s survey on universities’ administrative autonomy

The Ministry of Education and Culture established a work group on 25 June, 2020 (press release available in Finnish), to examine the state of university autonomy across Finnish universities. Members of university communities were asked to take part in the survey by 7 February. The survey asked participants to respond to four questions, concerning university community members’ involvement in decision making, the role of tripartite university democracy and university legislation. The last question invited respondents to consider other relevant views on the subject. We responded to the survey with the following comments. 


1) How do you see the possibilities of the members of the university community to participate in the decision making of the University currently? Please explain your answer briefly.

In Tampere University, there are currently many official arenas for the university community (via their representatives) to participate in decision-making, for example, the Academic Board, Faculty Councils, Occupational Safety Committee and Cooperation Council as well as many short-term working groups. These arenas are very important for enhancing the university community’s participation in the decision-making.

Despite the existence of these arenas, there are many problems in how the actual power to contribute in the decisions is given to the community. The administrative model of the foundation university concentrates power to the leaders and founders, and limits the power of the representative bodies and thus, the community. For example, it has become clear that the Academic Board does not have genuine autonomy in nominating the University Board.

Furthermore, the foundation model features a system of  parallel leadership (operative and the one based on legislation and regulations). This makes it extremely hard to determine which body has actual decision-making power, and for the university community to contribute accordingly.

In addition, the role of short-term working groups is at the moment very unclear. There should be clear and transparent models for appointing members to working groups as well as utilization of the recommendations, drafts and other outputs of working groups. These models should be reached through joint negotiation.

In addition to working groups and official decision-making bodies, Tampere University has introduced quick participative surveys. Although these types of surveys might give useful compilation of the various views and experiences in the university community, they can never replace – and should not be used to replace – the preparatory work and decision-making based on joint discussion in the working groups and representative bodies.


2) How do you consider the role of tripartite university democracy? Please justify your answer briefly.

Tripartism is an essential signal of actual democracy in university. All the groups in the university community should have equal power to participate in making decisions on common matters. This is primarily a matter of principle. In addition, an equal opportunity to participate for all would increase commitment to the university. However, it should be noted that tripartism is not in itself sufficient for democracy and thus, not a wonder remedy. Tripartism requires an active community, i.e. a community with real opportunities to be active, too. An equal tripartite representation also prevents decision-making being dominated by any single part of the community.

University democracy has also societal relevance: university democracy is a microcosm of the values of society and how they are upheld. Universities in particular foster active citizenship, which applies to students and staff. This is also acknowledged in the recent education policy reports. Tripartite university democracy illustrates the equal sharing of power. Thus the significance of tripartite University democracy is not limited to the university alone.


3) Do you think that there is something that should be defined more precisely in the legislation concerning the administrative autonomy, or should more emphasis be placed on the University’s regulations? Please explain your answer briefly.

The current university legislation attributes autonomy to the university’s top management, and less so to the scientific community. Tampere University Association of Researchers and Teachers sees that the starting point of autonomy and academic freedom has to follow the needs of the university community. As such, legislation pertaining to universities should be reformed in favor of university democracy. Representative administrative bodies such as the university collegium or the multi-member administrative body (e.g. consistory) should only include community representatives. Any members of the higher management within those bodies have a direct conflict of interest. These representative bodies are to appoint their own leaders (chair and vice-chair). The finalization of the university strategy and university regulations also has to fall under the jurisdiction of these representative administrative bodies.

The current legislation secures the representation of the founders of a foundation university on the university board, but not the representation of the internal community. Community representation is integral to the realization of university democracy as defined in the Finnish constitution. For example, the Tampere University community only managed to get representation on their board after a lengthy appointment struggle, and Aalto University has never had an internal community representative on the university board. The representative administrative bodies are to be given the necessary authority to determine how to appoint their university boards in cooperation with the university founders, but not under their majority, as currently.

Finally, decision-making power should be moved downward in the organizational hierarchy to give faculty councils a meaningful role in e.g. determining the appointment of deans.


4) Please share your other views on questions related to the Universities’ administrative autonomy, to be considered by the assessment group.

The Finnish higher education sector has seen years of power being centralized and the university community becoming insulated from the higher university management. While university autonomy has been emphasized in many reforms, that autonomy has largely meant an autonomous university leadership, which operated above and beyond the university community alongside university boards that favor external members and associated external stakeholders. Tampere University Association of Researchers and Teachers thinks that this is the wrong direction. There is also a pressing need for more accountability and transparency in the preparations for and driving through structural or organizational reforms in the universities – things that are constantly required at the level of individual researchers or funding models and evaluation metrics.

When discussing universities’ administrative autonomy, it should be kept in mind that decision-making capabilities and management are strongly linked also to work well-being which was also visible in the report by the Ministry of Culture and Education. Staff wellbeing surveys show that currently university communities are not well and the least satisfaction with strategic management and the capacity to influence university decision-making. This calls the current course of “managerialist strategic management” into serious question. Strengthening and securing the administrative autonomy of university communities is not enough to recover the problems in work well-being but it would be a very important step in a better direction.