Idea of Finnish top university generates heated debate
Artists and others fear university would subject art to commercial considerations
The new top university that is likely to be created in Finland has generated a heated debate. Hundreds of artists, teachers, and students are opposing the plan, included in the programme of the new government, to merge the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics, and the University of Art and Design Helsinki.
A working group led by Permanent Secretary of State Raimo Sailas, has made a proposal for a merger of the three Finnish universities, each of which is a leader in its respective field. The proposed top university of a high international standard would, it is charged, benefit the universities themselves and improve Finland’s competitive edge in the global economy. The new university would be partly financed by the business sector.
A petition opposing the project had been signed by more than 1,300 persons by Monday. Among them are a great many leading Finnish artists. They believe that such a university would endanger the independent status of art and art education. They think that the University of Art and Design should be left out of the equation.
"A merger of art education and a university focusing on economic competitiveness would be a huge cultural policy decision, with ramifications for the status of art in the entire society. In order to be able to reform, art needs an environment in which it is not an instrument to achieve any external goals", argue the underwriters of the petition, which will be handed in to the Minister of Education of the new administration in May.
One of the critics of the project is Paula Tuovinen, the Rector of the Theatre Academy, which provides the highest education in theatre and dance in Finland.
While not opposing private funding by the business sector nor a merger of universities as such, Tuovinen fears that in the long run such a top university would drain away funding from other establishments.
Tuovinen notes further that while compiling its report, Sailas’ working group consulted no representatives of artists. Moreover, its arguments include hardly any views from art experts.
The group consulted twelve representatives of trade and industry, five spokespersons of universities and three persons representing student unions, as well as three administrators or civil servants.
In Paula Tuovinen’s view, a merger of the University of Art and Design Helsinki, the Sibelius Academy, the Academy of Fine Arts, and the Theatre Academy should be considered instead.
Yrjö Sotamaa, the Rector of the the University of Art and Design, who is behind the idea of a top university, says that he is surprised and happy that this major project that was introduced as late as February has started off so strongly.
Sotamaa commented further that many of those people who are opposing the project have just a superficial knowledge of the proposed university. However, it is only natural that such a major change generates debate. After all, every university is anxious about maintaining its own core competences and uniqueness, agrees Sotamaa.
Sotamaa argues that he would not have advocated the project, if it had posed a threat to any part of the the University of Art and Design.
The University of Art and Design will by no means be forced to change its own operations, as despite the mooted merger, the three universities would remain as such. Instead, they would benefit from interaction, diversification, and the synergy prospects provided by trade and commerce.
Furthermore, Sotamaa regards the planned top university as a better idea than a merger of all arts universities.
News release: The Student Unions of the Helsinki School of Economics and Helsinki University of Technology demand a top university for Finland (22.2.2007)