September 1998

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Neo-liberalism in British universities attacked by Finnish academic

"Nothing works in English universities. If something can be done tomorrow, what's the point in doing it today? Or tomorrow, either, if somebody does not make a fuss about it. Even then it is better to wait for a week and see whether the busy-body in question really means it. Everybody knows this is the way it is. The fact that nothing happens is thought of as the norm."

Writing in the main Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat in August, Dr Heikki Patomäki, Reader in International Relations at Nottingham Trent University, appeared less than impressed by his experiences of higher education in England.

According to him, Finns are misled into believing that the reform of their own education system should be based on the Anglo-Saxon model. Such a system, which is based on competition and partly private only works wonders for educational inequality. He goes on to attack the neo-liberalism preached in Britain for the past two decades. It has led to an educational dead end. In higher education, this means education based on simulation: students pretend to be studying, while the teachers are preoccupied with assessments and development meetings which make them think that they are therefore better teachers. Patomäki is not alone in referring to McUniversity, where everything is entertainingly simple and easy.

"It's a miracle that in many fields, the British system still produces very good results. However, without the last traces of the Empire the whole of the academic world would collapse. The universities' old reputation and the hegemony of the English language are enough to draw intelligent students to Britain from all over the world."

Even the few universities that do not rest on their laurels are part of the problem, not the solution. Of course, there are shining examples of intellectual life in British universities, according to Patomäki. They are the ones with the resources and the research facilities. They get rewarded. This system not only brings about inequality; it also does not work. Only the chosen few are properly educated "in what by Finnish standards can be called normal circumstances".

Patomäki's solution is a strong state to take care of equality of opportunity and general standards in education. He goes as far as recommending Europe-wide and international regulation to stop the growth of a global society for the privileged few.

What are the Finnish readers to make of this tirade? One would have expected a few ripples, but no. In the one letter to the editor, two Finnish postgraduates in Britain thought some of Patomäki's criticism justified but their mission was to highlight the merits of a system that allows students with a Bachelor's degree to gain a Master's degree in one year in contrast to the methods used in Finnish higher education.

Also, as Tuija Talvitie, Director of the British Council office in Helsinki says, "We get dozens of enquiries daily about studying in Britain. Patomäki's article has not produced one single query. Most of the Finnish students we have come in contact with are pleased with their studies in Britain, but we also make sure from the outset that they have to do their homework before applying for a place. It is in everybody's interests, most of all their own, that they find a place that suits their needs."

Many in British higher education today will agree with some of Patomäki's criticisms. The inadequate and unevenly distributed resources are well publicised. The inequalities of the system are acknowledged. While the strong do well, the weak get left behind. (Controversially, some would say that to date the exact opposite has been the case in Finland.)

This is where Patomäki's article can serve a useful purpose, though, in questioning the very premises of the education systems. Its black-and-whiteness may do it a disservice, but the underlying questions are real and should not be dismissed.

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