Finlandia: programa de doctorados en tres años
Febrero 7, 2024

Government to fund 1,000 PhDs who have to finish in 3 years

A pilot programme that will effectively test a new model for doctoral education in Finland that aims to increase the number of PhD graduates and strengthen the societal impact of doctoral training has been widely welcomed.

The programme, with an allocation from the government of over €260 million (US$281 million), will start in 2024 and will carry the expectation that doctoral researchers on the programme will graduate within three to four years.

The pilot, announced in September 2023, comes in the wake of calls for funded reforms to doctoral education.

For example, Peak universities body Universities Finland (UNIFI) highlighted the inadequate funding of PhDs and the shortage of skilled workers in March 2023 when it called for the government to “elect long-term research and securing of basic funding of higher education institutions as its strategic focus area”.

It said: “High-quality RDI [research development and innovation] activities require skilled people.”

In September last year, the Finnish Union of University Professors, Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT), and five other central educational or science organisations called on the government in article in Acatiimi – Journal of Professors, Scientists and University Education, to provide €250 million (US$273 million) in extra funding for researcher training.

The figure was based on calculations from the Ministry of Education and Culture and Unifi, the Rector’s Council of Finnish Universities.

The average annual salary, supervision and research costs for one doctoral researcher are estimated at €85,000 (US$93,000).

“Two days after the resolution, the government promised an additional €262 million for doctoral, that is, researcher training in their budget proposal, spanning 2024 to 2027,” the article noted.

Flagship programme

The new pilot programme is an expansion of the doctoral training funded by the ministry and implemented by Finnish universities. The programme will fund up to 1,000 new fixed-term doctoral researcher positions and part of the related supervision. The majority of the positions will be linked to the Finnish Flagship programme.

Funding is also available for a field-specific pilot project, a doctoral education scheme implemented by one or more universities and, or other research organisations in a specific field of research, in which doctoral researchers are recruited for a fixed term of three years.

In addition to increasing the number of PhDs in Finland, the pilot aims to test a more flexible process and content for doctoral education and improve mobility of doctoral researchers between universities, companies, research institutes and other organisations and encourage new PhDs to pursue diverse research careers.

It will also provide information on doctoral training processes and collect data on the possible need for regulation of third-cycle studies, help to develop guidance on the integration of scientific and artistic postgraduate studies with previous studies, and increase the employment of PhDs in a wide range of sectors in society.

Finland’s challenges

According to a European Commission 2023 Country Reportreport, Finland has the lowest tertiary education attainment rate among the 14 OECD countries, causing a “major bottleneck to innovation”.

“This is due to the very limited availability of study places in universities relative to demand and a restrictive admission process resulting in a high number of applications being rejected.

“During 2015-2020, overall, universities in Finland accepted only 30% of applicants, while universities of applied sciences accepted 33%.

“The government has been tackling this issue for many years, and recently has committed to increasing the share of higher education graduates to at least 50% of the 25-34 age group by 2030 to meet society’s needs (The Vision for Higher Education and Research 2030),” the report notes.

Another national objective is to raise research and development spending to 4% of GDP by 2030 (compared to actual spending of 3.0% of GDP in 2021 and 3.7% in 2009).

Alongside this aim, Finland wants to bolster its science-industry knowledge exchange by promoting academia-industry collaboration, the report says.

Describing the broader processes leading up to the announcement of the pilot, Anita Lehikoinen, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education and Culture, the most senior civil servant in the ministry, said the programme was designed during the previous government term by a parliamentary group working in two phases.

“First, the group managed to get commitment from all political parties represented in our Parliament to set the goal to invest 4% of GDP to [research and development] by year 2030. Secondly, the Parliament decided on legislation [governing] how the public funding share will be included in the state budget.

Lehikoinen said the doctoral training pilot was part of the implementation of a parliamentary consensus. “We are now working on the eight-year plan on the allocation guidelines of the increasing funding,” she said.

Positive response

Responding positively to news of the pilot doctoral education programme, Professor Ilkka Niemelä, president of Aalto University and chair of the UNIFI board of directors, said: “it was one of the decisive steps to increase the number of highly-skilled R&D staff in Finland – which is a key requirement for boosting the quantity and quality of R&D by 2030 according to the national plan.

“The pilot will enable universities to respond to the ever-growing skills shortage by increasing the number of PhDs in the workforce across sectors. At the same time, the universities will use this opportunity to jointly reform doctoral education without compromising the quality.”

Student representatives have also welcomed the new pilot. Nikolas Bursiewicz, education policy adviser at the National Union of University Students in Finland (Suomen ylioppilaskuntien liitto or SYL), told University World News that although the union had not been directly involved with the doctorate pilot because it has “a limited number of PhD students as members”, it recognised “the effect doctorate education has on the system as a whole”.

Bursiewicz said: “We do have positive expectations for the pilot, as we hope to see investment in PhD programmes transfer into gains in the quality of education and improvement in the connection between research and degree education.”

Miia Ijäs-Idrobo who is a senior adviser at FUURT, told University World News the organisation was “very happy” that the government has taken doctoral education as one of its priorities and sees the importance of having more PhDs as skilled workforce in society.

“The doctoral education pilot programme is a very important and welcomed initiative as it will give the opportunity to concentrate on full-time research within an employment relationship to a university,” said Ijäs-Idrobo.

“The aimed graduation time of three years is ambitious, but we hope that with adequate resources for supervision, and other means of support from the universities’ doctoral education, the new early career researchers will have a real chance to wholly focus on their research without interruptions related to, for example, precarity of funding, which so often hinders doctoral researchers in their work.”

Göran Melin, a higher education and research expert at Technopolis Group in Stockholm, who has been an advisor for the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, said as societies transform and the demand for scientific knowledge grows and evolves, PhD training must also transform.

“Finland has a tradition of being both pragmatic and bold when it comes to testing and implementing new forms of organising its education and research.

“Cooperation with the surrounding society and the industrial sector has always been important and this new PhD training initiative is well in line with this tradition in Finland. If proven successful, it will surely contribute to secure Finland’s position as a prominent knowledge society,” Melin said.

Focus on transferable skills

Professor Anne Portaankorva, vice-rector for research, doctoral education, and sustainability at the University of Helsinki, described the pilot as an “excellent opportunity” for universities to increase funding for their PhD researchers and renew the national doctoral education schemes.

“It is evident that a new breed of doctors with diverse skills is required in society to meet the demands of the public and private sectors,” she said.

“Over the past few decades, the number of PhD graduates in Finland has significantly risen. However, there remains a need for more highly educated experts for research conducted outside of academia, as well as for various roles where research-based knowledge and understanding are crucial.

“This pilot initiative motivates us to revitalise our doctoral education, especially urging us to develop courses focusing on transferable skills and enhance the supervision of PhD work. Naturally, we hope that our partners, such as research institutes and enterprises, are keen on collaborating with us to educate the new doctors through this pilot programme,” Portaankorva said.

What about the humanities?

Concerns have been raised about the priority given by the pilot to science-related disciplines.

In an opinion piece in major Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomaton 18 December 2023, Professor Ilkka Niiniluoto, former rector and chancellor and now supervisor of the doctoral programme in philosophy, arts and society at Helsinki University, highlighted the fact that humanities-related PhDs were likely to lose out in the pilot funding owing to the fact that out of 14 flagship institutions, only two are related to the humanities (education and wellbeing).

Niiniluoto said this meant that the humanities would have to “struggle” for 200 of the 1,000 doctoral positions on offer.

“Although cultural industries and social innovations can be born on the basis of the basic research of humanity carried out by humanists, they are usually left on the sidelines when science policy emphasizes ‘hard’ sciences that offer quick financial benefits.

“The most challenging wicked problems of our time – such as the crisis of democracy, wars, aging, pandemics, global warming and the loss of nature – are man-made, so the science and technology road map extending to 2030 must guarantee the human sciences an important role in solving them,” he wrote.

The challenge of a three-year PhD

Other concerns have been raised about the feasibility of a three-year completion period for PhDs.

While it is currently expected that a PhD degree takes four years of full-time research (240 ECTS), in reality, current students take much longer. According to a survey by the Early Career Researchers’ Working Group of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT) the average time to completion in 2020 was 5.7 years, with 6.8 years in the humanities, the longest, and 4.8 years in technological sciences, the shortest.

Lasse Lehtonen, chair of the Young Academy Finland, said that the academy’s board had discussed the possibility of a compromise to quality arising from pressure to complete in three years.

“The three-year doctoral programme surely has its challenges, and it is not yet clear how the pilot will be implemented. Achieving a three-year completion time can be attempted through various means, such as ensuring an adequate salary level for the entire three-year period, streamlining the bureaucratic steps in the dissertation examination process, ensuring sufficient guidance for the doctoral researcher, and allowing the continuation of the dissertation work from the master’s thesis topic.

“However, these measures do not guarantee the completion of the dissertation within three years. Therefore, a significant concern is that the quality of the dissertation may be compromised when aiming for a three-year completion time,” he told University World News.

The challenge of completing in three years has also been recognised by UNIFI which set up a Doctoral Education Reform Working Group in December, consisting of nine members from Finnish universities, to draft recommendations on principles for the reform of doctoral education that will enable full-time doctoral studies to be completed in three years.

It is recognised that in addition to strengthening the guidance available to PhDs students and building stronger ties with the workplace, a prerequisite is that the doctoral researchers must be able to concentrate full-time on their research.

Portaankorva admitted that completing a Finnish doctoral degree in three years posed “a considerable challenge” but said all Finnish universities, including the University of Helsinki, had nonetheless “embraced this challenge with confidence”.

International students

Commenting on whether international students might be able to take advantage of the pilot programme, Professor Michael Jeltsch, associate professor at the University of Helsinki and supervisor of doctoral programmes in drug research and integrative live science, said: “Obviously, recruiting an additional 1000 PhD students from the domestic ‘market’ is challenging.

“There have been additional rumours about the requirements for the application,” said Jeltsch who has written extensively about the pilot at his blog page known as Michael’s Domain.

“Most importantly, it seems that all applicants must have completed their MSc in 2023 or 2024, which further makes it difficult to fill the positions with domestic applicants. However, it is also clear that international applicants will need to indicate a PhD supervisor in their application who has agreed to supervise them.

“All this looks really challenging to me. Clearly, we need to advertise this internationally, but since the official call is not out yet, it is very difficult to do so. Once the call is out, there will be very little time to advertise this and even less time for the international applicants to contact potential PhD supervisors,” he said.

“Bottom line: If you have completed your MSc in 2023 (or you will complete it in 2024), and if you are considering doing a PhD in Finland, then contact potential PhD supervisors NOW!”

* The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT) has organised an event to be held on 16 February, that will also be streamed, titled “Shaping the Future of Doctoral Education”. It focuses on the development of doctoral training and the doctoral education pilot. More information can be found here.


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