There is a conflict between the long-term impact of universities and short-term strategic funding, and this affects the key mechanisms of both. 

The basic duties of universities – education, research and spreading of research results – are societal in nature and form the very core of universities’ responsibility. For this reason universities are usually financed from public funds or given an opportunity to raise funds freely. 

 The benefits universities produce can, to some degree, be predicted. Society needs the specialists and professionals that universities train. More difficult to predict, however, are the long-term results to be had from the gathering of research data and the development of critical thinking. The public funding of universities has, to date, largely been based on a belief in these long-term benefits without measuring them.  

In recent years an ever larger proportion of universities’ basic funding has moved to the sphere of competitive funding. Strategic funding, shaped as it is by political trends, has seen a particular increase. In addition, the core funding of universities is calculated and distributed based on relatively short-term output such as degrees and publications. This seems to have driven universities to produce more measurable results, which is of course the purpose of the funding instrument. In other words, universities produce more of those things that are counted and more of that which receives funding.  

From a strategic viewpoint, however, universities operate in a way that is often too slow. Gathering data and making breakthroughs is a slow process. These require time and a capacity to tolerate uncertainty.   

As a result, the new funding system has created a conflict. As funding models and strategic funding change according to political trends, universities find that they must participate in short-term funding competition in order to succeed. Yet university operations have long-term effects that are difficult to predict and measure. This bias is amplified by the current system, which directs public money to ever more clearly politically motivated, strategically limited research topics.  

In short, universities are currently forced to justify their existence by participating in short-term competition. The working group that is renewing the Finnish universities’ funding model for 2021–2024 must answer at least the following question: what type of political steering best supports the long-term impact of universities?  

Senior Researcher
Taina Saarinen
The author is the chair of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers in Finland 

Get latest articles from The University of Jyväskylä’s stakeholder magazine into your email. You can cancel your subscription at any time.