Critique as Hysteria: I say this government is hostile to universities

The debate about the future of universities in Finland has been quite intense in the last couple of years. There have been various kinds of protests, including occupations of university buildings by angry students and critical declarations by professors. Some, such as the eminent scholar of Arabic and Islam Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, have decided to leave the country, citing the hostile attitude of the current government of Finland toward the universities as one reason.

Universities are facing huge budget cuts. Made by a government whose main leaders declared before the elections that they would not cut the budget for education. The derogatory comments they have made about universities and scholars have also contributed to the negative perceptions many (and arguably most, of course not all) scholars have of this government’s policy toward universities. I have also stated publicly various times that the government is hostile toward science and universities. .

Today Karina Jutila, director of the think tank e2 related to the prime minister’s Center Party, published an article where she criticized my claim that this government is hostile to science and universities.

I have nothing in particular against the think tank, and I have sometimes thought I would attend their interesting events. I used to receive invitations, have not seen any recently though, perhaps because of my inactivity.

In any case, now I thought I would write a couple of lines on her comments, also because I have not written here for a while. I write this in English because I often hear people who do not speak Finnish to complain they cannot follow the seemingly exciting debate on Finnish universities.

In Jutila’s article, published in one of the main newspapers Aamulehti, she starts with my claim that the current government attacks science and universities. She also quotes the director of the National Library Kai Ekholm and professor Anu Koivunen who make similar claims. Jutila quotes Kai Ekholm’s statement that the government’s policy is uncivilized, naïve, mediocre and false.

Her aim seems to be to show that our arguments are false. More specifically, she intends to show that we are simple-minded and hysterical.

I may not be able to present all her arguments here, and as always with these kinds of things, there exists a danger that I simplify her position. But since I want to keep this short, let me simply pick a couple of things she says to support her position.

The first argument is a classic one: our discourse echoes left radicalism of the 1970s. In Finnish political debate, the “1970s” functions as a reference that alludes to Stalinism and similar things. The justification for the reference is that we “claim to know what is true”.

Then she describes some important contributions to cultural projects that private foundations have recently done.

So I tweeted to ask her if her argument really is that the government is not hostile to universities because a private foundations donated to a dance project and because I seem like a 1970s flashback. I have not heard back yet.

And yes, she had other arguments too. One is that the universities have no tuition fees. I had to read this part a couple of times to get it. I think she is telling us that we are wrong to criticize the government’s university policy because universities have no tuition fees.

Whatever one may think of the desirability of tuition fees (I don’t like them), it is a curious argument. This is the government that decided to establish tuition fees in Finnish universities. Yes, only for people from non-EU/EEA countries, at least for the time being. Many fear or hope that this is simply the first step in a more general introduction of tuition fees.

Whatever happens in the future, the established principle of Finnish academic life, not to have tuition fees, has been broken by this government. So I found it interesting, even hilarious, that Karina Jutila would use tuition fees as an argument to defend the government against what she calls our hysterical criticism.

There are also some other insights. After she has argued our claims about the government’s hostility to universities are false, she finds something that indeed can do harm. It is the current way of debating these things. Overly critical comments (like ours, I assume) can “anguish people who would rather do than complain”. Our kind of criticism “can make young people confused and passive”.

There probably are mechanisms through which the fact that we are “hysterical” may contribute to making people “passive”. I would be happy to learn more. But what is the alternative then? She ends by stating that civilized people can see that we need “no political divides”. An interesting depoliticization, coming from a long-time activist of the ruling party.

The more general argument, however, is more interesting, with a long history in various kinds of discipline: why debate politics if you can debate hysteria.

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