The Life And Times Of The Big Wheel

So you’re a pretty well-to-do university with big dreams and a few feathers in your cap to show for it. You’ve had a good run, but frankly speaking you’re getting on a bit. A little shy of 400 years, you start questioning your life choices. Maybe it’s time to freshen things up? You’ve heard good things about this new idea they had in Italy a couple of years back, apparently terribly in vogue right now. You think you’re no worse than the next university, but it’s been a while since you’ve had a good, rousing education reform. So you decide to pursue the higher education equivalent of a mid-life crisis motorcycle, but instead of a Harley you opt for the Big Wheel. Some details in that origin story may be a tad embellished, but the truth isn’t all that far away. In 2015 the university kickstarted the Big Wheel education reform with the idea of finally adhering to the guidelines agreed upon during the Bologna Process, a continent-spanning project of unified European higher education that has been in the works since 1999’s Bologna declaration. Ministers from 29 countries, Finland included, signed the declaration to ensure easily comparable degrees across Europe, as well as making sure the undergraduate and graduate degrees remain distinct from each other.

In the 16 years since the declaration the goals had been reached to varying levels in different institutions. The University of Tampere took an early lead by starting their own reform in 2010, and the final product has been generally well received, much to the relief of the Big Wheel leadership in our alma mater. No doubt all eyes will soon be on Helsinki as the rest of the universities wait with bated breath to see whether Tampere’s preliminary success was nothing more than a fluke.

What the University of Helsinki soon noticed is that not all reforms are made equal. Some faculties faced little change, and the more medically oriented ones pretty much got to keep their structures intact with only some minor tweaking. Some others had a lot more work ahead of them, including the faculties of Arts and Social Sciences. Each and every one of them, however, dropped the idea of major or minor subjects altogether, and instead espoused the Bologna-approved terminology of discipline-specific or optional studies.

Going into the reform, the Faculty of Arts found itself in a bit of a pickle with the sheer number of different fields represented, clocking in at a whopping 50 main subjects, with the number of students admitted per year ranging from 5 to 78 between different disciplines. Additional hurdles were placed by the unbridgeable difference between such diverse topics as linguistics, cultural studies, history, philosophy and theatre research, to name a few. The different approaches and methodological foci proved a daunting task, but the result we have now seems to induce the least groans in the general populace.

The resulting structure is 6 Bachelor’s degree programmes and 16 Master’s degree programmes, the latter group including 4 English-language programmes to boot. The Bachelor’s programmes are in the fields of Philosophy, History, Art Studies, Cultural Studies, Languages and Literatures of Finland, as well as the future home of English Philology, Languages. Each programme is run by their respective steering groups, which include a director, staff members and two student members. The steering group and the student members have been involved in planning the gritty details of the reform since the beginning and will, after the new programmes are in place, provide oversight and planning for the then-functional programmes.

The developmental process itself has been filled with a sense of rush and uncertainty, and the crushing government cuts have certainly had their part in adding to the chaotic nature of the planning stage. Information flow both vertically and horizontally has been questionable at times, and staff members generally seem to be at the brink of exhaustion over a complicated reform, the work on which has not been considered in their work plans. This coupled with other changes, such as the new student services and the termination of departments as an organisational structure seems to promise a whole lot of relief once the Big Wheel is finally done and operational.

The actual changes brought on by the reform are varying and hard to pin down in a generalizing manner. Certain fields see little change and carry on as if they were still in the old subject system, others find their programme’s joint studies taking over much of their first year. Most courses or modules will grant credits in numbers divisible by five (e.g. common module credit amounts being 15, 20 or 30), and the size of the grad thesis sees a small decrease in credits. Pedagogical studies will be moved exclusively to the Master’s degree phase, and depending on prior circumstances, working life studies may see an increase in emphasis and relevance.

Current students will be able to finish up their studies in the old system until 31 July 2020, but can opt in to the new programmes if they so wish at any time. While the university and staff are obligated to offer courses in the old system until 2020, there is uncertainty on how exactly that can be done with the limited resources at hand. A likely result is a growing dependence on book exams for those in the old system. As the incoming students will mostly only need to be offered basic courses in their first year, there is a good chance that older students more advanced in their studies may see business as usual for a while, but that can hardly be depended upon. Current first year students are certainly recommended to switch to the new system if possible, because their lives will most likely be easier for it.

English philology will be located squarely in the Bachelor’s Programme in Languages, taking in 78 out of the programme’s 250 total yearly students. There it finds company in our old friends from the Department of Languages, as well as new acquaintances in fields as varying as Chinese, modern Greek, Somali, and the recently joined Phonetics and Cognitive Studies. Possible exit routes to a Master’s degree include the programmes of English, Linguistics in a Digital Age, and Translation. The first two of these are available by default to all English students, while other Master’s programmes require separate application or specific study modules taken while in the Bachelor’s programme.

The joint studies in the programme will consist largely of general linguistics and language technology, and will generally be done during the first year. While several courses will be likely to keep their content similar to before, the change to 5 cr courses will introduce some tricky details. A stellar example is that of the literature courses Brit lits I-II and Am lit, which are currently worth a total of 9 cr. In the future, both Brit lits will be combined into one 5 cr course, and Am lit will broaden its scope and be a part of a world lit course, also for 5 credits. In general, a lot of wiggling around will have to be done in order to get each course’s content and work hours to match across board, and current first year students may find themselves in trouble when the second part of their 3 cr course is not offered quite the way they’re used to.

All in all, this massive reform is an exhausting project to get going, but once rolling along it has a chance of offering new options for collaboration and pooling together disciplines and people in a way that promises something fresh. It brings with it some bad, some good, and a whole lot of confusing, but the final tally should be on the side of the positive. If that’s not how it looks, or you conversely think it’s the best thing ever, feel free to contact any applicable student representative and let them know about it. They’ll be happy to help make this reform the one you want to live under. Of course, fast forward twenty years, and the university is probably yet again getting to grips with a sweeping reform with grand goals, but at least most of us will have graduated by then.

La Mer

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