Quo Vadis, Finnish Virtual University?

Article of the month

Helsinki, 1 February, 2004 — Quo vadis, Finnish Virtual University?

The Finnish Virtual University has officially been operational for three years. Even before the agreement on the FVU Consortium was signed, Finnish universities had years of experience in the use of information and communication technologies.

The Virtual University is thus not a totally new activity - although it is a new way of organizing activities. During the past three years, the FVU has been active in many ways within the scope defined in the consortium agreement. Now it is time to evaluate what needs to be improved and what should be phased out in order to reach the goals of the FVU.

During the past three years, Finnish universities have spent tens of millions of euros on inventing, defining, planning, implementing, testing and piloting ways to use information and communication technologies in university education. No significant practical benefits have been gained yet. Information and communication technologies have not been integrated into everyday university work. It would be misleading to predict a short payback period for the investments made.

The Slow Engine of IT Growth

In the coming years, the public sector is expected to become the engine of IT growth in Finland. On the other hand, the slow speed of decision-making in the Finnish public sector makes it difficult to fully utilize the investments made in IT.

One example of the slowness of the universities is the ongoing 'call for proposals' for virtual university projects for 2005-2006. The ideas and justifications for good projects have already been simmering in the networks for some time. One can only imagine how long it will take until they reach the point in which they become routine, nation-wide virtual university activities.

The projects that gain funding will begin in 2005. In some projects, the results will be directly usable in the same year, but mostly they will start being used in 2006. In this way, it takes more than three years before a good idea has evolved into a service that can be used by the entire academic community.

The Power of Networking and the Problem of Continuity

The network as a form of co-operation between universities has proved its strength also in the FVU. In defining, planning and implementation, the network organization has provided a broad basis of expertise and a wealth of resources. Even more importantly, it has served to combat the NIH (not-invented-here) syndrome.

Yet when it comes to providing the services on a day-to-day basis, the charm of the network mode starts to fade. Dividing the responsibility for administering the services is a challenge, making continuity a major concern. Concerns about service maintenance need to be addressed. Which organization is in charge of maintaining the service? What is the business logic in the activity? This means developing a 'business plan' for the services. The FVU service concept provides the most sensible context for making service administration plans.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Universities have been very capable in discussing the agenda in the preparatory stage. Yet management, decision-making and commitment to the decisions made still need to be improved.

The situation in Finland is similar to that found in virtual university development all over Europe. A central theme in the European discussion has been the appropriate use of top-down and bottom-up management approaches. In the Finnish virtual university, these approaches have not been used in the best possible way.

The Finnish Virtual University gained its current organizational form by a top-down decision, which had been preceded by relatively extensive bottom-up activities and discussions. The funding decisions have continually been made using the top-down performance-based principles favoured by the Ministry of Education, even though no performance objectives have been set for the FVU. The Ministry has tried to use a bottom up-based decision logic.

The way of doing things has, in fact, made sense during the first years of the project, which relied strongly on the innovative power of universities in launching new initiatives. Now, however, a strategy (pdf) has been drawn up for the FVU. The universities, following this strategy, want to save resources, focus on their core tasks and make use of each others' strengths by increasing the division of labour among partners.

"Make or Buy?"

Another topical issue in the European discussion revolves around the "make or buy" question. Some are of the opinion that it is always best to buy, if suitable solutions are available. This is the quickest way to put information and communication technologies to use.

The counter-argument is that 'making' the solutions fosters capabilities and ensures commitment, which do not emerge when solutions are bought ready-made. The operating logics of the Finnish virtual university involve buying, at least from network partners. This practice could be put to wider use, as well. This operating culture is recommended also in the expert evaluator's report on eLearning (M. Markkula 2003), which recommends the development of 'demanding customership'.

FVU Organization in Need of Clarification

The management and governance structures of the FVU are not clear enough. For example, the structures for dealing with financial flows, policy-making, reporting and allocating workforce to different sub-projects are extremely complex. When considering the mutual dependencies between these different activities, it appears that no one is accountable to anyone, or that all are accountable to everyone.

In order to reach the strategic objectives of the FVU, a top priority is to clarify the governance and management system. The top-down management system needs to be reinforced to promote the implementation of the strategy. This is the only way to reach the objectives defined in the consortium agreement and the strategy.

Last November, Counsellor of Education Anita Lehikoinen from the Higher Education Unit of the Ministry of Education wrote in the FVU news: "Now is the time for universities to deepen their co-operation in a way that provides us with competitive advantage...". Lehikoinen was discussing the Bologna process, which provides a suitable example. The process is being implemented according to the top-down principle both on the Finnish and on the European level. The ministers agree on the principles, and the national decision-makers are given the task of organizing the necessary work. The universities are not even asked whether they want to participate.

The Finnish virtual university is in a good position to carry out the tasks defined in the consortium agreement. It is also well equipped to implement the strategy defined by the universities. The essential question is whether the different parties are prepared to make the necessary changes.

Team Work and Executive Power

Change can only be accomplished by a strong team. This is not merely an issue of the strength of the team and its members, but also of the executive power granted by the mandator. The mandator's clear vision of what is desired, and allocation of power to the executive level, are key to successful change. This is the only way to make the FVU strong enough to achieve operational changes in the tradition-bound world of higher education. The next three years will show how successful we can be.

Pekka Kess
University of Oulu

More information
pekka.kess@oulu.fi
http://www.VirtualUniversity