Today, as part of The Hieno! “What is Finnish-ness” series celebrating Suomi 100 in 2017, we feature Dr. Gareth Rice, an academic, journalist and social critic based in Scotland.
From 2008 to 2014, Dr. Rice worked as a postdoctoral researcher and Geography lecturer at the University of Helsinki. Dr Rice’s journalism has been featured in Times Higher Education, National Geographic Traveler, Monocle, Harper Collins, Runway, Wonderland, The Skinny, Counterpunch, Global Politics, Maa&ilma, ViaHelsinki, Six Degrees, Helsingin Sanomat and Inside Higher Education.
In this candid interview, Dr. Rice shares with us his various thoughts on Finland, Finns, myths, the Finnish higher education system and expat life. I’d like to encourage you to read Dr Rice’s interview with an open-mind, for he wrote it with positive intentions.
Enjoy the interview! ♡
WW: Hello Dr. Rice! Can you tell us more about yourself?
Gareth: I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I have a PhD in Urban Geography. I currently work as a university lecturer who teaches right across the social sciences.
In my spare time I enjoy rolling with friends and going to the cinema. I am a dedicated reader of quality magazines and an avid fan of Iain Sinclair, Jonathan Raban and the late J.G. Ballard.
I also spend a lot of time exploring the great Scottish outdoors.
WW: Why did you initially choose to come to Finland?
Gareth: I initially chose to come to Finland to take up a two year postdoc position in the Department of Geosciences and Geography at the University of Helsinki.
I assumed that it would be a great career move.
WW: What do you see as your “place” in Finland when you were staying here?
Gareth: If a society’s integrity is measured by how it treats its minorities then Finland has a lot of work to do.
I was made to feel that my place in Finland was always going to be as part of a socially ostracised group of people, wheeled out to raise the worthless international trophy for Finns when it suited them.
As I wrote in Times Higher Education, I was initially given a warm welcome then the cold shoulder. [TH: Dr. Rice also wrote a piece that was featured in the Global Higher Education]
I felt that my place in Finland changed when I indicated to my line manager that I would like to stay at the Department of Geosciences and Geography to advance my academic career. This, I believe, would have happened had my line manager not been a nasty Professor.
Until earlier this year I was struggling to find a definition of this breed of Professoriate. Then one fine Spring day I visited the Dick Institute, in Kilmarnock, Scotland to see the Still Future II exhibition.
There was a piece on display called “The Nasty Professors” by the artist Martin Fowler. On the label it said–
“The wood-cuts are a critique of academia and specifically its tendency to elitism, exclusivity and abuse of power. The nasty professors depict the abusive side of the academic and the academic institution.”
Abuse of power sounds about right: When an “open” permanent job came up in the Department of Geosciences and Geography, my line manager made sure that their favourite candidate, a lesser experienced Finn got the position.
This made me question the purported fairness of the University of Helsinki’s recruitment policies and drove me to gather more information about the recruitment policies of other Finnish universities.
I discovered that my case wasn’t isolated. I spoke with many other academics, including Finns, who had suffered discrimination at the hands of nasty Professors.
Outside the university I was part of a small but vibrant expat community. There were quite a few different nationalities and cultures and I liked learning about them. This group provided me with some great friends who I keep in touch with to this day.
WW: What are your feelings about Finland when you were staying here? Did they change along the way?
Gareth: Initially, my feelings about Finland were positive.
I loved many things about the country: The Finnish language, the enchanting forests and the green pea soup!
The summer was magic. Here’s how I captured it in a Helsinki Times article from July 2011:
“THE wind had feathered the lake with bluecaps that danced in the midsummer sun.
The shoreline was thickly forested and afforded the contemplative privacy that my Finnish friends and I have come to savour and relish.
Forest blankets around 80 per cent of Finland and yields a rich supply of foods and quietude. The wooden, red and black cottage had thick, white window frames with a separate sauna building.
Blueberries dangled from lush green bushes. Mushrooms were snuggled up to the bases of birch trees. Everything was flooded with magical light…”
The many positive claims about Finland made me think that I was moving to a place called utopia.
These claims included:
- World’s Best Country (Newsweek, 2010);
- World’s Sixth Happiest Country (World Happiness Report, 2015);
- World’s Fourth Most Dynamic Business Environment (The Grant Thornton Global Dynamism Index, 2015);
- World’s second best in gender (World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, 2015);
- World’s second best place to be a mother (Save the Children, State of the World’s Mothers Report, 2015);
- World’s Second most Innovative Country (World Economic Forum, Global Competitiveness Report, 2015);
- World’s Greenest Country (Yale and Columbia Universities, Environmental Performance Index, 2016);
- World’s least fragile State (Fund for Peace, Fragile States Index, 2015);
- World’s Second Least Corrupt Country (Transparency International, Corruptions Perceptions Index, 2015); and
- World’s best in press freedom (Reporters Without Borders, World Press Freedom Index, 2016).
However, after six years of living in Finland my feelings changed. I discovered how Finland really worked.
Finns are master myth makers. To take but two examples from the above list, it is interesting that perception of corruption rather than actual levels of corruption were measured. Much of the corruption in Finland gets kicked into the long grass or goes unreported by the Finnish media which is dominated by journalists and editors whose careers are defined by self-censorship – this wasn’t a variable in the World Freedom Press Index.
Many of positive perceptions which Finland flaunts are false. But it wouldn’t matter if they were true; what matters is that your perceptions of Finland will not match up to your reality of actually living there, struggling to sustain yourself through the daily feelings of isolation and silence.
As my good friend, the late James Thompson once wrote, “Finns do everything in silence.”
WW: Was it a difficult decision to leave Finland?
Gareth: Initially the thought of leaving Finland seemed difficult.
I had gotten so used to living in Helsinki that I hadn’t realised that I had fallen into a rut. However, this failed to quash my ambition to have a meaningful academic career, quite the opposite in fact.
After I started applying for academic jobs outside Finland and the offers rolled in, leaving Finland was an easy decision.
I had worked too hard to end up being left with the crumbs from the Finnish academic table – being paid to lecture by the hour. Oh please!
WW: What was the most important and meaningful event or experience that happened in Finland?
Gareth: In August 2010, I saw U2, the Irish rock band play at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium.
That night was important and meaningful because it was the first time that they played their song “Every Breaking Wave.”
WW: What was the happiest moment in your life in Finland?
Gareth: My happiest moment in Finland was back in 2008 when I first arrived.
I was wet behind the ears and filled with positivity and optimism. It was winter. I jumped off the bus outside the Finnish National Theatre and thought that I had just arrived in Narnia.
I never did bump into Mr. Tumnus, though I did get to pick mushrooms with a few peaceful Finnish forest dwellers.
WW: Can you tell us what were the top 3 challenges you faced in Finland?
Gareth: My 3 top challenges were
- The Finnish language (though mastering it wouldn’t have spared me from the discrimination which I faced);
- The prolonged darkness; and
- Securing a job which I was qualified for over lesser qualified and lesser experienced Finns.
WW: Do you think there are solutions or better alternatives to how we think about these three challenges?
Gareth: There are always solutions or better alternatives but those Finns wanting to maintain the status quo are the ones with the most power and influence. A complete root and branch change of Finnish employer’s mentality and hiring practices would need to be enforced.
The reality is that, most Finnish companies cannot be trusted to play fair when it comes to hiring people. As long as the ability to speak Finnish like a native and being connected to the right people in the right places are unofficial hiring policies in Finland, then those with mother tongues other than Finnish will continue to be discriminated against.
There isn’t much which can be done about the darkness other than praying for lots of proper snow (it reflects the beams from street lights which brightens places up a bit) or dropping the retail price of SAD lights.
Finland is so expensive!
WW: You have been rather vocal with some of your well-intended criticisms of Finland. Have you ever received death threats? How did you feel about the social media backlash?
Gareth: I am not sure whether I received death threats or not but it wouldn’t have mattered.
The social media backlash was inevitable, I suppose, but it had no bearing on my decision to write the much needed criticisms of Finland.
Staying true to myself and writing the truth was always more important.
WW: Do you personally know foreign academics who are successful in pursuing an academic career in Finland? How do you think they coped?
Gareth: Yes, I do know some foreign academics who have been successful in pursuing academic careers in Finland, but I could write all of their names on the back of a postage stamp with a blunt pencil!
From what they have told me they have coped by biting the bullet and not rattling Finnish cages. They have been forced to become one dimensional people to survive in a higher education system which is propped up by nasty Professors who lack critical thinking skills and open-mindedness.
WW: What are your dreams and visions for the future?
Gareth: I work in higher education so one of my dreams is that many more of our young people will have the chance to attend university to get the skills and mindset they need to life happy and meaningful lives.
I hope that I will continue to play a part in this.
As an optimist I have a positive vision for the future: One of peace and stability.
I would like to see a stronger culture of accountability to make examples of those who continue to abuse their power in Finland and beyond.
WW: What are some of the advice you might have for aspiring foreign academics who want to come to Finland?
Gareth: Dear aspiring foreigners wanting to move to Finland, there are many pieces of advice which I could offer.
At the top of my list would be, don’t go to Finland thinking that you will be integrated into Finnish society and be treated on equal terms with Finns. Even after you master the Finnish language and tick all of the other official boxes, you will still be made to feel like a lower animal.
You should also be prepared to deal with long periods of darkness, depression and feelings of isolation. As Daniel Johnson wrote in the October 2016 issue of Standpoint, “Isolation is always alluring, but it is never splendid.”
Any ambitions you have about progressing in your career will meet a dead end in Finland. It is unofficial policy that most Finnish employers in the public and private sector prefer to employ Finns.
And there is nothing that you will be able to do about it because Finns will never let you wear their cloak of power and influence. You are more likely to feel like you’re being made to wear the invisibility cloak from the Harry Potter films!
My last piece of advice to you would be to identify and avoid the nasty Professors (defined above) and their equivalents in other employment sectors. They have a long history of failing to add a veneer of openness and intellectual respectability to a higher education system which turns on flat-out falsehoods. They have the system “tied up tight as a drum” to borrow the phrase from the American community organiser Saul Alinksy.
Unless you are a ‘favoured Finn’, the nasty Professors will never have your back and they will steer your career into a dead end.
On the up side you might take comfort from Martin Fowler who believes that, “The nasty Professors are only interested in self-advancement and glory, but are ultimately destined for a future of self-delusion, bad teeth and loneliness.”
WW: 2017 is Finland’s 100 years old birthday! Do you have any birthday wish for Finland?
Gareth: I wish Finland a very happy birthday and best wishes for the future but I would also ask that those who will be shaping that future do so with open minds and empathy.
Everybody knows that the road to disappointment is paved with broken promises, empty rhetoric and small talk so take steps to avoid them! If you say one thing, then do the opposite you will be exposed and deservedly so.
Why say things like “We Finns want to become more international” unless you can demonstrate that you are very serious about it?
Don’t set yourself up for a fall, just be honest, get loaded and have a good time!
We hope you have enjoyed this interview with Dr. Rice!
The Hieno! is the official partner of the Finland 100 independence programme.This series “What is Finnish-ness”? is endorsed by the Prime Minister’s Office. Feel free to follow Dr. Rice on his twitter @belfastnomad . Photographs courtesy of Dr. Rice and Unsplash.