ELFA project

BELFA is born in Aalto University


This new blog has happily coincided with a series of ELF-related stories in the news. Yesterday YLE (the Finnish national public broadcaster) reported that Aalto University wants to offer all MA-level tuition in their business school in English, as early as this fall. Aalto University is something of a “super-school” created in 2010 by the merger of Helsinki’s universities of economics, technology, and art & design. It is also the teaching home of two of our ELFA project members.

This is a major development in the internationalisation of Finnish higher education. The English-language version of the story reports it fairly straight with the title “Aalto University goes for English-only business programmes”, but the Finnish-language version of the story is entitled “Kauppakorkeakoulu hylkäsi suomen – maisteriopinnot vain englanniksi” (Business school abandoned Finnish – MA studies only in English, my translation) and opens with the following line:

“Aalto-yliopiston kansainvälistyminen on saavuttamassa hämmästyttävät mittasuhteet.”
(Aalto University’s internationalisation is reaching astonishing proportions, my translation)

I agree that it’s astonishing, especially on such short notice, and this will certainly lead to some interesting debates in Helsingin Sanomat’s opinion section. It will also lead to new urgency in questions of ensuring the language proficiency of teachers and students. Hopefully Aalto will take advantage of the ELF expertise they have in-house: Anne Kankaanranta and Leena Louhiala-Salminen in Aalto’s School of Business are pioneering researchers in business ELF (BELF).

The decision also raises familiar questions for ELF in academia, and the question of language proficiency is often tied up with pedagogical proficiency as well. The ELFA project’s Jaana Suviniitty recently defended her PhD thesis, which examines a then-new English-medium MA programme in Aalto’s School of Chemical Technology. I’ll be discussing her PhD over several posts in coming weeks, as it deals directly with the intersection of what is “good English” and accessible teaching.

With Aalto’s expertise in BELF, could this decision to introduce English-based degrees be the birth of BELFA – business English as a lingua franca in academic settings? It sounds like a research opening to me!

Breakin’ the law

Though the announcement is firm, the Ministry of Education has gotten involved. Finnish law requires that Finnish or Swedish must be the language for teaching and issuing higher education degrees (with other languages involved as well). The total shift to MA-level teaching (and research) in English could be problematic.

The university’s view is that the 180 credits of Finnish-language tuition at the BA level satisfies this requirement, while the 120 credits for the MA can be in English, the language of global business and research. This would seem to be a compromise for those wanting to preserve the role of Finnish and advocates of internationalisation.

In this respect, Aalto seems to be following the lead of Helsinki University, which has implemented this same practice since I started my studies here in 2007. I was one of the last foreign students who snuck in at BA level before this movement to MA-level-foreigners-only came into effect. The big idea, though, is attracting more foreign students to these English-based MA programmes and starting tuition fees in Finland.

One of the beautiful things about Finnish society is that anyone with academic merit can study free of charge all the way through a PhD. Though I’ve become a Finnish citizen in the years since I started studying, these benefits were extended to me from the start as well. So I’ve been lucky in every respect, because both Helsinki and Aalto have their eyes on tapping into the foreign student market.

Interpreters in the classroom?

Already one-third of tenure-track instructors in Aalto are non-Finns, and these English-based programmes are hoped to attract even more. But I was truly surprised to read the following quote attributed to Aalto’s Vice President (vararehtori) Martti Raevaara:

“‘Foreign professors will teach in English and maybe instruction can be interpreted and translated,’ noted Vice President Martti Raevaara.”

Interpreters? I couldn’t believe that an administrator could be so far removed from academic ELF in practice, so I checked the corresponding line in the Finnish version:

“Ulkomaalaiset professorit opettavat englanniksi ja eikä [sic] opetusta voi tulkata ja kääntää, Raevaara toteaa.”

So he does use the verbs “interpret” and “translate”, but it appears the English translator mistook eikä for ehkä (“maybe”). But the Finnish sentence doesn’t seem to make sense either, so I wrote to YLE and asked them clarify their two versions of the story. Hopefully they’ll respond, because classroom interpreters would be innovative indeed.

Here are links to the Finnish original and the English translation of the story.