All equal in workload?

Written by the group YA2-IntegratingEquality
Anne Duplouy, Juha Eskelinen, Riikka Keto-Timonen, and Hanna Koivula


The University of Helsinki aims at being an equitable environment, where diversity is safely expressed, represented, recognize and promoted. Most of the permanent staff has a workplan for 1612 hours per year. However, within this workplan our research, teaching and administrative tasks are distributed in various ways that may not always be equitable. The limits of the University staffs’ language skills, but also the lack of opportunities for acquiring or improving them, provide an excellent example on the difficulty faced by institutions to divide tasks in an equitable manner, while still responding to language policies, international competition pressures, and student’s expectations. Indeed, the student’s language proficiency plays an important role for their ability to succeed and deepen their understanding of the subject studied (see e.g. Crossley et al. 2017).

The language policy at the University of Helsinki (UH 2014) states that the native students in master programmes may attend teaching in a language their teacher is fluent in (Finnish, English or Swedish), but nevertheless may have the right to request examinations and other study-related assignments in either of the official languages of Finland: Finnish or Swedish (UH 2015: 12).  Similarly, the same language policy states that a person with no skills in Finnish or Swedish can’t serve any administrative duties, which would require such competence. Altogether, this may challenge the division of workloads within different units, and between levels within each unit, as the limits in the language skills of the staffs will drive their choices and contributions to diverse tasks.


Unequal Teaching Workloads

The multi-language aspect of an institution can be a challenge to its staff’s time allocation, as, for example, creating study assignments in two or more languages can increase the workload for the teacher. Although the teaching load can be covered equitably between staffs with different language skills, the language policy implies that the assessment of the students, for example, may fall predominantly on the Finnish/Swedish native speaker(s). In addition to increasing the teaching load of Finnish speaking staff, this might also lead to different cohorts of students being graded by different teachers (even potentially by teachers who might not be involved in the course itself) only based on the language the students have chosen for their exam. Such practice might appear as unfair for the students, and the teachers.

The students heavily rely on the teacher’s language skills when they learn to express themselves scientifically and produce assignments, reports and thesis. Most teachers and supervisors are specialists of their research field, but not necessary of the language in which they are communicating it. In combination with university’s emphasis to high quality of the language (UH 2015:50) in research and teaching outputs (e.g. research papers and academic theses), a teacher devoted to the profession may in some cases feel burdened by the language requirements. Improving student’s communication skills could be a workload to re-distribute to language professionals, rather than to the staffs that are native in the chosen languages, or on any supervisor who would like to focus on the science rather than the grammar of a text.

Burdened by administrative workload or willing to do more

Administrative work related to teaching and committee memberships, often accrue to people who are proficient in Finnish, especially in study programs that are in Finnish. Due to these various administrative tasks, Finnish speakers may feel that they have less time for research compared to their international colleagues. This is poised to increase the sense of inequality, as research merits play ‘the’ key role in the advancement of any academic careers. At the same time, international staff members may feel they are excluded from participating in administrative tasks due to the language used. Regardless of the situation, García-Gallego et al. (2015) have suggested that if a teacher has administrative duties but is not compensated by reduction in teaching load, the quality of the teaching may also deteriorate.

The university of Helsinki encourages its staff to use the three languages in a relaxed way. However, this can often mean that most of the discussion is conducted in one language only. This is perhaps not the most relaxing situation for staff members without adequate language skills, as the most important points might go unnoticed or unsaid. While we researchers may think that changing the administrative language to English could be the best option, the situation is not so straightforward, as it might be more challenging for some staff members to communicate and attend meetings in English and some of the administrative documentations still need to be produced in Finnish and Swedish for the students.

What can we do to fight unequal workload?

There is an obvious need for the international staff to learn the national language(s). However, this on itself can represent an extra workload as it comes in addition to the teaching/research tasks already covered by this person. The acquisition of new language skills is time and energy consuming and often not rewarded. Especially in Finland, the national language is considered one of the most difficult to learn. It is not enough to motivate hours away from family/hobbies/research towards language learning by later promising better integration and better shared administrative tasks (instead of the aimed teaching or research duties).

We suggest:

1) Teachers! Communicate early with your students about your own language skill limitations. Discuss whether this will suit the students’ skills, and if not question their needs. This way you may plan, prepare and get support at an early and maybe less busy time.

2) International researchers! Difficulties in participating in discussion and decision-making in joint meetings and events can interfere with your integration! If you don’t have the time to follow language courses offered by the University, find a keen colleague and practice the language around a coffee rather than in long administrative meeting situations.

3) Institution! Sharing administrative work equally is not easy. As a first step, it would be important for units to clearly agree on the languages to be used in different situations, and to enforce it! Thus, it would be more transparent for everyone what duties people with various language skills can take care of. Then, it might be time to implement rewards. Rewarding staff for improving their language skills however requires resources! But the trade-off with equitable workloads on all staff might be worth, as the satisfaction at work is sure to increase.



Crossley, S., Barnes, T., Lynch, C., & McNamara, D. S. (2017). Linking Language to Math Success in an On-Line Course. International Educational Data Mining Society.

García-Gallego, A., Georgantzís, N., Martín-Montaner, J. & Pérez-Amaral, T. (2015) (How) Do research and administrative duties affect university professors’ teaching? Applied Economics 47: 4868-4883.

UH 2014. University of Helsinki Language Policy. University of Helsinki. [Available at]

UH 2015. Regulations on Degrees and the Protection of Students’ Rights at the University of Helsinki. The Board of the University of Helsinki. [Available at]

6 Replies to “All equal in workload?”

  1. I found the concerns raised in this text quite familiar. The administrative workload is not equally distributed even between Finnish teachers.
    It would help a bit if we had a dictionary where it would be easy to find the language versions (Finnish, Swedish and English) used it the whole UH for words and concepts like koulutussuunnittelija, koulutusohjelmatoimikunta, syventävä opintokokonaisuus, väliviikko, ilmoittautuminen (from BSc studies to MSc studies).

    1. What a great idea! I had never thought of that but it could be so useful in so many ways.

  2. Thanks for the blog entry!
    There is one statement that I think we should be more reflective on, though. From my personal experience as well as from what I heard from other international colleagues, it is a sort of popular simplification that “Administrative work related to teaching and committee memberships, often accrue to people who are proficient in Finnish, especially in study programs that are in Finnish.” I would like to urge everyone to rethink the very generalizing statements, or actually state studies or number which would prove this. My experience, for example, is entirely different. Being a very active colleague in administrative duties is not defined by language use primarily, but by the organization of it.

  3. I found this blog and related article today:

    I wanted to highlight the sentence ‘Today, the “responsibility” to learn English falls on the individuals, not institutions, she says, “and that can be no more.”
    This is a point we also bring within the University of Helsinki, but not only with English! The language barrier can indeed be everywhere…

  4. Thank you for your accurate post. I believe the questions you raise are familiar to many. As you suggest, I believe it is important to reflect upon attitudes behind practices and address them. Also, the point you make about the demand for certain kind of language that is the norms that guide our linguistic conduct: where does this come from, who has the power to decide how English, Finnish or Swedish should be at the university level? And how does this work together with “rennosti kolmella kielellä”?

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