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Arctic problems, arctic know-how

Virve Pohjanpalo


Folk wisdom shakes hands with Western science, as eight Arctic countries learn to understand northern conditions in a new joint university.

The Arctic Circle is not just a line on the map. This parallel of latitude crosses several north- ern countries and the problems and joys of people living along the Arctic Circle resemble each other in many ways. For instance, catastrophic net emigration is familiar to many northern regions.

Eight countries have worked together for several years to create the University of the Arctic, which will be a step in strengthening northern studies and planning a living future for Arctic regions. “The co-operation was made official at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Canada in 1998,” says Outi Snellman, Director of the University’s Co-ordination Office in Rovaniemi, Lapland.

Apart from the administration in the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland, the University of the Arctic is an organisation “devoid of a campus or walls”. Most of the teaching takes place in member universities which also grant the degrees.

Finnish members of the University of the Arctic are University of Lapland, University of Oulu’s Thule Institute and Helsinki University of Technology. At present, the University of Helsinki is not considering joining the network, but hopes that the co-operation co-ordinated by the University of the Arctic will increase the utilisation rate of the research stations in Lapland, says Seppo Lahti, Director of Planning and Development, University of Helsinki. Data collected at Kilpisjärvi, Värriötunturi fjeld and Inari’s Muddusjärvi stations would surely be of use in all circumpolar countries.

Knowledge of the indigenous peoples

The foundation of the wall-less university includes applying the idea of sustainable development in a wide variety of ways and taking environmental change seriously. “We want to respect the traditional knowledge of northern indigenous peoples in planning our studies and their content,” Snellman explains.

The planning stage always had representatives of the indigenous peoples of the region. “It is not always easy to come up with the best way to transfer and distribute knowledge living in rich traditions, and how to make that accumulating knowledge serve the well-being of the circumpolar region. How to incorporate traditional knowledge in the university merit system? For instance, can a shaman, respected in his own community, travel to the other side of the world to tell about his knowledge and skills,” Snellman asks. In the same breath, she admits that, so far, teachers interested in the activities of the University of the Arctic have been recruited on completely classic criteria.

Bits will not kindle passion?

When looking at the globe from such a perspective that the North Pole is in the centre, the world looks rather different than in the light of existing power structures and administrative routes. “Personal contacts are necessary, if the aim is to create a feeling of community and citizenship of the Arctic,” Snellman muses. “Finland is co-ordinating the creation of a kind of northern ERASMUS programme within the University of the Arctic. We want to improve the mobility of both teachers and those willing to learn. Once the spark has started, a lot can be achieved via virtual contacts.”

So far, the activities of the University of the Arctic have been visible mainly as research symposiums and postgraduate courses and as network co-operation. Few single universities have many researchers on the fields brought together by the network, so the participants delight in new contacts.

Snellman is happy to find that northern co-operation also has political momentum. Finland’s, as well as the EU’s Northern Dimension policy needs concrete investments such as the University of the Arctic. Research that appreciates multiculturalism is also a good basis for co-operation with Russia: for once, there is an alternative to contacts inspired by political or economic interests.