Jukka Kola: The University must drive change, not just react to it

PRESS RELEASE | Opening of the Academic Year 2015–2016.

Universities must be pioneers, producers of new knowledge and understanding as well as the cornerstones of the nation’s regeneration. When the world changes, we must drive change, not just react to it.

This must also be our role in the promotion of international and multicultural perspectives. Universities are excellent, natural channels for the nation’s internationalisation and the initial integration of immigrants. Employers must be more active in employing graduates from Finnish universities: graduates without flawless Finnish or Swedish skills must be able to find employment that matches their qualifications in Finland. 

Mr Commissioner, Mr Prime Minister, as you know, Finland and Europe must not isolate themselves or build new walls, but must remain open societies. Finland must bear its responsibility while maintaining a balance between its own interests and global requirements. Science and universities struggle with the same issue. With this in mind, I am looking forward to discussing related challenges and opportunities in more detail later today at our Open Science – Open Data – Open Innovations seminar.

New students arrived at the University last week. The Finnish Universities Act stipulates that we shall educate our students to the service of their country and humanity. But we are not content with that. Rather than educating them to serve, we train them to change our country and the world into a better place to live. So, a warm welcome to all new students!

An investment in these young people as well as in education and research is an investment in the nation’s welfare and future success – in Finland, in Europe and on the global scale. The education opportunities of women in particular must be improved in developing countries. Such investments help us achieve sustainable growth.

The University of Helsinki has played an important role in Finland’s development for the past 375 years. The roots of Finland’s independence and the Finnish language can be traced back to the University. Influential figures in Finnish politics, economics, science and culture have included such former graduates as philosopher and statesman J. V. Snellman, author Mika Waltari, President of the Republic of Finland Urho Kekkonen and Nobel-winning chemist A. I. Virtanen. The University of Helsinki has always had the courage to reform and reinvent itself when that has been necessary. Today, that need appears particularly pressing.

Our internationally competitive research helps solve many complex problems both in Finland and abroad, and creates the necessary basis for new innovations. Science and research improve Finland’s competitive edge and support political decision-making. The quality of research is what matters. A few weeks ago, we found out that the University of Helsinki has again improved its international ranking: the University rose to the 67th place in the Shanghai Ranking, its best ranking to date. High quality requires the best and brightest researchers and teachers. We are lucky to have many such individuals working at the University, and we intend to hold onto them despite the increasing international competition for top talent. We will also increase our international recruitment and fundraising efforts. In addition to finding Finnish donors, we must attract major international foundations as well as private and corporate donors. A recent example in this field is the US-based Broad Institute’s donation of 10 million dollars for psychosis research headed by our University.

What is the significance of rankings and success in them?

Success and visibility in rankings have some undeniable direct consequences, such as boosting international recruitment, increasing research cooperation and diversifying channels of research funding. Few universities seek to establish international strategic partnerships outside the rankings.

But how would I describe an international elite university? It is a university with top-level research groups that develop new treatments for cancer with other world-class teams. It is a university that has helped our country top the PISA tables by offering the world’s best teacher education. Other countries, such as China, are keen to learn from our success. It is a university that produces climate data which the global research community uses online day and night. These “open science” and “big data” activities have already been ongoing for about 20 years. Data from the world’s longest time series are crucial for stopping climate change in Russia, China and the rest of the world.

No quick-fix solutions will help us reach the top. Developing solutions to global challenges requires sustained hard work of the highest quality – and that requires long-term investments.

Do we have sufficient resources to succeed in global competition?

Our skilled and motivated staff are our most important resource, both as individuals and collectively. They and our students can rely on a strong and influential University to champion their efforts. Our mission is to develop and promote our country’s welfare and future success factors. However, in addition to our own research and reforms, this mission also requires resources that are comparable to those provided in other countries.

It has often been pointed out that, as a proportion of GDP compared to other countries, Finland invests a fairly considerable amount of public funding in the higher education sector as well as in research, development and innovation. This is true, but two factors must be borne in mind: first, our country’s GDP is quite small in relation to most comparable countries. It is not the percentages we count, but the euros. Second, although Finland has a small population, the available funds are divided between some 40 institutes of higher education. When these facts are taken into account, a different picture emerges.

As an extreme example, the annual budget of MIT in the United States is larger than that of the entire Finnish university sector. In the early 2000s, Denmark reformed its university structure and funding allocation to enable the University of Copenhagen to significantly improve its international rankings. This benefits all of Denmark. In Sweden, the Karolinska Institutet benefits from notable investments in infrastructure. The traditional top universities will not relinquish their status, and new top institutions are emerging, particularly in China and elsewhere in Asia, with huge recruitment and infrastructure allocations. It is true that often there is a strong correlation between quality and available resources.

Meanwhile in Finland, the Government now intends to target its most significant cuts specifically toward its only world-class university.

The leaders of our country, from politicians to captains of industry, are proud when travelling internationally to have at least one Finnish university ranked among the top 100 universities in the world. But once back in Finland, they seem to forget about this. Are we being taken for granted?

Universities have a key role in building a booming knowledge-based society in Finland. Cutting their funding, particularly the funding of top-quality universities, means that our nation is eating its future. The international estimation of the University will not improve if its quality is eroded – and then neither will that of Finland.

Mr Prime Minister, Mr Commissioner, the structural development and profiling of the Finnish sector of universities and research institutes are vitally important when resources are cut. Our universities and research institutes are too fragmented, and there are many overlaps. The resources are spread thinly and are not allocated in the best way to improve the competitiveness of our universities – and nation.

Might it be better to allocate resources by larger districts, while comprehensively evaluating both universities and research institutes in each district? There would be approximately six such university districts in Finland. This would move us from the current competition between 50 units into a more useful situation where districts could be profiled and prioritised cooperatively. The districts would naturally be tied to national plans and objectives. As a result, resources would be used more effectively, and the quality of research and teaching in particular would improve. At the same time, our competence and welfare would improve in a broader sense.

This is what our nearly 100-year-old Finland needs and what we at the University of Helsinki want to promote, in cooperation with both our Finnish and our increasingly numerous international partners.

Our method: A creative, international and motivated research and learning community

Our University is currently drafting its new strategy and allocating its future investments, despite harsh resource cuts. During the drafting process, we cooperate with other universities, businesses and, most importantly, the City of Helsinki. Many of our new development targets and research focus areas of course also relate to the Government’s spearhead and growth projects.

The impact of digitalisation on society and its people is a perfect research area for our multidisciplinary University. We have made a special theme of our spearhead project of digital teaching and learning. In the summer we also featured prominently in the SuomiAreena event in Pori to present the topic of future learning. We want to help make Finland a top country in education, competence and modern learning.

Our Life Science area is already strong, and we want to make it the best of its kind in the world. As part of our Life Science area, Health Capital Helsinki gathers together the top-class health competence in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area and creates a conglomerate of research, innovation and business to boost growth. The recipe for innovation success is simple: medical researchers, bioscience researchers, technological researchers, the hospital and companies can now solve problems together! Bioeconomy has long been our strong suit, and we intend to focus more on providing its results to the benefit of society to correspond to its changing needs, such as new materials, the side-products of biomass and sustainable energy solutions.

Our top-class research in climate change and air quality will become increasingly important when Paris hosts the UN Climate Change Conference in December. As a concrete EU-level initiative, we are proposing a world-wide network of greenhouse gas measurement stations in the style of the Hyytiälä and Nanjing stations. With 200 stations, we could create a Global SMEAR 2020 network!

In these ways, we as a university are constantly providing research results for practical use in interaction with the surrounding society and responding to its changes. Another example of this is the Helsinki Challenge idea competition, in which multidisciplinary teams of researchers, ordinary citizens and businesspeople together develop concrete solutions for the world’s problems. Commissioner Moedas will be meeting these teams later today.

When we work to provide solutions for global problems, we are simultaneously even better fulfilling our core duty and providing the best possible teaching and research, with quality results, as indicated by the latest Shanghai Ranking. This is the only way to be a real pioneer and to make a powerful impact.

We know the power of science, research and education. We know the power of thought, and have for 375 years. We have been building this foundation for centuries, and can stand on it to build a future for Finland.

We have been lucky enough to recruit the most competent, most motivated and most enthusiastic researchers, teachers, students as well as administrative and support staff to our fantastic University community. Together, we have built our University’s stellar success and impact. We are a big player on the global stage together with our community and our partners – something that will feature in our new strategy. As I previously emphasised, our most important resources and success factors remain our staff and students.   

Even in difficult times, the University of Helsinki with its researchers, teachers and other staff are doing their best to improve the quality of Finnish science, research and higher education. We hope that other Finnish institutions will do the same and make the kinds of political and financial decisions that will ensure the success of our country in the future.

We have the will and the way to turn our challenges into opportunities and to create success for all of us, in Finland and globally. The University of Helsinki is a pioneer!

I wish you a happy and exciting academic year!