Jukka Kola: Without high-quality learning there can be no top-level research, education or wellbeing

Rector Jukka Kola’s address at the opening of the academic year, 5 September 2016.

I would like to concentrate on two themes today.

First, in these trying times I would like to emphasise the significance of the most reliable information, in other words, the significance of high-quality universities, research and education.

Second, I would like to focus on our ability to ensure the quality of teaching and learning. We cannot have high-grade researchers without top-level teaching and learning.

In the 376th anniversary celebration of the University of Helsinki last spring, I wished to draw attention to the significance of reliable information, and I cannot but repeat myself today, because we are living in strange times. For some reason, there seems to be a general trend to rebuff research and research knowledge, in other words, the most reliable information. Solutions based on sound research are also disparaged. Opinions and gut feelings triumph, even when we know that “not all stories are equal”, as was stated by University of Helsinki doctoral students Johannes Cairns and Johanna Muurinen in the Helsingin Sanomat daily on the 1st of August. The editorial in Helsingin Sanomat on the 9th of August referred to the observation by Professor Marko Terviö that a few proclamations based on a gut feeling lead to the syllogistic reasoning prevalent in politics: “something needs to be done, this is something, let’s do this”, even when proper analyses, or any adequate analyses, or estimates of correlations and consequences seem to be lacking altogether. Have we entered a post-truth era, or, specifically, post-truth politics and policies?  Why there is “crisis in public trust in science”, as the new Science editor-in-chief Jeremy Berg states (Times Higher Education THE Aug 18th) or “why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public” as Richard Grant asks (The Guardian Aug. 23rd).

Such an anti-research mentality is not only utterly absurd, but also potentially dangerous, in so far as it eats away at the preconditions of a successful future, or of a decent life, for that matter. At which point – and why – did our country, or its decision-makers, lose their faith in the power of education, knowledge and new, reliable information? To undo the damage that has been done by such decisions will be extremely difficult to achieve after the fact.

And this is by no means only a Finnish phenomenon or cause for worry. Similar trends have appeared in many European countries, including Brexit and the recent purge of Turkish academia among extreme, although indirect phenomena – not to mention the improbable advance of Mr. Trump in the United States. Fact or fiction? But we should better know and understand what do we want, where are we heading and how we do it, where do we place our trust, and what we at the universities can do differently and better to change the situation? Quo vadis, universitas?

Are we able to genuinely evaluate and understand our own states of affairs that have taken centuries to build and refine? Are we able to appreciate and compare such efforts with the actions and achievements of others in a sensible and productive way? The crucial question that confronts us is this: is it not more worthwhile to invest in solid basic research and reliable new information than to seek quick returns based on beliefs and wishful thinking powered into existence through unorganised, rushed efforts and sloppy experiments? We must understand that half-baked benchmarking is not enough – we must learn real benchlearning as depicted in the recent works by L.E. Weber and  J.J. Duderstadt (University Priorities and Constraints); J. A. Douglass (The new flagship university); Werner Müller-Esterl (Die autonome Universität – ein Erfolgsmodell?); S Collini (What are Universities for?) and the University of Helsinki professors H. Nieminen and K. Rahkonen (What are Universities for). The two latter works have the same title, but a different approach to their topic.

We are offered resources and information in all shapes and forms, but we cannot always trust their reliability; nor do we always bother or want to check their reliability.  We may then start trusting erroneous  and/or even purposefully targeted information, whether intentionally or not. Deficient information does not increase our understanding of the phenomena and problems around us; neither will it improve our decision-making or problem-solving processes.

And even if resources, information and knowledge are solid and reliable, this does not always lead to understanding, let alone wisdom. And even if it did, benefits are not always gained from such understanding and wisdom. For example, there are no benefits to be gained when new research-based information contradicts the policies, programmes and selected measures of the decision-makers. Wisdom is left untapped and a better direction undiscovered. We prefer the syllogism of politics, which is a dangerous and unfortunate road to take.

Political objectives and strategic policies may be, and often are, good and sensible, but selecting the correct measures leading to the desired outcomes is difficult. It may be that the environment we are operating in is changing so rapidly and disruptively that the selected measures will prove unsuitable, even detrimental. Another reason may be that the combined effect of several simultaneous objectives and measures is not known or sufficiently understood.

Problems and phenomena in Finland and elsewhere are highly complex. We need reliable, high-quality research to help us understand the problems we face and to better comprehend our society and our world.

Universities must meet this challenge by producing high-quality research and by giving young professionals and specialists the multidisciplinary expertise to study and assess the problems mentioned here, perhaps even to prevent them. We must discard solution models based on a single truth and avoid tunnel vision. We have our responsibilities as pioneers.

I am truly worried about the trend which seems to indicate that Finnish society no longer values education and reliable research results. I am no longer referring to the painful and unreasonable cuts in government funding to education, but rather to the general mentality which no longer views (higher) education and scientific research as something valuable and worth pursuing.

This is new and rather odd for Finland, for how else could we succeed? I must repeat the question I asked you earlier: at which point – and why – did our country’s (political) decision-makers lose their faith in the power of education, knowledge and new, reliable information? 

Disparaging research may lead to a vicious cycle where education itself is rebuffed, considered somehow futile – “can’t we do with less?” Illustrative of this is what the British doctoral student Ryan Coogan wrote in his poignant article in the August issue of the Times Higher Education: “The last time I spoke to my dad, he told me to “pack in all this university shit and get a real job”.

Education and the knowledge it generates, an understanding of the state of society and future perspectives, are of key importance. At the same time, we are well aware in Finland – thanks to reliable research information – that higher education continues to offer the safest and soundest guarantee for employment and higher wages.

According to the NEET figures released by Eurostat in early August 2016, the percentage of young Finns who are neither employed, nor pursuing education or training has worryingly risen from 11.6% in 2006 to 15.7% in 2015. These numbers now clearly exceed that of other Nordic countries (where the figures of young people aged 20-24 neither employed nor pursuing education or training have actually gone down in Sweden from 12.7% in 2006 to 9.3% in 2015, and risen from 7.4% to 8.2% in Norway, and from 5.0% to 9.3% in Denmark). We in Finland have more and more cause for concern. Social exclusion threatens to increase rapidly.   One would expect Finnish decision-makers to be shaken by such figures.

Ladies and gentlemen, I would therefore like to focus on education, teaching and particularly learning.

First, I will discuss them in the light of development measures undertaken at the University of Helsinki.

Second, however, I would like to elaborate on the issue of whether universities’ educational mission will suffer when they are competing over research achievements, a concern that has recently been raised in international discussions concerning higher education. International university rankings, for one, are considered to be at fault. This is a truly dangerous road. We certainly are aware of the fact that high-quality learning is based on high-quality research and that competent researchers cannot be produced without interesting and inspiring first-rate teaching and learning.

Let me first remind you that according to the Universities Act, the mission of Finnish universities is to educate students to serve their country and humanity. This is an important and noble objective, but it is not enough for us. At the University of Helsinki, we educate our students to change our country and the world.

Students from our University are top researchers of the future who can find employment in Finland or elsewhere, they are specialists in their fields who can identify and understand broad topics, as well as manifold interrelationships and consequences. They have the will and the ability to engage in multi-, cross-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary activities and understand the solutions that such activities can offer to major global problems.

The more than three thousand Master’s and doctoral graduates that the University of Helsinki produces annually (or, in other words, the ten graduates that the University produces each working day) are the greatest social impact that we can offer, on a daily basis.

We do it together: the staff, students, alumni and other partners. High-quality teaching, studying and learning do not automatically come out of nowhere; we must work hard to achieve such results by coming together and pooling our resources.

Our competent and committed staff are our key resource: that is, each individual alone, and as a member of a group. Our mission is to develop and promote our country’s welfare and future success factors – within our own University community and in close cooperation with our partners.

For this reason we have undertaken to focus on the student in our new Strategic Plan for the period 2017-2020. A significant component of this plan is the extensive education reform known as the Big Wheel. This wheel is nothing to fear, it does not threaten to crush us all.

On the contrary, this wheel is of sufficient size to include everyone who wants to ride along and participate in the planning, steering and rolling towards better learning and cooperation. The community spirit will grow stronger and collaboration between teachers, between students, and especially between teachers and students, will intensify. By traversing organisational thresholds and boundaries we can create interesting and wide-ranging degree programmes of a high quality. This will also promote openness, equality and collegiality at our University. As a result our common resources will be efficiently tapped and synergistic benefits achieved.

Our aim is to educate young people to become social pioneers, who can recognise and lead us in a better direction and to produce new knowledge.

Students are at the core of our University. After graduating, they will help build a better Finland and a better world. To ensure that our degree programmes remain attractive to both applicants and employers alike, we began to overhaul the content, methods and structures of our teaching in 2015.  

The most fundamental change to the content of studies involves the construction of multidisciplinary Bachelor’s programmes to address current global challenges, which range from environmental change to human behaviour. Such challenges, moreover, take different forms and have a variety of effects, many of which are also extremely complex.

Our education reform will include significant and far-reaching changes.

In spring 2017, applicants to the University of Helsinki will no longer apply to a discipline, but rather to a degree programme. When teaching is provided in 32 Bachelor’s programmes, rather than in over 100 disciplines, as is currently the case, collaboration between students and staff will increase and fuel discussion. Teachers will increasingly work together to plan studies provided as comprehensive, high-quality programmes. Teachers will be able to offer courses to students from different degree programmes, while students will have time to decide which study track within a given programme interests them the most. This will allow us to use our resources efficiently and boost the quality of teaching.

During the 2016–2017 academic year, we will also prepare new curricula for approximately 60 Master’s programmes. Most of the programmes will be offered in English, as we prepare for the introduction of tuition fees in autumn 2017 for students from outside the EU/EEA. Teaching will be provided in line with the new degree programmes as of autumn 2017.     

One of the cornerstones of our education reform is the early incorporation of students into research. This aim has already been achieved quite successfully in some fields (for example, through research groups), but much remains to be done in others. Each field requires its own approaches, but the general aim can be pursued in all. One of our key principles is that teaching must be based on high-quality research. And vice versa, high-quality teaching will ensure that we have a sufficient number of skilled researchers in the future.

Students must also be better integrated into teaching. In many countries, it is common for students to assist in teaching, and they are also keen to do so, which helps incorporate them into the academic and scientific community. This is hugely important for future career plans: can we interest students in an academic career as researchers and teachers?

I cannot avoid addressing the following topic. It is of course digitisation, which we are told will solve all our problems, both here in Finland and elsewhere – if only we understood how it may do so.

Digitisation has already been much discussed and it has been evident in everyday academic activities, probably more so in research (what with open access and big data) than in teaching and learning. But digitisation can also contribute significantly to the improvement of learning. Unfortunately this is an area where we have not kept pace, so we must now gear up.

First, digitisation makes interaction and co-development easier and more effective. This is true of both practical teaching situations and the production of key data for the purposes of academic advice. For example, the University’s My Studies site brings together important information for students, from the courses we offer to personalised student advice – not to mention the menus of student cafeterias, including information on what is healthy and what is not.

Second, we can develop modern and interesting methods for learning and assessment, including more flexible ways to take examinations, for example, through our electronic examination service. (On a related note, this autumn will see the first pilot projects for the use of a digital environment in Finnish matriculation examinations.) The “digital leap” must also serve student admissions, and the experiences we have already acquired should be applied promptly and more widely. The digital leap also requires the redesign of learning environments and, hence, major investments. Our facility solutions must promote both planned and spontaneous daily meetings: we need more spaces for “collision”.

Third, the digital leap is of course not just about technology. The quality of teaching methods and its contents is crucial for both contact teaching and distance learning. New approaches and the willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone and learn new things in new ways (not alone, but together with others) are required from both teachers and students. Digitisation must promote interaction, not reduce it; it cannot result in machine-based communications.

We will also improve our students’ career skills together with our partners, particularly with our alumni. Digital skills are essential to achieve this goal. In addition, we will promote entrepreneurship in response to the genuine demand demonstrated by the hustle and bustle at our Think Company as well as by the statistic that 21% of students at Finnish institutions of higher education in 2014–2015 considered self-employment a probable career option (data from the Federation of Finnish Enterprises, 2016). Not everyone can or should become an entrepreneur, but we can all benefit from learning more about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial activities. In fact, I cannot think of a field in which an academically educated expert could not become an entrepreneur, who might even employ a few of his or her peers. And in any event, companies provide employment for quite a number of graduates. Small-scale cooperative and entrepreneurial activities have also become increasingly popular among young people, possibly because such activities initially require intellectual rather than financial capital. Moreover, the Universities Finland (or UNIFI) umbrella organisation has collaborated with the Federation of Finnish Enterprises in issuing recommendations for promoting entrepreneurship. Although I support such measures, we must be careful not to “get lost in translation: Universities must embrace entrepreneurship and work with industry – but with their eyes open,” as Dame Nancy Rothwell, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, writes in the June issue of the Times Higher Education.

Qualitative employment has been one of this summer’s talking points. It can be a useful objective as such, but it is difficult to measure reliably and comprehensively, and perhaps we do not need one more minor indicator in the Ministry of Education model for allocating funds to universities. On the other hand, some misunderstandings have also arisen: qualitative employment has been interpreted as referring to employment in the graduate’s narrow field of education, although it actually means employment at the appropriate level of education. Our aim is naturally to educate experts who have a wide range of career options in Finland and abroad, rather than to impose harmful restrictions on fields of education.

Hence, it makes sense for a Master’s graduate to be employed in a position intended for a Master’s degree holder rather than taking a job suitable for the holder of a lower degree (or one intended for a doctoral graduate). In general, education and specialist expertise should be valued and utilised more than at present. For example, Finnish companies should hire many more doctoral graduates, as is shown not least by international comparisons. Can Finland’s poor economic performance be partly attributed to our inability or lack of courage to use the potential provided by our highly educated experts, who are numerous and widely available?

Connecting the educational reform to the coming student recruitment and admission reforms at our University and nationwide will bring many benefits. Applying to the University will become a more streamlined and efficient process when fewer options are available for application, and those options are broader in scope and easier to grasp. Students can progress more effectively when we provide them with optional study paths and remove bottlenecks and other barriers in degree programmes. Presumably, gaining admission to the Master’s programme of their choice also motivates students to study effectively at the Bachelor’s stage. The reform of student recruitment and admissions has many sound objectives.

One obvious goal of our Big Wheel reform is of course the enhancement of quality, not only in teaching and learning, but also in research.

The recent Shanghai (ARWU) ranking published this August proved again how far we have already come in achieving this goal. We have improved our ranking considerably in the past three years and now place 56th among the 17,000 universities in the world. Although rankings are not the be-all and end-all of our work, such an excellent score is a strong evidence of the skills of our staff and of the quality of our work. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our staff for their efforts. People are our most important resource. Together we can produce excellent results and build a brighter future.

This autumn, close to 4,000 students are beginning their studies at the University of Helsinki. The success rate of applicants was 16%, so competition is fierce. In total, the University currently has some 35,000 students. We must all make efforts to genuinely focus on our students and provide engaging and high-quality learning opportunities in the coming academic year. One of the aims and means of our reform is increased cooperation between teachers, researchers and students, which represents an immense resource.

It helps us to provide high-quality, high-impact education and helps us in developing Finland into the most competent nation in the world, which is also one of our aims. Strong academic education and research contributes to the welfare and success of Finland and the world, increases equality and mutual respect and, above all, promotes cultivation and learning.

I wish you all a happy and exciting academic year!

Jag önskar er lycka och glädje under det nya läsåret!

Toivotan teille kaikille iloa ja innostusta uuteen lukuvuoteen!