Kaarle Hämeri: Universities are forerunners of internationalisation

Science is international in nature. All fields of science originate in the interaction of scholars working in different countries. The success of universities has always called for an international approach, and universities have served as forerunners of internationalisation: at the University of Helsinki, for instance, already close to one-quarter of the teaching and research staff come from outside Finland.

The international nature of science requires our researchers to attend conferences and visit research communities around the world, contribute to networks, and publish in international journals in order to succeed in academia. Correspondingly, we need researchers from abroad to enrich the Finnish research community.

In the field of science, Finland has sought to be at the core of European and international activities. Already in the 1980s, for example, we decided to join the European Space Agency ESA, while in the 1990s we applied for membership of CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. The membership fees invested in these projects have guaranteed Finnish researchers access to international research projects, while financially benefiting Finnish universities and businesses.

For the Finnish research sector, membership of the European Union and, through that, participation in European research projects has meant significant internationalisation over the past few decades. Thematic research programmes initiated at the start of the millennium provided many Finnish research groups and researchers with links to European consortia, which conducted concrete collaborative work. I myself made several research trips across Europe at the time, during which I established a number of contacts that remain strong to this day. Every single researcher brought their personal and unique skills to the projects, making the strength of collaboration evident and concrete.

Systematic and long-term cooperation engenders important infrastructures based on networks. Environmental research and monitoring the state of the globe are examples of activities that require geographically decentralised resources. The financial contribution of individual parties in a network may be small, but without every single part of the network, the scope of research would not reach the breadth currently achieved in science.

Within the EU community, one of the most significant measures promoting internationalisation has been the fostering of networks for junior scholars through various researcher and student exchange programmes. They have provided the required networks and funding with which to experiment with conducting research elsewhere. These programmes have made it possible for researchers to already start networking at the early stages of their careers, as well as enabling the transfer of new knowledge and skills back to us. Globally speaking, the EU’s research framework programmes are utterly unique structures, and have significantly supported our internationalisation. Last year alone, more than 9,000 higher education students left Finland through the Erasmus+ exchange programme.

The University of Helsinki competes, in particular, with Nordic and other European top-level universities. What is important in this competition is our ability to recruit exceptional researchers and students. This requires that we support those coming from abroad to settle in at the University and into Finnish society. The practicalities related to the arrival in Finland of recently appointed researchers and international students must be further simplified: applying for and gaining a residence permit as well as relocating one’s family to Finland must be made easier, while students should be granted a residence permit for the duration of their degree studies. At the moment, the application and granting process for residence permits can be laborious, and students are still not granted permits for the entire period required for completing their degree. Citizens of EU states must be able to move freely and live within the EU territory, in addition to which they need a quick channel for registration. International master’s and doctoral graduates must be supported in finding employment.

These challenges can be solved, but they require the contribution of universities, companies and businesses, as well as decision makers and civic society. A fitting aim for Finland would be to have the most smoothly functioning and streamlined services, which would attract the best experts and keep them here. When the family of a scholar, for example, decides to follow them to another country, all aspects of life must be in order. We already have a solid foundation: our University is attractive and international arrivals appreciate, among other things, the educational opportunities for children in Finland and the safety and security of our society. We must also hold on to these in the future.

Kaarle Hämeri
University of Helsinki