The opening speech by the Rector Jukka Kola

The speech by the Rector Jukka Kola at the celebration marking the new academic year 2017-2018.

Mr Chancellor;  Dear members of the academic community, students and staff;  Distinguished alumni and friends of the University;   mina damer och herrar, ladies and gentlemen 


Finland needs more high-quality higher education and enough resources for it to succeed 


Ladies and gentlemen, for the past few years, I have in my speeches repeatedly emphasised the significance of reliable information. Today, I cannot but repeat myself again, for we are living in strange and dangerous times –  in a post-truth era marked by alternative or optional facts and manipulated news. The mission and responsibility of universities is to stop the spread of such idiocy. 

But I will talk about two different themes that certainly are not only related to each other, but also to these ‘strange times’. 

Firstly, with the great and rapid – and sometimes surprising – changes (such as Brexit and Trump) going on in the world, we cannot stress enough the importance of extensive highquality higher education for our country and for the entire world. As future demands for competence change radically, the versatile and high-standard research and teaching conducted at universities continues to grow in importance, but in a different way than before. Universities are expected to be active, creative, open minded and unbiased, and to take the role of true pioneers. They are certainly not expected to follow others and conform to changes without protest.  

My second theme concerns the project of the Ministry of Education and Culture to build a vision for Finnish higher education and research in 2030, and the related views and actions of the University of Helsinki in particular. We should stop to carefully consider what kind of a system of higher education can secure the success of our country also in the future. There are various goals, wishes and criteria, but if and when the main objective of higher education and research of an increasingly high quality remains clear in our minds, suitable and efficient means can be found. Hopefully these means can be identified and employed politically, economically and socially in accordance with the principles of sustainable development.  


Adventures in social mobility 

This autumn, a total of 3,770 new students will embark on their studies in the University of Helsinki’s 32 new Bachelor’s programmes. My warmest congratulations to the successful applicants! There were many motivated and gifted applicants, but only 16% of them were able to be admitted.  

Some 150,000 young people participate in the joint admissions procedure of Finnish institutions of higher education. A little over 50,000 of them are admitted either to a university (about 20,000) or a university of applied sciences (about 30,000). To give you some background information and data for comparison: in recent years, age groups have included some 55,000–60,000 people, and general upper secondary school leavers number about 30,000. Last year, 97% of comprehensive school leavers continued on to upper secondary education, with 30,000 going to the general upper secondary school and 25,000 to a vocational institution. The Training Guarantee scheme is likely to raise the figure to close to 100%. 

Some of our new students will be the first generation in their families to receive an academic education, which will open up new avenues of social mobility for them. In some countries such social mobility is described as “breaking the class ceiling”, while in Finland, we have coined it as “taking a class trip”. We continue to see such young people embarking on their class trip through academic education. Finnish youth aspiring to higher education are not hampered by the level of their parents’ education or other background factors (such as income level). Opportunities are equally available to everyone. Admittedly, university education does run in some families, especially in fields such as medicine and law. And the parents’ background still continues to have an impact on how interested their children will be in higher education, as recent research shows (Karhunen and Uusitalo 2017).   

The beginning of university studies is, in a sense, a class trip for all new students as they start to learn new things, open their minds to new ideas, grow independent and develop as persons. The class trips pupils take at school are about learning new and different things. Such trips may also be just about having fun, but that is also part of life and growing up. This applies to studies and student life as well, as they too are about encountering new, interesting things and new people and friends from near and far. Our thinking reaches new horizons, our understanding reaches new areas, and our education reaches new depths. The student years may be the best times of your life (or perhaps memories just grow sweeter with time). 

When our students graduate, they become architects of the future, forerunners. After all, we must abide by the law. As you know, the Universities Act stipulates that the mission of universities is to educate students to serve their country and humanity at large. It is a clear and noble objective, but, in a way, too cautious, too static. In other words, it is not enough for us. At the University of Helsinki, we educate students to change our country and the world. To change them for the better, for all of us. 

But for what kind of a world are we educating our youth? A world marked by uncertainty, for sure. What is certain is that in the next decades, we will see radical and quite rapid changes. Many jobs will disappear, and education- and employment-based mobility will increase. Within a certain time, competence will be more important than the completed degree. It is certain that future needs and demands for competence will be very different from the present ones.  

Globalisation and internationalisation, open knowledge and big data, augmented and artificial intelligence, robotics and digitalisation, climate change and sustainable development, and the sufficiency of food, water and natural resources in general will bring about significant changes and pose great challenges, faster than we believed.  How can human wellbeing and the resilience of nations and states be secured?  


We need new thinking and creativity as well as new operational approaches and steadfast political decisions, both at home and abroad. Unfortunately, the trend has been the opposite in recent years. 

High-quality research and research-based teaching offer solutions and provide our students with solid skills for the future. What is crucial is to build up such expertise and competence which will allow students to continue learning and creating new solutions. Solutions that we have no idea about today. Thus, lifelong learning remains increasingly important.  

In order to widen the horizons of ideas and to boost quality, the University of Helsinki reformed its degree programmes under a development project known as the Big Wheel. The more than 100 previous Bachelor’s programmes have been replaced by 32 broadscale programmes. Our 60 Master’s programmes are ever more international, both in terms of the language of instruction and the programme content. At the same time, we are developing the admissions system further and promoting study progress. It is better to be an agent of change than just the target that conforms to change.   

Finland’s success depends on competence, and we have become internationally recognised as a country with a high level of education. This continues to hold true when we look at the ratio of academically educated people to the entire workforce. However, recently there has been a worrying trend, particularly among the younger generations of university graduates. The former situation in which the number of university graduates entering the workforce was far greater than the number of university graduates leaving the workforce no longer applies: these numbers are now nearing each other.  

In 2015, Finns aged between 25 and 34 and holding a higher education degree accounted for 40.5% of the population, while the average in the OECD countries was 41.8% (OECD, Education at a Glance 2016). South Korea with its 69% and Japan and Canada with their 60% are in a league of their own, but Finland was defeated by the other Nordic countries as well with the following figures: Norway 48.1%, Sweden 46.4% and Denmark 44.5%. In Estonia, the ratio was the same as in Finland, while in Germany it was only 30%. Still in the early 1990s, Finland topped these statistics. 

The downward trend in Finland has been explained by the fact that students begin their studies at a later age, they progress slowly, and their graduation is delayed (or they drop out), and finally, many change their field of study. As much as a third of all student places (totalling some 20,000) have been taken by applicants who already hold a university degree or have been previously admitted to a university. Moreover, the abolishment of former vocational institutes and the establishment of universities of applied sciences meant that the duration of studies was prolonged.  

The saddest part is the number of young men who fall by the wayside at school and become socially excluded. In 2015, this group of NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training) accounted for over a fifth (21.1%) of Finnish men aged between 20 and 24, while the corresponding figure ten years earlier was 12% (the corresponding figures for women were 15.4% and 13.9%). Among men, the growth of the NEET phenomenon has been rapid, and in this respect, Finland can be counted among the European countries hit by an economic crisis during the last ten years (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland).  


This worrying situation is a challenge. How can we turn the worsening trend to a better direction? Which countries are comparable to us, and what could we learn from them? And what would be an appropriate target figure for university graduates? It is evident that Finland needs more “class trips” through the promotion and safeguarding of equal opportunities for all.   

The objective should be that at least 50% of young adults (between 25 and 34) complete a higher education degree by 2030 (this objective is also included in the Vision 2030 project discussed later).   

But, besides quantity, quality is at least of equal concern: the quality of education, the content of studies as well as teaching and learning methods call for attention. This applies to all forms of education. Genuine cooperation must be undertaken throughout the whole spectrum from early education to doctoral education. Particularly universities and general upper secondary schools need to engage in closer cooperation. The ongoing changes in the world and the various competence needs in the future call for this collaboration.  

Both increasing the number of university students and improving the quality of education and research require sufficient resources. As such political decisions are urgently needed, the Ministry of Education and Culture launched in the spring a process for creating a vision for Finnish higher education and research in 2030. The vision should be completed this September. Next, I would like to discuss the development needs of universities, both from the perspective of the University of Helsinki and from a general point of view. As a starting point, I will base my comparisons on international top universities, the University of Helsinki being one of them, as proven by its placing (56th) in the freshly published Shanghai ranking. 


Vision for higher education and research in 2030 – Quality is key! 

The purpose of the project launched by the Ministry of Education and Culture is to create a vision for the development of a high-quality, high-impact and internationally competitive higher education system in Finland by 2030. The project explores the needs, options and models for the development of our higher education system as well as assesses their impact and feasibility. The primary themes include (i) the structure and scope of the system of higher education, (ii) the structure of degrees and number of students, (iii) steering, management and funding practices, and (iv) impact.  

There are several simultaneous development projects focused on universities and research, including the policies on promoting internationality in higher education and research 2017–2025 (Better together for a better world, Publications of the Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland 2017:11), the drafting of a vision and roadmap by the Research and Innovation Council, the OECD Reviews of Innovation Policy: Finland 2017 (Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, 9 June 2017) and the preparation of the 9th EU Framework Programme, to which LERU (the University of Helsinki included) is actively contributing. We can only hope that coordination is effective, and synergy and convergence between the policies can be found.

The Minister of Education Sanni Grahn-Laasonen commented on the vision 2030 project by stating that high international standards must serve as the starting point for the development of higher education and research (Ministry of Education and Culture, 14 February 2017). The University of Helsinki fully agrees with her. It goes without saying that besides starting off from national needs, development projects must increasingly take into account the changes brought about and required by the international operating environment; after all, our universities are part of the global network of institutions of higher education and research. Changes and demands for new skills challenge the entire system of higher education, research and innovation  to reform much more extensively and  at a much faster pace than we could imagine at the beginning of the 2010s.

The vision 2030 has been prepared since late spring in collaboration between institutions of higher education and various stakeholders in themed seminars, workshops and an online brainstorming platform. A parliamentary monitoring group has also been appointed to support this work. The vision should be completed this September. The schedule has been tight, but perhaps such a working method is more efficient and more focused. The end results will reveal how we have succeeded. And, of course, the development work does not end here.

The starting point and objective for the University of Helsinki’s involvement in the Vision 2030 project is the improvement of the quality of research and education to achieve international competiveness. A creative, international environment for learning and toplevel research is one of the three key objectives of the Strategic Plan of the University of Helsinki 2017–2020.  We invest in profile building and active recruitment as well as highquality and impactful basic research by establishing centres such as HiLIFE, INAR and HELSUS to coordinate and further develop our strong areas of research and to enhance international connections. Thanks to the Big Wheel project, we have created attractive degree programmes and competitive degrees.  

The high quality and wide recognition of research are the most important factors in attracting the most talented researchers and students to Finland. 


National actions to improve quality and impact

To achieve the shared national objectives for improving the quality and impact of research and education, we need (a) sufficient resources for the whole sector, particularly for toplevel research, and (b) a clear national policy for higher education and science that is in line with our innovation policy. Indeed, the purpose of the work on the vision for Finnish higher education and research in 2030 is to issue related guidelines and implement them in the coming years.

Regardless of the funding situation, but especially because of the limitations it poses, we need more explicit, effective specialisation and profile building throughout higher education. This, in turn, requires collaboration, but above all a clear division of responsibilities. Not everyone would do what they are currently doing – or especially what they have done before. Clearer profiles would enable the Finnish higher education sector to manage better even with limited resources. After all, Finland currently has 15 universities, 23 universities of applied sciences and about a dozen government research institutes. Is this ideal?

By clearly dividing their responsibilities, universities and other institutions of higher education could produce a sufficient amount of sufficiently high-quality research and teaching based on each institution’s special characteristics and research-related and regional strengths. In addition, if the dual model of the Finnish higher education sector is to be abolished, we must soon decide on new approaches and the division of responsibilities between, for example, world-class research universities and institutions of higher education that focus particularly on regional and employment-based needs. We need more specialisation and clearer profiles within and between institutions of higher education. The first results of such efforts can be expected from the mergers that have already been completed (for example, Aalto University and the University of Eastern Finland) or are currently ongoing (Tampere and the Lappeenranta-Lahti axis).  


A regional model would promote the division of responsibilities between institutions of higher education and enhance the efficient use of resources

We should genuinely consider the development of Finnish higher education and research using the regional model of higher education institutions that I proposed three years ago. In this model, universities, universities of applied sciences, general and vocational upper secondary schools, government research institutes, companies and other parties in certain major regions would collaborate more closely to improve the quality of research and higher education and to promote their impact, all for the benefit and wellbeing of the relevant regions, and hence, for the benefit of Finland as a whole.  

Instead of engaging in mutual competition, the focus would be on productive collaboration. The same is true at the national level: mutual competition for limited national resources does not bring in more funds; instead, we must acquire more international funding, particularly from the EU but also from international foundations. We should also team up with high-quality international partners. To succeed in the acquisition of research funding and the engagement of strategic partners, we must produce high-quality and high-impact research.  

A concrete example of a better division of responsibilities would be the concentration of doctoral education at certain universities. All units need not offer doctoral education in all major subjects or fields of undergraduate education, but universities can continue to provide doctoral education in their areas of focus and strength. Thus we can improve the quality and impact of Finnish doctoral education.  

Finnish institutions of higher education could also cooperate with each other in the provision of web-based teaching and divide the related responsibilities. National MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, could be created in educational fields offered at several units, thereby improving quality and cost-effectiveness and providing considerable benefit for both degree education and Open University education.

We could also develop a few first-class, attractive international MOOCs not only to market the research and education of Finnish universities, but also to strengthen Finland’s brand as a country.

To create a clear, detailed proposal for the vision for 2030, we should not obsess with the minutiae of the Ministry of Education and Culture’s model for the allocation of funds (by tasking large working groups to grapple with percentage units and new parameters or the uncertainties of strategic funding), but rather come up with a more radical reform concerning the bases and allocation of funding. Nationwide quality assessments and comparisons should be made, and the results should be genuinely utilised. (This was not done with the clear results achieved through the Academy of Finland reports on the state of scientific research.) Likewise, international comparisons should be made, and their applicability to Finland should be discussed. The German Excellence Initiative should be analysed, even though it is based on significant additional funding for universities. 


Similarly, the British RAE/REF and TEF models can be investigated, although they are quite blunt instruments with drastic effects. In any case, the quality of research and education as well as the results of quality assessment should play a decisive role in the allocation of funding. I hope that the work associated with the vision for 2030 will produce an effective new model for Finland.

All guidelines and solutions that are crucial for the future of the higher education sector must address the increasing global competition for top students and researchers as well as for international (research) funding. The Ministry of Education and Culture must use its resources and management expertise to support the development of quality and competitiveness, and focus on existing and emerging strengths and spearhead projects as well as the research infrastructures that promote them. The funding applications for the university profile building of recent years and the upcoming call of the new flagship programme will support these goals. However, rather than new, separate channels of research funding, universities would prefer more core funding and the reinforcement of the Academy of Finland’s existing resources (for example, centres of excellence). Such resources should of course be allocated on the basis of quality (as is the case with the abundant funding provided to top universities for 2 x 7 years in the German Excellence Initiative). The autonomous status of universities and the freedom of research are key principles that must be upheld. High and broad-based confidence in the willingness and ability of universities to achieve the best possible research and education outcomes would be desirable and important. 


How the University of Helsinki can improve quality and impact

Despite our difficulties in recent years, we have invested in internal reforms (such as the Big Wheel education reform, University Services, new information systems and the consolidation of services into independent companies) and the establishment of a strong profile in research and education (digital humanities, data science, life sciences (HiLIFE), atmospheric sciences (INAR), sustainable science (HELSUS), urban studies and Health Capital Helsinki). We have continuously improved the quality of our research, as demonstrated by the increase of international publications and competitive external funding, particularly from the European Research Council and the Academy of Finland programme for strengthening university research profiles. We have also had considerable success in fundraising: we have acquired more than €45 million when our target was €25 million! Our recent position at No 56 in the Shanghai academic ranking is also testament to the excellent work of our research and teaching staff as well as support staff. 


We have also revamped the recruitment of researchers and students. The recruitment of professors, in particular, is one of the most important and long-lasting decisions a university can make. We have put the focus on students, not just in speeches, but also in action. We are investing in admissions reform, career skills, digital learning and universitylevel teaching. We are also promoting science education and collaboration with general upper secondary schools (for example, on the Viikki Campus and through our LUMA activities). 

The thousands of Master’s and doctoral degree holders (a total of more than 3,000) who graduate from the University each year are the greatest social impact that we can make, each and every day. 


The social and economic impact of science and research has increased, which is especially important in our post-truth era of alternative facts and manipulated opinions. But it seems that even more is required, particularly with regard to innovations. So it is important to emphasise that the impact of universities should be seen and assessed broadly and in the long term, not just in terms of short-term economic and technological impact. Scientific information and guidance must be made more readily available to support decision-making. This would be helped by the regional model of higher education, in which internationally competitive ecosystems of expertise based on top-level research would develop around leading hubs of higher education. At Universities Finland, or UNIFI, we have outlined that Finnish universities, universities of applied sciences and research institutes should form high-level and attractive knowledge communities for the benefit of both individual regions and Finland as a whole.

To promote the impact of our research and education, we at the University of Helsinki have focused on the provision of related training to researchers as well as on science communications and community relations. Soon the University will open its new Think Corner, a relaxed forum where the academic and wider communities can meet. Locally, our collaboration with the City of Helsinki has been very close and productive. We have also increased our cooperation with the Finnish Parliament and other decision-makers, for example, by actively participating in this summer’s SuomiAreena public debate forum in Pori.  


Internationally, we participated in UNIFI’s visit to Brussels earlier this year (and commented on the plans for the EU’s ninth research framework programme), the Helsinki Challenge competition (which will also visit Brussels in October) as well as in the report entitled Economic Impacts of Finnish Universities (compiled by the Irish BiGGAR Economics, which is currently updating a similar, previous report it completed for LERU universities).   

To promote all of these important issues, the Board of our University determined the following five themes as the key areas to be developed in 2018: The use of digitalisation, International activities and international collaboration,  Community and equality,  Quality of learning and employability and the social role and impact of the University.

We will continue to work on all the above major issues because their development will take more than one year. The themes can and should also guide the development of the Finnish university system and the higher education sector as a whole.

I began this speech by outlining some worrying developments in the Finnish education sector over the latest decade, but if we look at the long-term developments – which is only appropriate given that this year we are celebrating Finland’s 100th anniversary – we see that they have been swift and positive: in just 100 years, the number of students at the University of Helsinki has increased tenfold (from 3,215 in 1917 to 35,000 today), and the number of students who complete a matriculation examination has increased by 30 times (1,100 in 1917 to more than 30,000 today). What will happen in the next 100 years?  


Our short-term goal should be that at least 50% of Finnish young adults, or those aged between 25 and 34, complete a higher education degree by 2030. (Compare this goal with the vision for 2030.)   


Our staff and students have produced excellent results in the past few years. I wish all of us success and inspiration in the 2017–2018 academic year. Collaboration and a sense of community both within the University and with our partners can bring great results and wellbeing for us and others, and help us become true pioneers, the architects of a better future. I once again wish our new students and new staff warmly welcome to the University of Helsinki. 


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 ja Suomen suloiseen syksyyn!