Rector Jari Niemelä: Opening address 6.9.2021

Madam President, Mr Chancellor, your excellencies, dear staff, students and friends of the University community, distinguished guests.

This summer will be remembered for the hot weather that seemed to go on and on. The month of June was the hottest ever recorded in Finland. Historically high temperatures were measured in many other countries as well.

The heat laid waste to the preconditions of life all across the globe.

In Canada, as many as a billion marine organisms perished due to high water temperatures.

In Madagascar, drought caused famine.

In Japan and Europe, hundreds of people died in floods.

Death Valley in California was fatally hot, and high temperatures also caused busy periods for the Finnish healthcare system. The hot weather wreaked havoc on our fields and gardens.

The climate crisis is making life increasingly difficult for humans and the rest of the natural world. The phenomenon of biodiversity loss is closely connected to it. The decline of habitats generates carbon dioxide emissions, while climate change accelerates biodiversity loss. Climate change and biodiversity loss are a wicked pair – two factors feeding on each other.

This wicked pair also affects our common health that is shared by the entire natural world and humanity, with the coronavirus crisis as an example of our common health being disturbed. Most likely, the pandemic got its start from a virus being transmitted, due to human activity, from a bat to a wild animal, and then to a human being.

The summer that is now drawing to a close and the coronavirus crisis are evidence of people having the ability to safeguard their wellbeing by safeguarding the wellbeing of nature and the climate. We are all one – and we have no time to quarrel.

Distinguished guests,

Research and education based on research are needed to resolve the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, as well as pandemics.

This year, the power of research has personally touched most of us. It was apt that we have been vaccinated against coronavirus in the Year of Research-based Knowledge.

Drug therapies, diagnostics and vaccines associated with coronavirus have also been developed at the University of Helsinki. Multidisciplinarity is a strength of our University, and our expertise helps to investigate the effects of the exceptional circumstances. The pandemic has considerable effects on health, society, psychology and the economy, which research helps to understand.

We expect that the parliamentary working group appointed to consider RDI funding will, in the autumn, find common ground in increasing funding for research, development and innovation. Raising the level of RDI funding guarantees our continued success as a nation.

Funding multidisciplinary research based on an inquisitive mindset is an element of ensuring our country’s security of supply. No one can predict what kind of research will benefit society in the future. In early 2020, not many people knew how significant the study of zoonotic viruses, or viruses that are transmitted from animals to humans, would become.

This is why we must let all flowers bloom – also in research.


Distinguished guests,

Humanity must change its ways. Tackling and adapting to environmental crises, and preventing pandemics, require future-oriented collaborative efforts both in Finland and globally.

With people ready to change the world, who also understand the world, driving that transformation, we will have the ability to create new things. The University of Helsinki educates such people.

Education based on research provides precisely the skills that are now in demand more than ever: an analytical and critical mindset, creativity, problem-solving skills as well as cooperation and interaction skills. Our students and alumni produce new thoughts and ideas – for the world.

We can expect the unexpected from them.

For the sake of engendering bold thinking, I hope our students also spend time on growing as human beings. Besides, growing as a human being or learning does not stop at graduation – it is a lifelong project for all of us.


Dear friends,

The more diverse the group producing them, the better the ideas produced for the world. This is why higher education must be accessible to all.

In the summer the Ministry of Education and Culture released an extensive report on the accessibility of higher education and universities in Finland, assessing social, regional and language equality in Finnish higher education, as well as barriers hampering various minority groups. Having accessibility included in the Universities Act is a good thing, as is the fact that our higher education institutions are required to draw up their own accessibility plans.

The first step in improving accessibility and creating an increasingly diverse community is increasing awareness. Active efforts are ongoing at the University to promote cultural awareness. For instance, inclusion training targeted at the University community, teachers and researchers in particular, will be introduced at our University this autumn. This training will provide tools that will help us take into account in our work and studies people’s cultural and class backgrounds, language, gender and functional capacity. Our language policy will also be updated in a way that strongly promotes the active use of Finnish, Swedish and English as well as good language practices.

From the perspective of regional accessibility to higher education, additional student places should be allocated to regions in proportion to the number of their general upper secondary school graduates. While roughly one-third of the matriculation examinations completed in Finland are completed in the Uusimaa region, only 29% of the student places available in Finnish universities are allocated here. To raise the share of holders of an academic degree to the 50% proposed by the Finnish government and to better match the number of degrees completed in Uusimaa to the number of its general upper secondary school graduates, the number of student places in the region must be substantially increased. Awarding sufficient funding for additional student intake is important for maintaining the level of our significant research university’s operations.


Dear members of the University community,

We are embarking on a new academic year in a world of uncertainty. Nevertheless, let's remember that the University of Helsinki and the University community have, to this day, been building the future for 381 years – and will continue to do so for the next 381 years.

This autumn, we will continue to conduct part of our operations online, observing the safety measures required by the pandemic. However, we will also have opportunities for face-to-face encounters.

I am genuinely looking forward to meeting you. As members of the University community, we educate one another. You see, Bildung is not only about knowledge gained from books, but also about broad-mindedness, a willingness to learn, empathy, and respect for other people and nature. Bildung is about behaving with human decency.

You can practise decency by asking others ‘How are you doing?'. That is a question I am planning to ask you often. It is important to understand how members of our community are doing in these challenging and exceptional times. In accordance with its strategic plan, the University strives to be the best place to study and work.

Thank you for all the work you have done to foster inclusivity – one of the values of our University – in the exceptional circumstances. Many of us have supported one another, asked how our colleagues or fellow students are doing, and organised inclusive virtual events. Thank you for maintaining the capacity to work and study in an extraordinarily challenging situation.

Let’s focus on inclusivity in the post-pandemic world, too. Let’s support one another, let’s nurture equality, non-discrimination and diversity, and let's work together. That way, we will be able to make our University an increasingly safe and inspiring community. When we feel well, we work well – for the world.


Dear friends of the University community,

We in the community have much to give to society. We are leaders, we question established patterns of thought, and we boldly create new things. We produce research-based knowledge in support of societal decision-making, research, development and innovation activities, as well as active citizenship. We make the future.

Our efforts are worth supporting, as are the preconditions for our success. Investment in research and education should be made both nationally as well as in the EU and globally. Private operators can support our work by making donations to education and research.

There is hope for the future of the world. The prolonged exceptional circumstances can serve to drive the sustainability transition, as our post-coronavirus task force has previously stated. Over the course of the pandemic, we have adapted to new ways of working and interacting with each other. Society changed because we decided to change it for the sake of people’s health.

We are the people who can turn hope into reality. Since we will not be returning to the old ways after the exceptional circumstances, why not create something new? Let’s courageously use this momentum for change.

What can you do for the Earth during this academic year?

I wish members of the University of Helsinki community and our friends a very happy academic year!