Speech by Inkeri Ruokonen at the celebration for the new academic year

Speech by the staff representative: Inkeri Ruokonen, University of Helsinki lecturers’ association at the University of Helsinki celebration for the new academic year, 4 September 2017  

Dear Mr Chancellor, Mr Rector, members and friends of the University community, ladies and gentlemen, 

Another academic year is about to begin. This time we stand at the cusp of change, as the University continues the reforms it launched in the previous academic year. The pursuit of new ideas, questioning, and creative thinking have always been and will remain at the core of science and art. Our work builds on the research and teaching work of the researchers and thinkers who preceded us, examines it critically, learns from it and renews it. 

The University’s operational structures have been overhauled and new structures have been planned and implemented in faculties, degree programmes and University Services. Staff have gone through a tough period of planning several major reforms simultaneously. The changes have been implemented immediately after a year of drastic cost-cuts.

Without the hard work and collaboration of all members of the University community, we would not have made the changes happen as successfully and quickly by the beginning of this academic year. Change is always confronted by criticism. Particularly in the academic world, critical thinking is a driving force and a necessary resource that promotes scholarship and other activities. When we listen carefully to criticism and seek optimal solutions in a constructive manner, we learn how we can take our ideas and practical solutions forward. As an example of this kind of listening, I would like to mention the consultations with faculties and the University Collegium in conjunction with the amendment of the Regulations last spring. The University is an important community for all of us, and staff and students are keen to contribute to its development, but it also requires resources. Supporting the principles of a democratic academic community will remain a cornerstone of our collective wellbeing.  

Academic education is a major resource that changes society and the world. The first Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral programmes based on the Big Wheel education reform will be launched this autumn. Effective collaboration between faculties, degree programmes and University Services has provided the basis and enabled the required planning. This major reform was presented to us as a fait accompli and is now subject to a wide range of expectations. Staff will be at the frontline of the degree programmes and will be responsible for accommodating the new students. Now it is important to consult students and staff about how their expectations have been met and what corrections, if any, are immediately needed to further develop the programmes. In the future, we must assess how an academic degree based on the new model can improve the employment prospects of graduates and how continuing education can support the ever-changing needs of employers.  

The purpose of the reform of degree structures is to make our University into an even more advanced and attractive learning environment for students from both Finland and abroad. We will develop new teaching methods and forms of learning that encourage and commit students to academic studies. So it is with pleasure that I can note that, in addition to the students beginning their studies in Finnish- and Swedish-language programmes, 

students from 46 countries, mostly from China, will begin to study in the new international Master’s programmes this autumn. The University of Helsinki also welcomes approximately 1,200 exchange students each year who stay for more than three months. Likewise, the international Helsinki Summer School, which took a break last academic year, has hosted both Finnish and international students in interesting summer courses this August. We must also consider what internationalisation means for our staff and Finnish-language students. What can internationalisation offer us? I hope our international students and staff see something unique in our University, which can help them establish personal relationships with Helsinki and Finland. 

The University is not a private company. Its mission is to produce results for the benefit of both Finland and the world. Thus we encourage our government to create the necessary conditions for research and academic education of the highest international standards. The principle of academic freedom must permeate both research and education.

Researchers, teachers and doctoral students must be able to freely choose their research questions and publish the results without fearing repercussions. Our University must be equality minded and ethnically, geographically and socioeconomically diverse in terms of both students and academic staff. The Finnish system of funding for research and research-based teaching must be based on a long-term perspective and support the overriding objective of the free pursuit of new knowledge. Research and teaching must be integrated in all contexts. We are grateful for the several donations for education and teacher training that the University of Helsinki has received in recent years. 

Finland is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In the years following the declaration of independence in 1917, the Finnish government valued academic expertise, and members of the academic community played a central role in the construction of the nation state and welfare state. University staff used their international networks and research knowledge to promote the development and internationalisation of the Finnish economy. They participated actively in political decision-making and worked to increase equality. Their joint efforts and enthusiasm also helped the University of Helsinki produce scientific research that today meets the highest European standards, as demonstrated by the several Nobel laureates associated with our University. Since then, the University has grown into a major multidisciplinary world-class university, which continues to address current social and global challenges through research and education, respect the truth, and seek optimal solutions. Today, all Finns regardless of their gender, nationality, place of residence or socioeconomic status have the opportunity to pursue education up to the highest academic level. I wish our country’s politicians would appreciate the work and research-based knowledge of Finnish universities in the same way as their predecessors did during the early years of Finnish history. As the structures of the University change, so do the methods of leadership. Unfortunately, various agreements between the University as an employer and the staff have recently been terminated. As a staff organisation, we wish that the University continues to develop a genuine culture of negotiation, consultation and agreement in the spirit of Nordic democracy. And as staff, we wish that a positive spirit of cooperation continues to be reflected in all the University’s activities.  

Today we have 11 faculties and 35 000 students in our University. Today’s students will be solving tomorrow’s challenges. In our strategic plan there is a greater focus on the students. Together with them, we teachers and researchers as well as other University staff want to develop competitive degree programmes and degrees of a broader scope. Our common aim is to create new learning environments and methods which engage learning and give students opportunities to participate in research right from the beginning. Students have always been the focus of university teachers, but teaching needs more resources for better individual supervising and guidance possibilities. In this effort, the Teachers’ Academy is promoting the status of university teaching and is improving the quality of learning among students. The members meet regularly during the academic year to share their pedagogical innovations, learn about the development of teaching and learning in other units, and tackle important issues together. University pedagogical studies, collegial support and sharing are essential for the future development of our University. 

All University of Helsinki staff have recently had to work under tremendous pressure and have done their best for the success of the University’s reforms and services. A sense of community is now needed in situations where teachers, researchers and service staff together strive to fix the gaps resulting from hurried reforms and to answer the diverse questions of students. 

Interaction, listening, trust and open discussion are crucial for the development of a work community. Trust and a strong feeling of camaraderie can be built through everyday interaction. We cannot create a community through structures, but rather by committing to working together for our shared mission as members of the University and carrying out our responsibilities. Each of us should receive positive feedback on the successful performance of our duties from our peers and leaders. An open, safe and encouraging atmosphere as well as respect for others promote the wellbeing and learning of all those who work and study at the University. Both successes and failures teach important lessons to those involved. Learning is interactive and vitally important for the University’s productivity. A collaborative, forward-looking and encouraging attitude is crucial for progress.  

We are the University, and our mission is broad. Nelson Mandela once wrote: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Let’s again work together this academic year for a better world and a better future.  

I wish all of you a happy and successful academic year.