Speech by Sari Lindblom, rector of the University of Helsinki, at the opening ceremony of the academic year on 31 August 2020

Madam President, Mr Chancellor, your excellencies, dear members and friends of the academic community, ladies and gentlemen,

Warmly welcome to the opening of the academic year! I especially wish all new students welcome to the University of Helsinki. We will have an inspiring autumn ahead of us.

This year, we welcome the new academic year of our 380-year-old university remotely. Contrary to the custom, the keynote speeches are also held here at the beautiful Old student house, because the main building of the university is being renovated.

Last spring was a tangible demonstration of how drastically the world can change in an instant. An unforeseeable event rapidly turned the functioning of society upside down. Of course, our lives were tinged with unpredictability already before the pandemic. Many people are predicting that the 2020s as a whole will be a decade of great upheaval.

Even though we cannot see the future and even if continuous change is inevitable, we can adopt a positive attitude toward such uncertainty.

After all, a rapid pace of change can be controlled by taking an even stronger hold of the future. We need not approach change by fearing it, adapting to it or fighting against it. We can choose to serve as agents of change.

Ladies and gentlemen, the University of Helsinki is an agent of change.

The strategic plan of the University defines the future we wish to be building and the change we wish to see in the world by 2030.

An uncertain future requires us to find solutions to major global problems: how to curb climate change, how to beat pandemics, how to make peace and how to safeguard the preconditions of democratic societies.

The University of Helsinki is looking for solutions and building a better world with the power of knowledge. We conduct ground-breaking basic research, promote the progress of open science and make a difference in collaboration with other parties.

We approach all these endeavours from a multidisciplinary angle, since individual fields of science are unable to solve great social challenges. We need seamless cooperation among academic experts of different disciplines. Multidisciplinary and broad-based research combined with an abundance of perspectives are precisely what make the University of Helsinki strong.

The University is also building a better world through high-quality teaching that is based on research.

We educate experts who will change the world.

The University’s goal is to provide our graduates with both the skills and courage to tackle global issues and solve them together with experts representing a range of fields.

We wish to educate forces for change who do not hesitate to right wrongs.

Forces for change who enrich the lives of others emotionally and intellectually.

Forces for change who have a vision for a better world and who take the lead in striving for it.

University education provides students with an in-depth understanding of their field. Students who graduate from our University are familiar with the key content of their chosen field and able to perceive causalities. Establishing a field-specific knowledge base requires hard work, tenacity and time. Profound familiarity with your field is a prerequisite for understanding the world.

To promote the accumulation of in-depth specialist skills among our students, our University in its role as a stronghold of edification has adopted the ambitious goal of providing an opportunity for all degree students to contribute to research during their studies.

We wish to engage students in research carried out in all of the disciplines taught at the University. In addition to improving their cognitive skills, students are offered a chance to get to know researchers in their field, and learn how new research-based knowledge is created and established.

University studies also provide students with the skills expected of future experts. Academic expertise alone is not enough: each student must be proficient in the basic skills of the new millennium.

Socio-emotional skills needed by all include curiosity, social skills and the will to cooperate, as well as grit and resilience. The latter translates as the ability to maintain sustainable wellbeing.

Sustainability is a necessity in terms of both individual wellbeing and the environment, which is why we have decided at the University of Helsinki to offer all students the opportunity to take a multidisciplinary course in sustainability from this academic year onward. This course provides tools for making responsible decisions and maintaining personal wellbeing. I would like to encourage you students to participate in this course. It is stimulating to develop new skills!

Having the ability to maintain sustainable wellbeing throughout our University community is important. Openness to experimentation and the possibility of failure increase our resilience. We can all promote the establishment of a culture where new things are courageously tried out.

Our University also provides students with the support of the entire community for growing into academic experts.

Establishing an academic identity and a career identity is an integral part of evolving into an academic expert. At the University of Helsinki, the development of academic expertise is supported by top-level specialists of various fields who are skilled in promoting high-quality learning through teaching and supervision of a high standard. In recent years, we have been developing tutoring provided by teachers. Today, each student receives high-quality academic guidance from a personal teacher tutor from the beginning of their studies to graduation. Tutoring helps students discover their personal path, their academic identity and their career identity.

In addition to establishing an academic and career identity, studying at university constitutes to many an important factor in constructing their social identity. While the entire University community plays a part in this process, other students have a particularly important effect.

Dear students, I hope from the bottom of my heart that you will participate in the activities of the Student Union and the student nations as well as the subject-specific and hobbyist organisations. Get to know each other, especially those studying another field. It appears that professional life is developing in a direction where you increasingly work with experts from a number of fields to reach a common goal. You can achieve a lot by working together already during your studies: the ways in which our wonderful students have made a difference range from organising large-scale climate demonstrations to establishing successful start-ups.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you see, the University of Helsinki has a solid basis for educating future decision-makers. However, we do need support from society to achieve this goal.

As we know, the aim is to increase the ratio of academic degree holders on the national level from the current 41% to 50% by 2030. This is an important goal, as the skills level of our society must be improved. At the same time, the Finnish government must provide sufficient resources to higher education institutions to avoid compromising the quality of education while degree numbers are soaring.

Equally important is that students are provided with social benefits that make it possible to concentrate on studying, graduate without delays and transition to professional life.

International students are in need of special support from business life and civil society for integrating into the labour market. At the moment, international master’s and doctoral graduates from Finnish universities have difficulty finding work in Finland. I am very happy that the university encouraged Finnish employers to offer traineeship positions to international students in order for them to establish valuable professional networks in Finland.

In this, our wish remains unchanged.

Dear members and friends of the University community,

The University of Helsinki is an international top-level university. We have excellent students, remarkable researchers and skilled teachers.

Last spring, the strength of our University community was well evidenced. I am truly proud of our community, as we came through the coronavirus crisis unbelievably well. We survived and learned new things.

A heartfelt thanks to all of you.

We also experienced in practice the value of face-to-face encounters. Even though our digital leap and transition to virtual teaching succeeded astonishingly quickly, we came to see the things we miss when we interact via screens. In Zoom, enthusiasm comes across in a milder form, and there are no surprise encounters.

Indeed, the University comes into its own when it serves as a platform for unexpected and informative meetings between different people. We must strive to interact fluently with one another, regardless of our field of science, background or opinions.

All members of our University community should feel that they are welcome at the University and consider it a safe community. The university is committed to work for an environment where everybody is treated equally, with respect and dignity. We do not condone any kind of discrimination.

An equal and socially sustainable culture promotes the wellbeing of the members of the University community.

In this new normal after the coronavirus spring, ensuring wellbeing is of particular importance. The stressful spring will have left its mark on many of us. Even though many of our employees have spoken of the positive effects of telecommuting on occupational wellbeing, some have found remote work extremely challenging.

This also applies to students: while many have even enjoyed the flexibility of remote studying, the exceptional circumstances have not been easy for everyone. Research shows that burnout among students doubled during the coronavirus spring.

In the autumn, we must reach each and every one of our students, as teachers are worried about those who could not be contacted during the lockdown. To some, studying independently online has been difficult, and for them, individual support must be tailored.

This autumn, we must also see to it that our new students are integrated into the University community. Inclusivity is one of the values of our University. In addition to equality and respect for others, in our mind it denotes openness, collaboration and democratic empowerment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The University must serve as a platform for interaction among members of the University community as well as between the University community and parties active in society.

In the future, such interaction will only intensify: clearly, the world cannot be transformed solely through the knowledge and skills an individual manages to accumulate while completing a degree.

Rather than being the end of a journey, attaining a degree diploma is its beginning.

University education is the best possible foundation for life-long continuous learning, something that is necessary for individual wellbeing and a sensible professional career as well as for saving the world.

We have to accept the fact that we are never done. This is why I am inviting all University alumni as well as everyone open to and curious about knowledge to get acquainted with our research-based teaching – after all, knowledge and learning are for everyone, as stated in our new strategic plan.

Knowledge and learning benefit not only individuals but also political decision-making and the various sectors of our society. Their significance to our wellbeing and the future of the world is invaluable. With the help of research and research-based teaching, we are able to make high-quality decisions as well as carry out impactful action. Research-based knowledge is needed now more than ever.

With the power of knowledge, we will find solutions to overcome climate change and pandemics, to make peace and to safeguard the preconditions of democratic societies.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Knowledge, learning and education provide us the momentum to serve as drivers for change.

The world does not change on its own, we change it together.

I wish you all a successful new academic year!