Vice-Rector Hanna Snellman: Why should the University be international?

“You educate for Finland forever,” responded Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of the International Association of Universities (IAU), when asked if the University of Helsinki should also educate students coming in from abroad.

By this response she means that even if the students do not remain in Finland after graduation, they will always have a place in their heart for Finland and the University of Helsinki, and this heart will beat for Finland when they make decisions as educated specialists. These decisions may have multifaceted implications also for Finland. In the best case scenario, brain drain may in fact become brain circulation where also the country of departure benefits from the work of the person emigrating. Because of this, it pays off to attract international degree students. A person who has ensured themselves a good future by completing a master’s or a doctoral degree at the University of Helsinki is an indispensable public relations asset for us.

In recent years, the number of students coming to the University of Helsinki through exchange programmes has remained around one thousand students per year. The number could be greater, but at least it has not decreased as of late. However, our own students’ enthusiasm for embarking on student exchange has drastically decreased in recent years. Reasons for this must be analysed carefully so that at least the structural reasons can be removed, if there are any. It is a pity if students lose this unique opportunity to take a peek into the everyday life of students in other countries and universities. Within just a few months, they will learn new and different things, and at least learn to ask and question both the familiar and the unfamiliar. “A pike does not know it’s a fish until it’s taken out of the water,” Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oslo, has written. But I do not mean that student exchange is so horrible that you feel like you are suffocating, quite the opposite.

The International Association for Universities has since 2003 conducted global surveys on the internationalisation of higher education. According to the latest survey, the greatest benefits brought about by the internationalisation of universities are the growing international cooperation and capacity building, as well as the improved quality of teaching and research. On the other hand, universities participating in the survey see increased competition as one of the risks posed by internationalisation. However, universities with a high standing in university rankings, such as the University of Helsinki, do not see competition negatively, but rather as something that spurs them on. Naturally, successful universities must recognise their global responsibility.

Currently, a quarter of the teaching and research staff at the University of Helsinki are citizens of a country other than Finland. In 2016, foreign employees represented one-fifth of the entire staff. In my opinion, we can count also those who came to Helsinki after defending their dissertation or working at a foreign university as international staff. The know-how accrued through international experience is invaluable in terms of developing the University. In my previous appointment as the dean of the Faculty of Arts, I was involved in recruiting many of these people and was happy to notice the added value that international experience brings to everyday university work. You often hear that people who do not speak Finnish cannot participate in administrative tasks. According to my own experience, this is not true. It is only that the work is different. I would wager that the international staff at our University has had a crucial role in, for example, research assessment work when various documentation has been drawn up. This was certainly the case in my unit.

Internationality is an essential part of the University of Helsinki. Rather than an end in itself, it is a means of achieving the best results in research, teaching and public engagement. While the phenomenon started out as student mobility, today it comes across in the mobility of information, cooperation and sharing. In international cooperation, we must never forget the local, meaning that we must distribute the new knowledge also to the people whom it concerns. For example, if the University of Helsinki researchers make breakthroughs in the Arctic area, these results must be communicated also to the local community for their use and benefit.

Considering where we are while working on the University Strategic Plan during spring 2019, questions of the diversity of our community have become central concerns. In the forthcoming Strategic Plan, we must consider how we can turn this diversity into our strength. We want to continue working for the best of the whole world, in all the diverse senses of the word.

The author is the vice-rector of the University of Helsinki. Her responsibilities include international affairs, partnerships, public engagement, alumni cooperation and fundraising, particularly on the international stage, as well as the Finnish cultural heritage.

Stra­tegic Plan 2017-2020

The University of Helsinki is building a better, more sustainable world by involving itself more actively in the resolution of global problems. Multidisciplinary research, teaching and learning of a high standard generate new knowledge and know-how for the benefit of humankind. Forward and fresh thinking, an attentive and proactive attitude, and creative interaction will help the University of Helsinki to solidify its position among the foremost universities in the world.

To achieve its vision, the University of Helsinki has selected three strategic objectives for the period 2017–2020: A creative, international environment for learning and top-level research, a focus on the student and resources for reform.