Mr Chancellor, distinguished guests and dear members of the University community!
We are celebrating the anniversary of the University at a moment when Finland’s direction for the next four years is about to be determined. The busy Finnish election spring will culminate in polling on this upcoming Sunday.
Public debate has intensified in the run-up to the parliamentary election. The parties’ means of strengthening the economy, employment and welfare are generating passionate opposing arguments. A number of election panel discussions and party-led events have been organised at the University too, with candidates particularly called upon to share their views on the future of research and education.
It is indisputable that Finland will face both global and domestic challenges simultaneously in the next government term. The bottlenecks hindering Finland’s success include the reduction of the labour force and a stagnating educational level, as well as the resulting labour shortage and the trend of modest improvements in productivity seen in recent years. The economy is difficult to predict, and we are preparing for a recession. Policymakers are urgently seeking societal solutions to invest in that would renew us and enable us to thrive as a nation.
Finland’s success has been founded on top-level expertise and research, and so will it continue to be. We universities are creators of hope and drivers of societal change. We educate experts of the future and produce new knowledge to tackle shared challenges.
In the past year, we have lobbied for the University, meeting many decision-makers. It is gratifying that, regardless of political affiliation, they share our understanding of the crucial significance of expertise and research to the success of our country.
To be able to realise this success, we need four things.
First, the number of student places at higher education institutions must be considerably increased, and this added intake must be fully and permanently funded. The need for increased intake is most prominent in the Uusimaa region. In Helsinki, the number of children and adolescents will grow by 25 000 by 2030, but we lack thousands of student places in higher education. As a result, we are continuously losing young people who leave to study abroad and elsewhere in Finland. For the same reason, we are unable to attract talented young people from around the world to study and work in Finland. This requires correction.
Second, any additional funding allocated by the government to research, development and innovation must be steered in a balanced manner. At least half of RDI funding should be allocated to publicly funded research, supporting, among others, universities and universities of applied sciences, the Academy of Finland and, directly, the innovation operations of universities. The University of Helsinki has the potential to assume an even greater role in promoting Finland’s RDI activities, and support is important for this endeavour.
Third, we need to reform our research legislation. Some current legislation and judicial interpretation especially pertaining to medical research unnecessarily hamper the conduct of research and RDI activities.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need a much more ambitious approach to science policy. The mission of the University of Helsinki is to aim for the top and pursue research that is the world’s best. For us to succeed in continually intensifying international competition, we need help from the government and society. We need state-of-the-art competence clusters and a focus on quality.
With these means, we can ensure that Finland will continue to be a successful and thriving country.
High-level expertise stems from high-quality university education based on research. This academic year, we have been celebrating teaching, highlighting the significance of university teaching and discussing its future.
We are also celebrating the 10th anniversary of the University's Teachers’ Academy. The Teachers' Academy is a multidisciplinary network composed of selected teachers of the University, with top-level pedagogical skills and expertise in their disciplines. By their own example and competencies, they inspire us to provide the highest quality teaching.
In recent years, methods of teaching and studying, whether in comprehensive schools or universities, have been subject to many changes. While the coronavirus pandemic gave the final impetus particularly for the digital transformation, we have also encountered other enormous changes. Changes in the environment, such as the ecological sustainability crisis, the transformation of work and emerging technologies are challenging our previous ways of working and studying. We are genuinely on the cusp of a new era, and we cannot build the future by looking in the rear-view mirror.
We need novel solutions in teaching founded on current research-based knowledge and on experiences of university teaching and learning. Teaching solutions require creativity, collaboration and room for experimentation.
One of the goals of the year in celebration of teaching is to update the University’s teaching philosophy. The transformation brought about by digitalisation has made tangible something that previously never needed saying out loud: to learn and grow, people need each other. The future of higher education is established by together investigating and considering what is possible and desirable. There is no single right way to teach or learn. Instead, education is born within communities and through encounters. Faculties, degree programmes and, ultimately, all researchers and teachers play key roles in this.
In these efforts, we must remember to look outside Finland. The University’s participation in the Una Europa network and the Global Campus project, which develops virtual learning, allow us to identify internationally the best practices in teaching.
Increasingly diverse methods of teaching require that we consider the needs of diverse learners. Safeguarding the wellbeing of students and teachers in the middle of upheavals has become increasingly important. The key is high-quality curriculum design and high-quality teaching development. These are the means of caring for both students and teachers. Teaching supports all of us and engenders systematic approaches and structures for the core duties of the University community.
The need for skills in university pedagogy lies at the heart of the discussion on the future of teaching. High-quality teaching relies solely on top-level research, for which we must have long-term funding and sufficient resources.
Top-level research generates not only high-quality university education, but innovations too. Scholarly research lies at the core of all operations. And the innovations that research produces increase its impact. We are a multidisciplinary university, whose assets include collaboration among researchers. Our initiatives and collaboration benefit society at large. Our international strategic partnerships, including with Catholic University Leuven, strengthen our status as a globally esteemed provider of solutions.
In recent years, we have made significant investments in the development of the University’s innovation operations. This lowers the threshold for students and researchers to advance their entrepreneurial skills and business ideas. With the University’s support, well-researched innovations are commercialised and made widely available to society. Among other things, we have 240 collaboration projects ongoing with businesses. We submit more than 100 invention disclosures annually. In their first year of operations, our business incubators have attracted more than 100 members of the University community. Central to these operations have been the more than 80 business mentors whose voluntary contributions have been invaluable. Together, we have established new connections with both Finnish and international businesses and private sector operators.
Innovations are often perceived as tangible products or patented models. Yet they are much more than that: societal innovations are making our society better. For instance, our researchers in food culture have lately been developing climate-resilient opportunities for mass catering. Every week the Faculty of Medicine, together with Helsinki University Hospital, produces innovations which improve everyday patient care. Our business incubators are currently developing innovations especially related to sustainability and responsibility. These include a way of utilising plastic waste as a substitute for fossil fuels, an easy-to-use technique for measuring pollutants and an application for determining the origin of raw materials in wood products.
Investment in research and science are pivotal in generating innovations. Our research-based innovations advance sustainable growth, create jobs and promote a better society. Increasing funding for research, development and innovation creates wellbeing for all of us.
At universities, we have a genuine desire to serve society. For us to live in an equal and prosperous society of opportunity, ensuring the future of higher education and science is vital. We must ensure that our children too have the opportunity to educate themselves as extensively as they wish. The entire educational path, from early childhood education to doctoral education, must be well designed and secured with sufficient resources.
We hold all the keys to turning Finland into an even more vibrant society of high-level expertise. Together with our alums and stakeholders, we comprise a powerful group of advocates for science. We need political consensus and the will to make the necessary decisions to stabilise the resources allocated to research and science. At universities, we have the solutions and the problem-solvers needed to tackle future challenges.