Elisa Hyytiäinen and Lauri Linna: Speech for the opening ceremony of the academic year at the University on 3 September 2018

Dear Chancellor, Chair of the University Board, Rector, members and friends of the University community, ladies and gentlemen.

EH: Together with Lauri, I have written this speech in the form of a dialogue in the hope that you, dear University community, will keep the conversation going. Constructive, considerate and respectful dialogue helps us understand each other and look for solutions to problems faced in studies and professional life, as well as those pertaining to the entire University.

LL: You are absolutely right, Elisa.  Constructive dialogue is important for the entire University community, and it is important also between the academic community and the rest of society! We are about to discuss certain themes we believe are currently central to our University community. We will talk about communality and collegiality, equality and anniversaries, after which we will vocalise a couple of hopes and wishes in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections.

I would like to begin by thanking the new rector and all the vice-rectors for their approach to building dialogue. For instance, the feedback on the summer seminar of the University Collegium has been very positive. Their attitude to our university community is considered excellent, while they are seen as easily approachable. The recent years have not been easy, but now it feels like we are entering a new era.

Elisa, how do you think the staff are doing?

EH: We are a community that has come through a great upheaval that was in many ways traumatic. We have been told that now is not the time to dwell on the past, but to look ahead to a bright future. Yet, past experiences cannot simply be erased. They are an indelible part of those of us who lived through these times. This impacts our community in a variety of ways and, therefore, also those who have not witnessed our recent history. The historic strike in the spring, which I’d hoped would never come to pass, did nothing to alleviate the situation. Sue Scott’s report on the events in 2015 and 2016, as well as the measures highlighted in the report have been taken seriously. That work is still ongoing, which is well and good. The Metoo campaign has engendered welcome debate, while bringing other types of bullying and inappropriate behaviour in addition to sexual harassment to the fore. This autumn, our university is taking part in Work does not discriminate, a campaign for workplace equality.  We should pay particular attention to recognising our own prejudices and assumptions, and how to get rid of them. Lauri and I are proud of the University’s active participation in this summer’s Pride week.

A sense of community is one of the strategic goals of the University. We are having a lively conversation on the nature of “community”, but what may be lacking is discussion on how the sense of community should impact everyday studying and work. Community is a fascinating subject associated with warmth, good interpersonal skills and reciprocity.

A sense of community promotes favourable behaviour that protects us from exhaustion. Malicious words and behaviour should be forbidden and always dealt with, since they undermine solidarity and are particularly devastating to individuals. To me, collegiality in a work community has many faces. First of all, we treat all members of our community with respect. We talk to them in a respectful tone, we show interest and acknowledge different opinions. We make sure that everyone is recognised for their role in successes, and, most importantly, failure is not something to be dreaded. Fun is not prohibited at work. Fun can’t be forced, but it can be fostered through warm humour and playfulness. Feedback should serve as a mirror that develops self-knowledge and confidence, making us visible to others. Community is also about apologising and forgiving. We care for each other, we are interested in each other’s lives. We support and help our colleagues in times of trouble. So simple, yet often so hard. The responsibility for a sense of community lies with us all, but supervisors bear a special burden. Community requires interactive leadership and the strengthening of trust all the way to senior management.  When working smoothly, internal communications can result in a strong community. An open and experimental operating culture provides each staff member with an opportunity to have a say in the development of their work and, thus, improves collegiality.  “Lean culture” and its tools could present a chance to acquire a new communal way of working.

Lauri, how do students see community?

LL: To us, community signifies above all a feeling of being equal members of the University community. We are glad that the University’s guidelines on focusing on the student have recently materialised in both word and deed. 

Above all, feeling part of the University community is founded on respecting students, engaging them in decision-making and acknowledging diversity.

As regards decision-making, steps in the right direction have recently been taken, for example in reforming the Regulations of the University. We are of course hopeful that, in addition to formal structures, we will develop and maintain effective channels of communication. Generally speaking, the situation here in Helsinki is very good, even though there have been worrying developments in university democracy elsewhere in Finland.

We appreciate that the University’s new leadership and rector have taken equality affairs seriously by electing a majority of women as vice-rectors. I hope that this attitude will carry over to the management’s other actions, while the promotion of equality continues. As a student union, we are always willing to offer a helping hand! The student union has also made a list of good practices related to community and engagement, which will be presented to the rector later this year.

EH: The Ministry of Education and Culture is currently working on a vision for higher education in 2030. Among the objectives is to make institutions of higher education the best place to work in Finland. This is something for us to pursue. I am interested in seeing how the Ministry will determine the measures to achieve this goal. My belief is that they will include many elements associated with community. The University’s objectives for the next government programme include the following statement: “We wish to play our part in developing Finnish universities into the country’s best workplaces and communities. Everyone’s contribution is needed to ensure that universities have sufficient resources to achieve their objectives, and that students and staff have confidence in their career prospects and opportunities to make a difference.” Our recently appointed rector has stated that our university will be developed into an even better workplace, while wellbeing is being improved within peaceful working conditions. For the staff, such policy is more than welcome.

Community means opportunities to make a difference, community means democracy. In organisations, the sense of community is reflected in access to several channels of influence. Everyone has an opportunity to take part in planning for the future and in the preparation of decisions. Community also means smooth cooperation in compliance with legislation. The chair of the University of Helsinki’s Lecturers’ Association stated the following in her speech at last year’s opening ceremony: “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.” I am now reasserting this powerful message.

Next year, the University of Helsinki Staff Association is celebrating its centenary. Despite changes in the labour market, the local staff association is closest to its members and the workplace. The staff association also has excellent opportunities to foster collegiality in the work community. This has also been recorded in the rules of the association, whose goal is the promotion of professional knowhow, team spirit and occupational wellbeing. You are warmly welcome to celebrate the centenary of our association next year.

The Student Union of the University of Helsinki is celebrating its 150th anniversary already this year. How has the year gone, Lauri?

LL: I have an illustrative anecdote to share with you. In the spring, I was training tutors and I asked them whether the anniversary celebrations have been visible. One of them told me that they’ve been almost as noticeable as Finland’s centenary festivities. And we’re only halfway through our event calendar!

During the anniversary, we wish to spread the idea that being a student is an inherently valuable stage of life. At the University, we become part of the academic community from day one. This is one of the noblest features of the university institution, something that makes this much more important than “school” or independent research institutions. Students are not going through a transitional period or merely on their way to a certain destination. Our anniversary message is that, at best, students are significant members of society and the academic community, if only they are given the opportunity to survive economically, maintain their wellbeing and pursue their studies.

Our demands for respect afforded to students are linked with an understanding that we are not facing this challenge alone. In recent years, the entire academic community has been forced to struggle against disparagement. What we are now expecting of the new rector and vice-rectors, as well as the entire University community, is advocating and fighting for the whole academic community.

Until now, we have talked a lot about the University community and our expectations concerning it. What about Finland? What message do we want to send to the government?

EH: We should all, together, make a difference across the Senate Square as regards the direction of the Finnish Government, which has the final say through its funding decisions on how the visions and strategies of our university are realised. Reinstating the university index is the least it should do in the ongoing budget negotiations, since that would enable long-term systematic operations and financial planning.  In addition to restoring the index, the government should guarantee sufficient and predictable core funding for universities during the next term. And when proposals on increasing the duties of universities are made, this must be reflected in the government budget. What expectations do students have of the next government?

LL: In this election cycle, we are focusing on fair intergenerational policy.  In other words, Finland needs policies that increase faith in the future. I can safely say that today, young people are not very confident. The issue at hand is both the future of the welfare state and the preservation of Earth’s viability as a habitat. That is an expansive theme, of which I will highlight some important points.

First of all, we want investment in education. We fully support the University’s goal of securing sufficient core funding and reinstating the university index. The goal expressed in the vision for higher education, namely 50% of young adults completing an academic degree in 2030, is commendable but out of reach without additional funding.

Another point is the livelihood of students. We are the first generation unable to attain our parents’ standard of living. We hope for a reform of the social security system to better meet the requirements of today. The focus should be on universal income and, for example, individual housing allowances.

My third point is the concern caused by climate change, an overriding issue. Unless our planet remains habitable, nothing else matters. To ward off this threat, we expect an increasingly ambitious and courageous approach from the government. Indeed, we are exceedingly happy that the new rector has kept sustainable development in the spotlight in all of his activities. As an academic community, we are bearers of an enormous responsibility as well as immense strength to take part in solving the problem of climate change.

EH: The appreciation and significance of the work conducted at universities must also be restored to their rightful place. Each of us can have an impact on our shared future. The least you can do is exercise your right to vote!

Despite the dignity and tradition of this ceremony, we propose that, at this juncture, you turn towards your neighbour and wish each other a happy academic year by, for example, giving a high five.

We wish the new rector and vice-rectors wisdom, an interactive approach, community and courage in the completion of their duties.

Together, tillsammans, yhdessä!

Happy academic year to all! Ett got läsår! Hyvää lukuvuotta teille kaikille!