Laura Luoto: Speech at the celebration marking the beginning of the academic year

Speech by the chair of the University of Helsinki Student Union’s Board, Laura Luoto at the celebration marking the beginning of the academic year, 4 September

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


My first contact with the University community was at an information session for new students. Those present included my new faculty’s staff, tutors, student organisation representatives and alumni. Despite the amount of information shared that day, I was not worried because of the warm welcome I received. I felt I was part of a network that extended from the information session to the faculty administration, classrooms and all the way to the diverse world of work. Each member of the network would make it stronger as long as the network was used appropriately and each of us helped as best we could.  

The University community provides the basis for our collective impact. The University community can elevate its members to new heights, while itself enjoying the journey. We can elevate students by allowing them to study flexibly so that they can progress in their studies despite their individual circumstances. We can also ensure that they remain part of the University community at times of illness or when supporting their families. The more we enable students to learn and complete their studies through a variety of methods, the stronger our community becomes.  

Elevating others is about engaging and challenging them. As a student in Finland I am used to thinking that the only way to build the University community is to give power to everyone. The tripartite model of cooperation is something I frequently boast about to visitors from abroad, and it is something I often forget, as many of us Finns commonly do. With great power comes great responsibility, and that responsibility rests with all of us. It makes the community come together to work for shared goals. Such a community is not affected by external trials, and can always pull through.  

Elevating others also means encouraging them to meet, discuss and generate new ideas. The University’s new Think Corner will soon open its doors. For nearly 200 years, the University has been in the heart of Helsinki, but a space like Think Corner would have been useful much earlier. It is great that we finally have a location where we can showcase the University’s achievements to the city’s residents, find new perspectives for our research and meet people from all walks of life. The University needs more of the same: we are a scholarly community that learns from science and the humanities and uses this to change the world. So why not have more flexible spaces for discussing our work? Why not have more meeting places for students and staff to come together and share their thoughts? We all feel passionate about a topic, a theme or an issue. By joining with each other, we can create great new things. 

The first-year students of 2017 will begin their studies at a University that has suffered a dramatic cut to its funding in the previous year, when it also implemented an education reform and restructured its service organisation. Although these changes will not be as visible to first-year students as they have been to us, I cannot but worry. Will this year’s new students find their place in the University community? Do they know that the purpose of the University is to help them reach their full potential? Will they find the best way to change the University for the benefit of the whole community? The 2016 health survey of higher education students showed that 30% of them do not feel they belong in any group. Students’ mental health problems have also increased. 

Students are living under constant pressure to perform better, study faster, work, and decide what to do once they graduate – or even where to find a summer job. The better the realities of student life are taken into account in the planning of studies, the more strongly students will identify themselves as members of the University community.  

The Big Wheel education reform has not yet been completed. If it were a scientific experiment, the current stage would be about testing the hypothesis. We must be as openminded about our reforms as we are about our scholarly work. If the reform does not meet the goals set for it, it must be improved. Testing a scientific hypothesis requires standardised conditions. The pressure to carry out changes (for example, those relating to entrance examinations) should be eased in such circumstances.  

I believe with my whole heart in the power and ability of our University community. With this in mind, I wish you all a productive and fulfilling academic year.