Speech at the University’s anniversary celebration, President Tarja Halonen, 26 March 2018

Mr Chancellor, Mr Rector, dear University community,distinguished alumna and friends of our University, ladies and gentlemen.

I wish you the happiest of anniversaries personally and on behalf of the Board of the University.

Sustainable development has gained an increasingly strong hold at the University of Helsinki. After all, it is among the global challenges for our University’s strategy period from 2017 to 2020. As already implied by the rector’s speech, we are contributing to sustainable development in multifaceted ways in various fields of teaching and research. I believe that the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science HELSUS, established on 26 January this year, will be useful as both a coordinator and a promoter of sustainable development in our operations.

Without going into the specifics of various projects ongoing in the faculties and administrative sectors of the University, I want to emphasise the Institute’s interdisciplinary and solution-oriented role. It will appoint ten new professors and bring 200 researchers together from six different faculties. External experts and partners will also be sought. For the University of Helsinki, this is a relatively large project. What makes it even more ambitious is the fact that even though this work is primarily about strengthening and advancing our own competence, we are also striving to engender collaboration with other parties to establish a new kind of perspective on sustainability. 

I believe this is an effective way of doing just that. Experience from recent years shows the importance of mutual interdisciplinary cooperation. Coming to this realisation has fostered many new insights. For example, utilising research methods new to one’s own field or absorbing the perspectives of another discipline may propel us forward. (Equally, daring to experiment with familiar practices in a new research area can result in novel research findings.)

Steps to facilitate this have already been taken, and further steps can be taken by lowering or even taking down boundaries between different departments and also between entire faculties. Administrative boundaries must not hinder cooperation. However, what is ultimately at issue is our attitude: how willing are we to take differing viewpoints into consideration?

The coming shift will be founded on our own work and our University. But that will not be enough. A country such as Finland, whose current population is around 5.5 million and unlikely to grow very fast, is particularly dependent on collaborative expertise both here and abroad. Due to the small stature of our language family, language studies are important already in childhood. This naturally means English and other world languages. Even so, our national languages should not be underestimated, since proficiency in them will ensure an equal and active society.

Our openness and broad-mindedness will facilitate cooperation, but others must also be interested in us. By “us”, I mean both the University and the entire Finnish society. A diverse and fascinating society is tolerant. The interest of prospective international students in studying at the University of Helsinki has once again taken a turn for the better. I hope our short-sighted policy on fees will not drive away talented but less well-off young people from our country.

I agree with Rector Kola that the University of Helsinki has throughout its history had a positive influence on the development of Finnish welfare and identity. Finnish legislation stipulates that, in addition to promoting independent academic research as well as academic and artistic education, the mission of the universities is to provide research-based higher education and to educate students to serve their country and humanity at large.

In Finnish society, most public officials are indeed university graduates. In practice, respect for democracy and human rights relies on the judiciary and good governance. The parliament is the heart of democracy, but its decisions are realised in the everyday life of citizens, specifically through the government and public officials. The social interaction required by the Universities Act also consolidates democracy by enhancing the societal impact of research results and artistic activities.

In recent years, the duration of studies has been a recurring concern. Increased efficiency is good, but it also pays to remember the comprehensive nature of growing up as a person and to provide space for that as well.

In a modern, rapidly evolving society, lifelong learning is a must. This applies to all facets of society. While the principle is already widely accepted, there are still obstacles on the way to it becoming a reality. Reactions to the changing requirements of professional life lag behind – often, people are offered new educational opportunities only after becoming unemployed or facing the imminent risk of losing their job. Proactive practices would naturally benefit all parties the most.

A lifelong livelihood is no longer guaranteed by long-term education, even if its quality is very high. Even the simple wish to advance in a familiar field necessitates learning new things. I hope that in the coming years we will be able to delve into this problematic issue in an increasingly thorough manner.

Ladies and gentlemen,

the Board of the University of Helsinki and myself as its chair are at the beginning of our term. The selection of the rector and other regulated duties are currently ongoing. We will get back to them as the spring progresses. I hope for the continuation of active participation.

I am part of the 1960s generation of students that demanded the reform of university administration based on the principle of “one man, one vote”. At the time, that did not come to pass, but as the years progressed, several reforms have taken place, strengthening both democracy and efficiency. I believe I am speaking for the entire Board in saying that our aim is a viable equilibrium.

The University has its autonomy, but it is also part of society. Recently, the University of Helsinki experienced its first strike day involving the entire staff in its history. Now, our sector has concluded a new collective agreement, with its application following. My hope is that similar agreements will soon be concluded in other sectors of our society as well.

The rector already discussed the significance of sufficient financial resources to universities. I share his concern.

The duties specified in legislation concerning universities cannot be fulfilled without adequate resources. I hope that the rather unanimous comments by the parliament on the importance of education and lifelong learning will materialise in the next national budget. Ensuring sufficient basic funding for universities is of utmost importance to safeguarding independent research, as well as academic and artistic education. 

By no means do I wish to undervalue the significance of external funding, which is more dependent on competition, but relying too much on it will undermine the impact of long-term science policy. It is my belief that, as experienced by many of us, the acquisition of external funding also takes a surprisingly large amount of time, at the expense of other work duties.

The financial stability of the University also ensures that students are protected. Our legacy for the next generation is the development of learning and teaching of a high standard. At the moment, the international reputation of Finnish basic education is good, and its preservation is essential, but there is also much room for improvement. There is certainly no room for arrogant complacency.

Ladies and gentlemen,

the premise for future development is there. People are ingrained with curiosity and the willingness to learn new things. If we are able to maintain or reawaken even a small fraction of the passion that infants possess at the moment of birth, nothing will come in the way of our progress.

I thank you for your cooperation and wish you a joyful anniversary.

Rector Jukka Kola’s speech on the Uni­versity’s an­niversary: Fin­land con­trib­utes to solu­tions to global prob­lems – ex­cel­lence will con­tinue to be our as­set