Significance of the University of Helsinki to Finnish society and culture

Teaching, research and international interaction at the University of Helsinki go back several centuries. The University with its students and professors has contributed to the establishment of the Finnish national identity, culture and innovations. In addition, the University has been a visible part of urban culture, influencing the cityscape and providing features characteristic of cities.

The University was established as the Royal Academy of Turku on 26 March 1640. The Academy was placed in the premises of the Cathedral School of Turku. In the beginning, it was rather small and humble, but by the latter half of the 18th century the scientific quality met international standards. In 1809 the University was renamed the Imperial Academy of Turku, and in 1815 a new Academy Hall was completed across the street from the Turku Cathedral.

The University was renamed Imperial Alexander University in Finland when it was moved to Helsinki in 1828. Emperor Alexander I favoured the University by expanding its staff and doubling the budget. In the following years, the fields of science became more specialised, new branches of knowledge were born and natural science in particular began to prosper. The number of enrolled students, which for a long time had been around 400, started to increase from the 1880s onwards, and after the turn of the century the number reached a thousand.

After Finland gained its independence in 1917, the University had a key role in the establishment of the Finnish nation state and welfare society. In this new situation, the University changed its name to the University of Helsinki. Several members of the University community served, in addition to academic positions, in leadership positions in the government and business life. As acknowledgment of the contribution of officers educated at the University in the Winter War, the University became the only non-military institution to receive the Cross of Liberty, awarded at its 300th anniversary celebration.

The University held a key role in the budding state, but other universities were to follow: first the Helsinki University of Technology was established in 1908, followed by Åbo Akademi University in 1918 and the University of Turku in 1921. The expansion of the Finnish higher education network in the latter half of the 20th century has not affected the attractiveness of the University of Helsinki. The University itself has continued to grow: currently, there are 11 faculties and nearly 40,000 students on four different campuses.

Students have always been an integral resource for the University, and the University’s multidisciplinary student associations known as student nations have brought together students of different fields. Funds for building the Old Student House were collected across the country, and the words Spei suae Patria dedit (‘Given to its hopes by the homeland’) were inscribed above the entrance.

In the 21st century, the University of Helsinki seeks to help solve global challenges through its top-level research. It was invited as a member of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), which accommodates Europe’s 23 leading universities. The University conducts world-class research aiming to, for example, find cures for cancer and ways to adapt to climate change.