Speech by rector Jari Niemelä at the anniversary celebration of the University of Helsinki on 26 March 2019

Madam President, Mr Chancellor, your excellencies, dear members and friends of the academic community,

We are now in a sacred place. This Great Hall and its vestibule are arguably the most valuable premises of the University of Helsinki. This building, designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, was completed in 1832 and came to house almost all of the disciplines represented at the University at the time.

This hall is full of history and symbolism. Just look at the mural behind you, Inauguration of the Academy of Turku by Albert Edelfelt. Unfortunately, the original painting was destroyed in the bombing of Helsinki in 1944, and the one you see now is a later copy. But this podium, the doors and the bust of Alexander I all date back to the era of the Academy of Turku.

This hall has witnessed musical performances and discussion of the major issues of the day. The Great Hall was long used for concerts, and many of Jean Sibelius’s symphonies premiered here. In fact, this year marks the centenary of the first public performance of Sibelius’s Promotsionimarssi (Academic March) at the first academic conferment ceremony of the newly independent Finland in 1919, when honorary doctorates were conferred on P. E. Svinhufvud and C. G. E. Mannerheim, both future presidents of Finland. But this hall has also been used to perform a very different type of music. The University’s honorary doctor M. A. Numminen shocked the audience here on the eve of the Old Student House occupation in 1968 by performing the piece Kaukana väijyy ystäviä (Friends lurking far away) with his Sähkökvartetti band.

For close to 200 years, this hall has lived and breathed Bildung, or sivistys, which can be broadly translated as edification, education or intellectual and moral cultivation. You could even say that this Great Hall represents edification and education in all their diversity. The educational mission has always been and remains vital for the existence of universities. It is about knowledge, intellectual development and a broad mind. It encompasses not only learning, but also an individual’s inner development, maturity and ability to listen to others. An educated person is sensitive to what he or she does not understand. He or she is capable of empathy, and the promotion of peace and understanding. J. V. Snellman, after whom an award presented today is named, once remarked that education is about continuous personal development throughout life.

I would like to stress that the educational capital generated by universities is the force we use to build the future and welfare of our society.

Universities can also be seen as the torch-bearers of European values, individual liberty, democracy, equality and freedom of expression. The educational mission is particularly important today because the educational capital of citizens helps to ensure stable social conditions. An educated Finland works together for a stable and renewable society. This will not happen on its own because social peace cannot be taken for granted in a world in which political extremists use social media to amplify their message.

The important educational mission of the University of Helsinki includes reinforcing the status of Finnish and Swedish as languages of science and academic education. An educated Finland will take its national languages into the future, while also ensuring that Finnish universities have a strong international outlook and naturally operate in English too.

A university based on the ideals of edification and education must be autonomous. Only an autonomous university can strengthen its research and education for the benefit of edification and society. Legislation guarantees the autonomy of universities as well as the freedom of their research and teaching. Autonomy emphasises the independent social status of universities. Universities can decide on their administration without having to consult external parties on what they should teach and investigate.

Individual freedom – autonomy – is a prerequisite of democracy, which in turn is a requirement of social stability and renewal. Thus, edification, autonomy, democracy and social renewal are all closely connected. A Finland based on the ideals of edification ensures that universities remain autonomous engines of social renewal.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The educational capital generated by universities is the force we use to build the future and welfare of our society. This is why funding for academic research and teaching is an investment in the future. Unlike many other developed countries, Finland has, in recent years, unfortunately cut back on its financial investments in research. This is undermining the capabilities and potential of universities as well as threatening their ability to contribute to building our future.

Dwindling resources make it more difficult for Finnish universities to remain at the international cutting edge. I would like to stress that research and teaching require appropriate resources. Finland’s goal of increasing research resources to 4% of the gross national product is a worthy one. If this goal is achieved, the international competitive position of Finnish universities will improve and their ability to deliver expertise for the welfare of our society will be enhanced. An investment in universities is an investment in the future of science and our country.

Skills are part of Finland’s capital and cannot be increased without high-quality research and teaching. With cuts to public funding, universities’ own fundraising efforts take on more significance. We welcome the interest shown by foundations, companies, other institutions and individuals in funding research and teaching. However, the long-term development of universities requires stable core funding from the government.

The Finnish parliamentary election is less than three weeks away. Our message to future decision-makers is loud and clear: universities must be allocated appropriate resources. From 2010, the funding allocated to the University of Helsinki has dropped by almost 30% compared to what it would have been without the cuts implemented – the freezing of the university index and the abolishment of the pharmacy compensation. But we are still expected to maintain the high standards of scientific work and produce as many degrees as before. Student numbers have also remained steady. A population forecast shows that, taking the impact of immigration into account, the size of the current cohort of 21-year-olds will not decrease from current levels until 2036. The appeal of the Helsinki Metropolitan Area means that the number of young people is not likely to decrease in and around Helsinki even then.

The aim now is to increase the ratio of young people completing an academic degree from the current 40% to 50%. This goal will remain elusive if university resources continue to decline. If we do not wish to compromise on our education levels or the quality of our research, an increase in public core funding is imperative. It is the only way for us to achieve our education goal, compete on the international stage and provide welfare for Finland. I would like to stress that the next government must choose investment in education and research as one of its focus areas.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Members of the academic community can influence social development and renewal through their research and teaching. Let me give some examples from our campuses. Research-based teacher education is one of the pillars of the Finnish school system. Our medical research develops new practices for everyday healthcare. Our climate researchers produce information to curb climate change. Research connecting nature conservation and climate change shows how our environment is changing as a result of global warming. Artificial intelligence can solve many issues, but it can also pose new challenges, which require sustained research and the education of the general public.

These examples show that the University of Helsinki is moving with the times and establishing itself as an influential pioneer. This is why we wish to lead the way, for example, on issues of sustainable development and responsibility. I believe that as an expert organisation we must do our share to build a responsible future. Our students and staff have asked me about the University’s work for sustainable development and responsibility. I have answered that the promotion of sustainable development is a crucial part of the University’s activities. The beginning of last year saw the establishment of the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, and in the autumn we set up a work group to promote responsibility in the University’s activities. The latter efforts will be expanded to encompass the entire Finnish university sector, for Universities Finland (UNIFI) has endorsed the University of Helsinki’s proposal that UNIFI should coordinate the sustainability activities of Finnish universities.

This demonstrates the significance of universities for the future of our society. To put it more plainly, the future of Finland is in its universities. I hope each of you will contribute to the development of the University of Helsinki, whether as a member of the academic community, an alumnus or alumna, or a supporter. Your support can be either moral or monetary – preferably both. To conclude, I would again like to remind you that an investment in universities is an investment in the future of science, our country and humanity at large.

This Great Hall is a symbol of Finnish thought and academic identity – an identity that is the cornerstone of Finland’s future. Finland now needs wisdom, education and strong universities. That is what the University of Helsinki is for, now and in the future.

It gives me great pleasure to stand here in this sacred place and wish all of you a happy anniversary celebration!