Success requires competence - competence requires investment in education

The orientation week for new students feels celebratory and joyful after the challenging pandemic years. The university's corridors are teeming with life and an enthusiasm for the future. Optimism prevails, as does the desire to ensure that students find their place and jump into their studies and student life. This autumn, 2,400 new students will participate in the orientation, and we welcome them with open arms.

Even though welcoming students warms the heart, there is also concern over the future of education. Higher education institutions are keeping an extremely close eye on the work being launched by the Finnish Government and signals indicating the direction the Ministry intends to take. Talk of securing research funding seems ideal, but will the funding then be focused where it is needed most?

Universities are primarily funded by the state on the basis of their success in producing research and education results. A large portion is complemented by competitively tendered projects, mainly for research.

The main question is whether education will manage with such a division of funding or its role will remain that of an afterthought. The issue is particularly pressing and crucial to Northern Finland and Oulu, where inevitable demographic change alone challenges the development of competence. Competence needs are also changing rapidly, moving towards a more digital, greener approach, and even in universities, internationality cannot be allowed to play a secondary role.

Over the past ten years, the University of Oulu has succeeded in raising its standards, particularly with regard to research. Systematic investment in research and its cutting edges, such as wireless data transfer, can already be seen in rankings, but even more so in the university’s ability to acquire funding and the level and number of publications it produces.

Investment in education, on the other hand, has not enjoyed the same degree of attention. Of course, university education is based on research and researched information, but the manner in which students experience good teaching requires much more than just the latest knowledge.

Our university is promoting a development programme that will enable us to more effectively focus our efforts on reforming education as a whole. The objective of the programme is to meet multidisciplinary competence needs and the expectations of teachers and learners in a variety of ways. The launching of new degree programmes requires patient and long-term work, which will only be fully rewarded 7-10 years after the decision to establish them.

In the meantime, the reform of existing programmes requires continuous improvement in their content, accessibility, pedagogy and smooth implementation. Student capabilities and needs will also change, which is likely to increase the demands of guidance and taking care of well-being. Students feel well when teachers feel well. That is why there is a particular concern about teachers' careers, motivation and ability to cope.

The opportunities offered by digitalisation must be exploited to provide some relief for teachers' lack of time, instead of allowing information systems to further increase their administrative responsibilities. Success in digitalisation depends on our willingness and ability to cooperate with other universities in different forums and bilaterally. Digitalisation also means the development of new services and, in particular, the controlled and effective deployment of teaching staff.

Internationalisation is in the very DNA of universities, and I cannot emphasise enough the importance of international students to the university community and northern companies. This raises the concern as to whether the provision of education is capable of responding to competition on market terms, as the tuition paid by students from outside the European Economic Area must be able to cover the maintaining of programmes. For the University of Oulu, this means absolutely giving the student their money’s worth.

Research, development and innovation seem to receive the share of our tax euros they earn. Indeed, it is assumed that companies will also invest in the future. Where competence is concerned, this means the need to educate more multidisciplinary and cross-sectoral doctors who can continue their careers in a development capacity, especially in companies. In this respect, we must be able to accelerate education without compromising the quality of science.

When defending a doctoral dissertation, it must be kept in mind that a doctoral degree is but one milestone in a long career. Newly minted doctors should not become trapped in academia. The University of Oulu must make every effort to keep this in mind and support a quick dissertation process.

Learning does not end with a degree, and our university must be able to enable lifelong learning. In this respect, the latest state budget proposal would change funding radically, moving it in a more fee-based direction. This choice will inevitably lead to a significant reduction in the availability of the open and general education courses to which we are accustomed. Will learning no longer be available to everyone if fees significantly raise the threshold for participation?

The Open University has also provided a channel for accessing the university. Half of the open channels in Oulu are free of charge, and the scope of the channels is 10-39 credits at our university. The transition to free studies will not have a major impact on the university's revenues. I personally am very much in favour of making the channel free of charge.

Education will not evolve unless we invest in it. Investment involves thinking, time and money and working towards achieving goals. I contend that we in Oulu know where and how to invest. If the Government can keep its promises, the University of Oulu must boldly put its money into the future of learning.

Education will not only improve by producing new research data, but by responding to the needs and expectations of learners. If the learner is made the focal point right from the very first lecture of the autumn term, we will be able to attract talented experts to our university, companies and business sector from within our home region and increasingly from elsewhere. We should absolutely give education the boost it needs, and the knowledge and skills it creates will serve us well throughout our lives.

Tapio Koivu
Vice Rector for Education