Opening addresses 2021

Opening Ceremony of the Academic Year 2021-2022, Monday 6 September, 2021

Opening speech

Rector Jouko Niinimäki:

Ladies and gentlemen, university students and friends of the university,

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to have permanently changed the practices of learning and working. This virtual opening ceremony underscores the fact that the safety of students and staff is a priority for the university but also symbolises the change we are experiencing as remote work and digital tools have come to stay. Many things need to be rethought.

The University of Oulu is now entering its 63rd academic year. The university has always been developed according to the competence and development needs of Northern Finland. While carrying out our task, we have developed from a university of just a few study programmes to a strong scientific university of eight faculties.

Currently, national development objectives are primarily related to education. The number of starting places has been increased in many existing fields in accordance with Vision 2030 of the Ministry of Education and Culture, and we will start the degree programme in psychology this autumn. The availability of expertise is important for the success of Finland and our region. For example, new companies only want to move to areas where there is and will be sufficient expertise.

As well as increasing the educational level of age groups, there is an aim towards lifelong, continuous learning. Work will change many times during each working career, and learning will be constantly needed. The reform of continuous learning aims to develop the competence of people of working age. The goal is to meet the competence needs arising from changes in working life. The development of competence supports meaningful careers, good employment development and, for example, the competitiveness and productivity of companies.

It is anticipated that almost half a million people in Finland will need retraining or extensive continuing education in the next few years. University education reflects its time and is kept up to date, so the elements of continuous learning exist. By opening and developing our educational offering, we are able to offer versatile, working life-oriented educational entities.

Major trends in the population of all of Finland include the decrease in the young age groups, the ageing of the population and the continuing concentration of the population in cities. The size of the university age groups will start to decrease in our region towards the end of this decade. Students applying to the University of Oulu are usually from Oulu or Northern Finland. When that group of applicants becomes smaller, the university has the choice of either reducing its educational activities or getting more applicants from outside the traditional recruitment area. The University of Oulu is aware of its responsibilities and wants to work to improve the international awareness and attractiveness of the area.

Northern Finland is not a self-evident choice for living and studying. We need to work on the attractiveness of the area. The burning question in Oulu, for example, is: What kind of city do the residents want in the future? Do we want to develop the city, in the spirit of the “Miracle of Oulu”, as a vibrant and diverse place to live, to become international in terms of the needs of studies and working life and to develop as a university city serving our environment – or do we accept the gradual shrinking of the city and adapt to what the future will bring? Success in the north has always required hard work, a broad mind and the courage to do something new. Only the most attractive regions can attract experts.

The selection of Oulu as a European Capital of Culture for 2026 is a great thing. I congratulate the City of Oulu on this great achievement that has far-reaching implications. The people of the region need all the richness that culture brings in their lives. Culture is also part of the attraction.

What does strengthening the region mean to us at the university? From the university’s point of view, it means turning every stone in the development of attraction and understanding the values and lifestyle of young generations. It means that we must be better able to respond to the expectations of young people – both as a city and as a university. For example, despite the many restrictions, the pandemic has accustomed people to new freedom in places for studying and working. In order to be a good study place and workplace, we have to live up to the expectations. Remote work and distance learning offer the university the opportunity to hire people and teach students who do not live in Oulu or Finland. However, a decrease in the number of staff and students present could pose a serious problem for the vitality of the region.

Dear Listeners,

Although university education has recently played a leading role in the political debate due to the shortage of professionals, the importance of research efforts cannot be emphasised enough. In order for Finland to succeed and be an attractive destination for companies’ RDI investments and the most talented researchers and students, we need a high level of science, attractive research environments and stable research careers. Strategically, the importance of science and research must be seen as an increasingly important issue for Finland in the future.

The pandemic and the digitalisation it brings challenge the unity of the scientific community. That is why we will pay particular attention to inclusion in the coming academic year. Inclusion means joining, being in relationships with others, being part of a community. Inclusion is a sense of belonging and being included. It is participation in what is shared, influencing community matters and democracy. Let us all play our part – everyone’s contribution is important to our community.

In particular, I warmly welcome all our new and old students. You have had a difficult period studying in isolation from your peers and your community. Fortunately, at the beginning of the academic year, we are returning to study on campuses and student life is beginning again. Later in the autumn, everyday life should become easier and freer. However, let us follow the safety guidelines together and thus take care of each other.

I would like to wish all members of the university community and friends of the university a very successful new academic year!

Government's address

Tytti Tuppurainen, Minister for European Affairs and Ownership Steering:

Dear Oulu university students and advocates of the university, distinguished guests,

Autumn augurs the beginning of the academic year. With summer activities over, it is time to take up studying and research work again. For new students, the arrival of autumn means entering a new world, becoming part of the scientific community.

Science, knowledge and education have become ever more relevant in today’s world. Humanity's dependence on scientific, technological and medical achievements is undeniable. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated these developments and encouraged science to evolve faster.

We begin the academic year in exceptional circumstances yet again, but not without prospects of hope. Progress in vaccination coverage creates faith in the opening up of society and the return to a lifestyle where we can get together, convene, study and conduct research together.

The role that the University of Oulu has in this world is more significant than before. The University executes its task admirably using a strategy that is in alignment with this period in time. The University of Oulu educates and equips future pioneers to build a more sustainable, intelligent and humane world. Well-earned recognition for all the good work can be seen in the ranking lists.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The freedom afforded to universities, to education and to research are values. They have been the foundation of civilised societies for centuries. Drawing on these values and ideals, we, too, are doing our job here at the University of Oulu. Although the autonomy of science is on a firm footing, it is also constantly being challenged. At this point, we are experiencing a period in time when scientific thinking, its processes and even individual researchers are being attacked all over the world, including in our own continent of Europe. The barbarians are at the gates of Rome.

In Finland, the high level of education of our citizens works as a safeguard. Finns who value democracy and civilisation appreciate the resources proffered by the freedom of science. Already back in the 19th century, J.V. Snellman said that the guardianship of a small nation lies in civilisation. This heritage lives on robustly in our society.  

Throughout history, universities have been held in high regard in Finland. We are very proud of these institutions. As an alumnus of the University of Oulu, I felt I was part of something bigger when, in June, I had the opportunity to showcase the university to my colleague, Juan González-Barba Pera, State Secretary of Spain for the European Union. As my guest here in the north, he received a comprehensive presentation of the city of Oulu and its culture, science and technology. I would venture to say that my colleague was very impressed by the expertise that the University of Oulu evinces.

Dear Friends,

We are all aware of how important competence, education and research are now and in the future. In early April, the Government published a report on education policy that aims to raise the overall level of education and competence of our citizens to become one of the best in the world. 

The report covers the whole of life, from early childhood education all the way to lifelong learning. In higher education, the aim is for half of the age cohort to acquire a higher education degree in 2030. Moreover, we see an international approach as part of the solution when matching competence needs. We also want Finnish higher education institutions to be equitably accessible. This is the only way we can ensure that our competence potential can truly become visible. 

To improve equality, the Government will decide on the objectives and guidelines for measures in the accessibility plan for higher education institutions by the end of 2021.  

The higher education system of the future must be structured in such a way that it can withstand the world to come. It must form a foundation for Finland’s narrative as the most competent nation in the world. We are preparing a Roadmap for RDI, which will bring in check marks towards achieving an RDI-to-GDP ratio of 4 per cent by 2030. We cannot afford to fail in this.

We must also bolster university cooperation with business and industry. We must strengthen collaboration within the higher education community. Only by creating an effective innovation system where we complement each other's expertise can we offer strong value added that will allow us to operate in the same league with bigger players. Together we are stronger.

We in Oulu have a long tradition of multidisciplinary cooperation and collaboration with business life. We can simultaneously maintain a meritorious notion of education and culture and strengthen the freedom of research and education, while also discuss performance and competition. The strength in the freedom of science and the autonomy of universities are reflected in the ability to work together in a way that preserves the integrity of science.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Almost 60 years ago, in his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, Thomas Kuhn, a renowned American scientist, argued that the study of the history of science reveals that development in any scientific field happens via a series of phases characterised by intermittent paradigm changes, scientific revolutions.

Kuhn encouraged scientists to be brave – he believed that science evolves and lives dynamically in time. It is also fair to say that while Kuhn’s philosophy of science took form, understanding the practice of science also grew in a wider societal context. The University of Oulu was also established during this watershed period.

Currently, with COVID-19 having radically affected our everyday lives for over 18 months, in the spirit of Thomas Kuhn, I will venture to make a few remarks about this virus as a paradigm change in society.

First of all, it is clear that there is no return from the digital leap that COVID-19 expedited. When we resume contact teaching, we will need to put into use those digital working methods acquired during the COVID-19 pandemic that have proved to be useful. 

Secondly, we are more convinced than ever that the relevance of advanced expertise, science and research is greater than before when we look at how different countries will succeed in the future. 

We have also understood that the creation of future wellbeing requires a shift to a carbon-neutral and resource-oriented society. Digitalisation progresses and boosts productivity, which has evolved too sluggishly in recent years. The COVID-19 period and progressing climate change have given a significant impetus to these developments at this juncture in history. 

In this process of change, science denotes freedom of thought and is a value in itself. It gives us the opportunity to improve our expertise and find answers to tough global questions.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The beginning of the academic year at universities is an important time for those new university students who have become members of the scientific community. University study programmes are a cornerstone for a high level of education and for understanding the surrounding world as well as ourselves. 

First and second year students have been and will continue to be in an ungrateful position. You have started your studies in the kind of circumstances in which people have never before had to study. I'm sure many students have suffered because their freshman year was spent before a digital screen. It is painful, very painful. Fortunately, though, student life is like a river. When COVID-19 blocks one riverbed, the river of life finds a different route to course. And eventually we will be able to return to the familiar stream of everyday life.

Despite the practical challenges, it is important to hold to the spirit of togetherness that the university community can offer at its best. We have good reason to talk about the scientific community in connection with universities. It is this very community, the bond with other scientists, that guarantees high-quality scientific work and research. Education is more than just burning the midnight oil; it is debate, discussion and dialogue. The academic world is a community where, by meeting up with each other, brainstorming and challenging our ideas, together we advance in knowledge.

Those of you who have come to complete a degree will encounter a new kind of world of work with new, perhaps even broader requirements for knowledge and expertise. I encourage you to courageously study different subjects and expand your education beyond your specific field of study. The education and competence that university degrees provide are also relevant for the labour markets of the future, even when the degree does not qualify for a specific profession in itself. Trust me – I’m an alumnus of Germanic philology. Life can be full of surprises, but the credentials you acquire from the University of Oulu will set you up for life. And when you do well here, you can do anything. Trust me on this too.

With these words, on behalf of the government, I wish the University of Oulu and its administration, staff, students, and all those at the university a fruitful start to the academic year and a successful autumn term in education, science, and our scientific community.


Students´ address

Olli Joki, Chairman of the Board, Student Union of the University of Oulu:

Dear Friends,

It has been a year and a half since I last set my foot in a lecture hall at our university. In the future, this era will probably be seen as a brief stage in the history of the University of Oulu. For us current students, however, it has been an eternity: almost a third of our average study time.

During this time, we have seen great changes. Lecture halls have moved into the digital world, and the dining table in our rental flat has become a study space. In the midst of mandatory changes, however, it is admirable how quickly our university community was able to adapt to the new digital methods and the new situation. It required a great deal from all of us. I would therefore like to express my gratitude to the entire university staff and to all my fellow students for showing flexibility and adaptability.

Although it has been a mandatory, partly temporary change, I doubt that we will return to the pre-COVID-19 era. We have noticed that distance learning and remote lectures suit some students very well. The number of credits completed during the pandemic has been higher than usual. At the same time, we have noticed that for some students, these methods are not suitable at all. The number of dropouts from higher education has been higher than usual during the pandemic. Loneliness and mental health problems have increased at an alarming rate. As regards measures promoting well-being, a period of reconstruction must begin.

We are in a time of great changes: the external form of education has changed more in an instant than in the entire history of the University of Oulu. The changes taking place now are probably also greater than those that we will experience in the coming decades. I believe that the next few years will show us the future of university education and teaching. Distance learning has shown that studies can be constructed very flexibly regardless of place. It has also shown that interaction, one of the most important sources of learning, suffers in the digital environment.

Human resources and the staff's ability to cope are directly reflected in the students. When tutor teachers and course instructors have time to focus on the students, not just the substance, this is reflected in the well-being of the students. More genuine interaction is needed. For example, clear, personalised, supportive and constructive feedback increases self-confidence and the will to learn.

The future requires balancing. We must seek new operating methods that incorporate the genuine and natural interaction of teaching and account for the fact that studying is not just learning new things but also a peer activity creating networks and other building blocks for future careers and life in general, while still enabling flexible studying.

The digital future can also facilitate many things, such as international experiences. Alongside conventional exchange periods, the number of digital courses or study modules completed abroad is likely to increase in the future. Nevertheless, it would be desirable for every student to also have the opportunity to include an actual exchange period abroad in their studies. The content of student exchange is more than just a different course selection at the exchange university. It can be a life- and career-changing experience.

Although studies are becoming more digital, it is clear that distance learning alone does not create a commitment to the university community. Why even move to a new university locality if the studies were entirely remote? What would that mean for the University of Oulu and all of Northern Finland?

The facilities of our university have been under discussion lately. With the rise of hybrid and remote lectures, instead of large lecture halls, we need independent study spaces, group work spaces and especially organisation spaces that create a sense of community and identity. The adaptability and versatility of the facilities will certainly be important, regardless of the location of the campus.

Although the methods of education and research may change as a result of remote and hybrid teaching and decentralised work, education and science are perhaps needed now more than ever. Over the past few months, a lot of pro-pandemic, anti-scientific material has spread, especially in social media. The best remedy for the spread of such dangerous information is quality education, research and popular scientific communication. I hope that the decision-makers in our country will also bear this in mind in future budget debates.

With these words, I would like to wish you all a great academic year!