Rector's Speech at the Main Opening Event 6.9.2017

Rector Jouko Niinimäki, University of Oulu:

Dear members of the university community and friends of the university:

The new academic year is starting in a situation in which the Finnish economy is rising to its feet at an even faster pace than had been expected. The employment rate is steadily improving and exports have also started to grow. We can hope that the painful cuts targeting universities will be a thing of the past, and that new investments will be on the way. Now that the worst is over in the economy, we need solutions that will help make it easier to recover from the next economic slump, which will inevitably come, better than how we recovered from the one that we experienced now – the lengthy distressing situation that began with the finance crisis of 2008.

It is no coincidence that knowledge-rich activities required for creating new things gravitate toward the best clusters of research. It is specifically the creation of new things that requires top-level skills and constant production of new knowledge from research.

The University of Oulu and the Oulu region are an excellent example of how a high level of knowledge and skill can raise an area to success.  The Oulu region is especially renowned as a concentration of telecommunications expertise and industries based on knowledge. The success of the region has its roots in research into radio technology, which began at the University of Oulu in the 1970s. In the 1980s a group of companies in the electronics industry gathered at an old dairy and set up Oulun Teknologiakylä Ltd, around which a very significant concentration of skills and knowledge later took shape.

The success story of the Nokia cluster came at an opportune time for Finland to help us out of one of the most serious economic crises of our history – the recession of the early 1990s. Over the decades nearly 10,000 new jobs in the technology sector were created in Oulu and in the first years of the 21st century the city was Finland's second-most important growth centre right after Helsinki. The decline that began after the peak years took a turn for the worse at the end of the first decade of the 21st century and our wave of letting personnel go did not end until 2014. The bad times seem to be behind us and we have finally got back to a path of growth and a situation in which real possibilities exist. Already now there are more jobs in the technology sector than there were in the boom years.

Ladies and gentlemen:
Without skilful and knowledgeable people capable of creating new things and filling the vacuum left by the companies that had closed their doors, Oulu would not have been able to rise from its crisis, and would have faced a permanent path of decline and atrophy.  Fortunately, knowledgeable and skilled people stayed in Oulu, setting up new companies and bringing new players to the area, both from Finland and abroad. Hidden within those companies lies unprecedented potential for growth and exports, which would be important for Finland to keep here.

It is beyond doubt that the University of Oulu represents the highest level in many areas of research in which the companies of the Oulu region operate.  Whereas the old corporate base mainly comprised telecommunications and technology industries, the new base focuses on services. This puts great pressure on the university to expand its know-how into the areas that the new companies will need.

The state must provide the resources required by the university for the expansion and modernisation of its skills and knowledge.  Otherwise the growth potential offered by the structural change will be left untapped, and the strong growth will crash head-on into a shortage of knowledge and skill.

The structural change has gained energy from changes in society. The ongoing digitalisation process and new kinds of digital services are bringing changes to health and welfare services, education, the finance sector, industry, our living environment, and construction.  Understanding, utilising, and supporting this change demands that we take an increasingly multidisciplinary approach and that we engage in closer collaboration. The human sciences have a very central role in research into this shake-up.

Ladies and gentlemen:
Although I have focused much attention on the expanding and increasingly multidisciplinary whole of the ICT sector in this theme of concentrations of research and the environment of creating new things, we must keep in mind that the University of Oulu has other internationally recognised research, knowledge, and skills that get very strong international recognition.

Exemplary research is taking place with research interests originating from very different points of view.  Naturally we must not, even in the midst of structural change, forget the important basic research that springs from curiosity. High-quality work in this area is supported in all recognised areas in which our strength has been established as well as in selected areas of development. The high international quality of research and good national and international cooperation are starting points for our success.

Honoured guests:
On this opening day I would also like to raise one important issue concerning education. About 40 percent of all Finns aged 25 to 34 have completed a degree in higher education. This is slightly below the average among OECD countries and has declined since the 1990s.  Higher education has an acutely central role in issues concerning professions requiring a high level of skills and knowledge, and education is known to be a protection against unemployment also when the economy takes a downturn.

Education policy should set a goal that at least half of each age group should have a university level degree. Having a sufficient proportion of highly-educated people in the workforce also promotes the employment of those with less education – not only for knowledge-intense jobs, but also for the service sector through their purchasing power.

Appreciation of education needs to be raised at all levels. Only by doing this can the proportion of highly-educated people in the population start to grow. Raising the level of education is the only way to sustainably get rid of the serious unemployment problem and to reduce the proportion of young people in danger of being marginalised.  Greater appreciation of education springs from high-quality early education, extending all the way to the critical juncture with the secondary level. Science and mathematics studies need to be supported in such a way that choices made in upper secondary school and in the matriculation examination do not restrict a young person's study options when applying for higher education.

In the ongoing changes, digitalisation, artificial intelligence and robotization are bringing changes to work and professions. Lifelong learning of new things is growing in importance because in the future a growing proportion of people will train for more than one profession over their lifetimes. In addition to basic education, conversion training and continuing education need to be examined as part of the whole.

Ladies and gentlemen:
The Oulu region and its environments form an independent growth centre separate from the growth zone of Southern Finland. From a dramatic and rapid decline we have reached a situation in which our region can be seen as an area of positive structural change. The structural change has received many types of government support, but without the local efforts involving northern perseverance we never could have achieved our present situation.

Now that the structural change has occurred, we need to be capable of moving to a state of continued growth and sustainable high employment and well-being.  We have learned that in the north it is not possible to imitate others. The only guarantee for success is the unceasing creation of something new. For this reason, investment in education and know-how is society's best investment into the future.

Dear university community and friends of the university:
Once again the University of Oulu has completed a strong year. We have attained our best in very challenging economic conditions, and have made our contribution for the benefit of Finland. Great changes have impacted our daily lives. Although the change is a permanent one, I believe that there will be more steady times ahead in which continuous adaptation will give way to a time of controlled reinforcement and mental growth. I would like to warmly thank our entire personnel for a job well done on behalf of science, education, and the future of our society.

With these words I wish you all a good new academic year and a time of successful building of the future.

Last updated: 8.9.2017