The Society´s Address, Liisa Hyssälä, Director General of Kela, Vice-chairman of the Board of the University of Oulu

Honoured Rector, staff and students of the University of Oulu, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear members of the academia

Main tasks of the University

The outlined main tasks of the University are scientific research and higher education based on it. The University’s basic mission thus outlined is similar to that of the scientific Academia, the community of highly educated and widely learned people. Traditionally, entrance to the society of the learned has in many ways been restricted and its doors closed to outsiders. There are many reasons for those closed doors. For a long time, academic education and academic positions ran in the family, from father to son. Wealth opened doors, and poverty closed them. Also, the community of the learned was not all that willing to open any doors wide; at best they only opened them slightly. In addition, learned people talked and used language in a way that could result in the exclusion of others. The story about Aristotle, the most famous student in Plato’s Academy, describes this aspect. It is told that when Aristotle had decided to publish his lectures, his student reprimanded him by asking how members of the Academy can distinguish themselves from the common people if the founding texts of academic activities are for all to read. Aristotle is said to have replied, “Don’t worry. Nobody can make sense of them.”

Dear listeners. It is a long way from the olive grove in Academeia, dedicated to Pallas Athene, to here in Oulu and the Finnish university world. The tasks of the Finnish university have been expanded, and through changes in law, academia doors have been opened to students coming from different classes of society, offering the possibility for higher education in different parts of the country. The talk of academics must be comprehensible; it is not enough that the learned people only converse with their wise colleagues in Harvard and Oxford. For that reason, there is an effort to widen the field of the University’s operation, to the outside of scientific research and higher education.

Difficult definitions

Dear university community. How much then has the university succeeded in raising servants for the fatherland and the human kind, and how has the University managed to have an effect on society? It is actually unclear what it means to serve the fatherland and humanity. Does it mean advancing science, arts, culture and all higher mind cultivation for their own sake in the spirit of the Humboldian educational university? Or should sciene directly serve the country’s economics, improve international competitiveness, and strengthen the growth of the national economy? Where the proponent of the educational university cringes at the latter and emphasizes autonomy of science, there the economically oriented perspective points out that an institution financed by 1.5 billion euros of public money should be expected to give us our money’s worth. But here also we can see contrary interpretations on what that worth actually is.

Three knowledge interests

However, the situation is not black and white. In a good academy, different goals live side by side. Even Plato’s Academeia was a place to search for instructions for a good society and a good life. The different tasks of the university overlap and, at their best, support one another and meet various knowledge interests.

German sociologist and social philosopher Jürgen Habermas distinguishes three kinds of social knowledge interests, which all have their important tasks as tools for understanding, control and emancipation. Habermas talks about hermeneutic, technical, and emansipatory knowledge interests. All these interests have their place in a well functioning academia serving its community.

Hermeneutic knowledge interest is related to the understanding and interpretation of humanity’s tradition and history, culture, cultural symbols, and human operations. Hermeneutics examines the mortar that holds the society together. Perhaps a pure hermeneutic knowledge interest glimmers in the minds of the proponents of the education university. And that is how it should be.

Technical knowledge interest is in turn related to man’s instrumental activities, and its goal is to ensure the material existence and survival of the community. It is because of the technical knowledge interest that today’s postindustrial worlds look like they do – in good and bad. Therefore we may justifiably ask where we would be without the technical interest. Equally justifiable is to ask where we are with it. The danger is that a technical interest taken to the extremes creates an economic system that has a law of its own, goes only after profit, and does not care for people but crushes and exterminates networks which maintain the society. This destructive grinder (‘Satanic mill’ according to Karl Polanyi) grinds in its jaws all that is social, and finally threatens the balance in society. But at the same time it must be said that mere hermeneutics do not sustain us. They require the support of the technical interest to guarantee the survival of mankind, resources, and material renewal.

Emancipatory intrest is related with an all-encompassing liberation of man, be it from norm structures that are too rigid, thought patterns that bind us, or institutions and practices that oppress us. The goal is a free society that gives man, in the Aristotelean sense, freedom and opportunity to fulfill his own humanity. In an emansipated society citizens are guaranteed the skills to make well motivated and sensible decisions and take responsibility for their own lives (as economist Amartya Sen has stated). The emansipatory interest takes its working power from the two previously mentioned knowledge interests, and they can be used as tools for emancipation.

What about concreteness and practice?

Dear listeners. Above I have tried to reassure you that the tasks assigned by law to the university are not mutually exclusive but support each other. On a general level this is easy to prove, but in practice the situation may be a lot more complicated. Let us start with the University of Oulu research center coordinator Janne Kurtakko’s critical analysis in the Tieteessä tapahtuu journal in 2014. In his essay “Universities wrenched out of real life” Kurtakko paints a gloomy picture of today’s university world: accelerating competition for funding constricts research, the financier dictates what to study and what is good research, freedom and autonomy of research decreases, international scientific trends and research needing to serve national policy-making may be in contradiction, the university serves whoever has the money. The worry is that the university becomes an institute governed by technical knowledge interest, and all else is subject to that. A warning example is Japan, where it was discussed last year if humanistic and social science subjects should not be taught at all, and focus should be in technology and economics. The danger in a situation like that is that society will lose its hermeneutic touch in its own history and its own cultural background.

The situation is difficult for political decision-makers. Education is an investment and guarantee of our future. Expectations towards higher education from the political decision-making system and business life are increasing. As return for investing tax money into education they expect innovations and expertise for making it in future’s society -  be it a question of the individual, Finnish business life, or the entire society in the broad sense.

As an example for this trend we may take, for example, the strategic research funding by the Academy of Finland. The funding instrument in question has been critizised from various directions; it is, however, a novel opening whose effectiveness is evaluated every few years. The ongoing programmes combine the effort to serve the aforementioned three knowledge interests. The programmes look at technology and economics, environmental issues, robotics, digitalization and work life, education, income distribution, social politics – in a wide sense, social equality. The operations of this funding instrument must also be evaluated and criticized. The effort in itself is good, however. As the saying goes, it is better to have evidence-based policies than to search for policy-based evidence. We unfortunately have plenty of historical examples of the latter.

Emansipatory nature of the university

Dear friends of the academy. Above I have spoken mostly about the technical and hermeneutical knowledge interest. In conclusion I will take a look at the emansipatory function of the university. In traditional socio-political research, poverty is defined as an inability caused by lack of money to participate in the way of life prevalent in society. Economist Amartya Sen expands the concept of poverty in an interesting way towards an emansipatory direction. Sen speaks of the kind of poverty where people are deprived of knowledge and skills – capabilities – needed to make rational choices concerning themselves and to fully participate in the workings of their own society. Education and knowledge are the resource for the necessary capabilities.

In the beginning I referred to the closed nature of Academia. Offices mostly ran in the family, and social background mattered the most. In our time, higher education is more open, even if family background still has some effect in gravitation towards the highest education. The children of academic baby boomers had a 19-fold probability of studying in a university than those who came from non-academic families. These days that relation is below seven. Social background still does have some effect, but due to education investments, the door to Academia is more open than before, and international comparisons show that Finland is a relatively open society.

The university has also had and will continue to have a strong regional emansipatory mission, which will more or less automatically effect the surrounding society. For example, the multidisciplinary university in Oulu with its 14 thousand plus students and three thousand staff members has a significant effect not only on Finnish or Northern Finnish education, but also on Northern Finnish economy and culture. In addition, those who have studied in their local university will be more likely to stay serving their own home commune than those who came from elswhere. For example, 76 per cent of medical doctors working in Northern Finland have graduated from the University of Oulu. The situation is the same in many other fields. In this respect the University of Oulu has a special mission to serve the northernmost part of our country, open routes to the academia, give opportunities, and uphold the highest teaching and education.

When resources are scarce, there is discussion about if the university network in Finland is too wide and should it be reduced. It should be open to discussion what we may achieve with collaboration nationally and internationally.

In conclusion

Dear listeners, dear university people. Let us return one more time to the olive grove in Akademeia. Metaphysics by Aristotle begins with a short description of how to make knowing possible. The inspection starts from the most basic possibility to know, and advances to wisdom. But wisdom does not mean knowing everything. Socrates – one of the most important teachers in world history – said that he was wiser than others because he knows he is ignorant. Socrates did not give his students ready answers. He directed his students to think for themselves. This is a good goal for the Academia also here in Oulu.

Dear Friends! With these words I want to wish the University of Oulu a good new academic year, and operations to answer technical, hermeneutical and emansipatory knowledge needs. Thank you.

Last updated: 29.8.2016