Is Helsinki catalysing innovation in higher education?

Last month saw the opening of the newly expanded ‘Think Corner’ at Helsinki University, which it describes as a “meeting place for science”.

Taking over the entire lower level floor of the former administrative building, it will be the heart of the City Centre Campus, connecting the university community and its surrounding society with science. The renovated building will encourage multidisciplinary encounters for studying and work, and will allow for many different types of projects in which students, researchers and partners work and learn together.

The goal is to develop a science-as-service approach – a concept designed in partnership between the university and its stakeholders, including the local community – and to increase the social impact of research and find new methods for international science communication.

The Think Corner was first opened in 2012 as an instrument to make world-class research open to Helsinki residents and visitors, and the fact that its revamp in a renovated building is being overseen by JKMM Architects – known for designing Finland’s Kirnu pavilion for the World Expo 2010 in China, as well as the Seinäjoki city library – is symptomatic of the current buzz around innovation being sensed at the university, where hundreds of staff want to engage with citizens and organise events.

Riina Lumme, president of SYL, the national union of students in Finland, told University World News: “We are extremely proud of the work our students do in projects like those of Helsinki Think Company, and think that these kinds of outcomes are likely to make the rest of society see the value higher education can offer – especially when combining different fields of study.”

The lower floors will host the new Think Corner, including a centre for events, a cafe and a restaurant as well as work spaces. Not only research but also the research process will be highlighted at the Think Corner, providing new ways to build relations between society and the university.

The humanities and social science students who have run the Think Corner for the first few years are now being joined by students of medicine and bioscience.

The university is also opening a new venue and platform for the Health Capital Helsinki initiative, promoting health technology on the medical campus, assisted by medical companies.

Restructured programmes

When the university’s rector, Jukka Kola, gave an opening speech last month marking the new academic year (2017-18) and the centenary of the university, he said that in order to “broaden the vision of ideas and boost quality” the institution has revamped its degree programmes.

The 3,770 students admitted this year are embarking on a new type of degree programme, following the replacement of 100 bachelor programmes with 32 broader programmes; and the university is running 60 masters programmes that are “ever more international, both in terms of languages of instruction and programme content”.

The competition for entry to the restructured bachelor programmes is stiff – only 16% of applicants are admitted.

But Kola also highlighted two worrying trends that this competition will not help to address. The first is that the percentage of people aged 25 to 34 holding a university degree is significantly lower in Finland (40.5%) than in neighbouring countries (Norway 48%; Sweden 46% and Denmark 44%).

The second is that, sadly, according to Kola, the number of young men who fall by the wayside at school is increasing. In 2015 the NEET – Not in Employment, Education or Training – group accounted for 21% of Finnish men between 20 and 24 years of age, compared with 12% ten years ago. The corresponding figures for women were 15% and 13%.

Kola said this was due to Finland being hard hit by the economic crisis, on a par with other European countries Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland.

Visions for 2030

Do the developments at Helsinki University offer a taste of what the future might bring for Finnish higher education? We may find out in three weeks’ time, on 24 October, when the Ministry of Education and Culture publishes the findings of its project, ‘Vision for Finnish higher education and research 2030’, known as ‘Vision 2030’ for short.

The project was launched last spring with the aim of scenario building for the development of a high-quality, high-impact and internationally competitive higher education system in Finland by 2030.

The primary themes include the structure and scope of the system of higher education; the structure of degrees and number of students; steering, management and funding practices; and impact.

There are several other simultaneous development projects focused on universities and research, including policies on promoting internationality in higher education and research 2017-25 (“Better Together for a Better World”, Publications of the Ministry of Education and Culture, Finland 2017:11), the drafting of a vision and roadmap by the Research and Innovation Council, and the OECD Reviews of Innovation Policy: Finland 2017 (Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment), published in June this year.

Minister of Education Sanni Grahn-Laasonen said that high international standards must serve as the starting point for ‘Vision 2030’.

It is being prepared with the participation of higher education institutions and various stakeholders in themed seminars, workshops and an online brainstorming platform. A parliamentary monitoring group has also been appointed to support the work.

Several high-class seminars have been held, including one led by Don F Westerheijden of the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, on “How comparable are the higher education and research systems in Finland and the Netherlands”; and another by Dr Gemma Irvine of the Irish Higher Education Authority on "Irish Higher Education: Evolving expectations".

Adding to the buzz around innovation, last month saw the climax of a globally oriented science competition, the Helsinki Challenge, organised by 10 Finnish universities in the capital to celebrate 100 years of Finnish independence. The competition has involved international research teams proposing solutions to the challenge of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

Following boot camps, clinics and pitches from 20 semi-finalists during the spring, seven finalists attended a Global Impact Camp last month in Brussels to make their ultimate pitches.

Their proposals included 3D printing of mini-kidneys, a new heat storage system, new ways of preventing the spread of malaria, global skills education, a mental health toolkit for young families, and data-mining tools to find the best cancer treatment for individuals. Among the teams there were two European Research Council grant holders and several patents are pending.

The winner of the Impact Prize, selected by three members of the European parliament, proposed a POCKit – a device for patients to test for infectious diseases and the stage they are at.

Innovative strand vulnerable

Esa Hämäläinen, director of administration at Helsinki University, said the Vision 2030 project showed that the government has now “woken up to the reality that investing in education, research and human capital is the best way to guarantee a bright future for a small country”.

He cited as evidence the fact that the vision paper introduces a target for 50% of the population to hold a higher education degree – which the parliamentary group is now discussing – to raise the overall level of education in Finland.

But both Hämäläinen and Lumme of SYL are waiting to see if the current noise around innovation, which the publication of Vision 2030 will amplify, is backed by hard budget commitments.

Lumme said that if the project is to help tackle the types of problems raised by Kola, it will need to focus not on administrative efficiencies and budget cuts but on “increasing the breadth of higher education and developing new kinds of expertise and skills by offering students the opportunity to combine study modules in a new, innovative way”.

Hämäläinen told University World News: “Universities hope that these promises are kept, and that this is also shown in the future budget negotiations. The buzzing innovative culture is getting stronger, but is still fragile – and it needs the support of the politicians.”