At the opening ceremony of the academic year on 6 September at Aalto University Campus, Tuula Teeri, President of Aalto University, and Milja Asikainen, President of the Aalto University Student Union, discussed the key roles and societal impact of universities.
Both Tuula Teeri and Milja Asikainen joined Aalto University at the time of the merger of Helsinki University of Technology, Helsinki School of Economics and the University of Art and Design, Helsinki. Aalto University has come a long way since then. The former technology village in Otaniemi is rapidly transforming into Aalto City that is already home to different disciplines and Aalto University partners. Aalto is rapidly becoming the innovation university it was founded to be, thanks to the hard work of Aalto University’s faculty, staff, students and partners.
Modern societies are – and must be – built on knowledge
Tuula Teeri and Milja Asikainen started their dialogue by discussing knowledge society. Societies founded on knowledge are contributing to a constantly better world which is able, equal and caring. This is a view that has carried western societies for centuries. However, knowledge as such, and as the basis of societal development is now beginning to lose ground. Brexit, the developments in Turkey and the presidential election campaigns in the USA are worrying examples of this, said Tuula Teeri.
Both the general public and elected decision makers are more and more often relying on hearsay and opinions, neglecting to consider facts based on research and expertise. Populist remarks are countered with other populist remarks, even in Finland. This is a very dangerous development that is undermining the very foundation of stable societies.
The emerging trend of devaluating knowledge and expertise is the reason why everyone in the university, students, professors and the entire university community should actively engage in public discussions. Universities must take a bigger role in shaping the public discussions, not just adapting to them.
Society needs critical thinkers and doers
Universities exist first and foremost in order to educate critical thinkers who are equipped with the confidence and courage to sustain the knowledge society. Thinkers and leaders guided by the latest research findings and knowledge are needed, not only in academia but in all sectors of society, perhaps more than ever. Universities have a huge responsibility in safeguarding the knowledge society, developing and disseminating new knowledge and insisting on knowledge-based decision making. To have a solid base for such a discussion in our society we must be part of the global knowledge production. We need creative, front line research, we must be pioneers in our areas of strength. We can’t afford to be followers, always a step behind.
Milja Asikainen emphasized that it is important for these critical thinkers to engage in solving the problems of the society and to participate in political debates. Therefore, for the next two years the Aalto University Student Union will focus on encouraging students to participate in societal discussions and to find their own way to be influential.
Active participation is something that can be encouraged by the right kind of culture – it is something that all teachers and every student can play a part in. There are great examples at Aalto of such a passion for participation; scientists work for and talk about how to build ecologically sustainable technologies and responsible business practices, student entrepreneurs are very active and visible advocates of an entrepreneurial culture and practice and economists advise the government on how to put together the ingredients of new growth.
We all need to be interested in shaping the way we do things in our society, even if academic communities world-wide still have a lot of shortcomings in this regard. However, thinking and talking are not enough, doing is needed. Our students must learn to act to change the world.
For our students to stand on a solid ground, it is very important that they are invited to participate in all academic activities as early as possible, to join research groups, industrial collaborations, international missions. They must learn how to speak for themselves and how to lead – whether it’s a question of a debate or artwork, technology development or business creation. Experts that have a found their own passion and who drive their mission on a strong knowledge base also benefit the society the most. This is the basis of innovation, economic success, and wellbeing.
Universities provide students with skills needed by their future employers
Universities must be able to provide students with skills that are relevant in future jobs – not a simple task as we are not really able to predict how the jobs will look like in just a few years. “At Aalto University, we are banking on educating the game changers that have disciplinary excellence augmented by art, creativity, multidisciplinary collaboration and entrepreneurship”, said Tuula Teeri. An education with many possibilities to shape one’s own curriculum will help our students in adapting to and shaping the future job markets – to change the world.
Aalto students are already very actively engaged in solving societal challenges, and the curricula are constantly developed towards integrative thinking. The options for multidisciplinary studies are increasing rapidly. Milja Asikainen argued that the skills needed in future working life, such as teamwork, communication skills and project management and leadership can also be acquired by working alongside studies or being active on student organisations. Rethinking the ways we teach will increase the impact of the university and the relevance of the education provided by Aalto.
Aalto performs well in creating value from research and education
The criteria for public funding of European universities have traditionally focused on research and education, neglecting societal impact and relevance. The good news is that Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture is now beginning to evaluate societal impact as one criteria for strategic funding of universities. Since by law, the core activities of universities include interaction with society along with research and education, it is only reasonable that universities can earn core funding based on performance in all of these three areas. Diverse criteria for university funding will help each university to create a relevant profile and to make unique contributions for the Finnish society.
Based on its core strengths, Aalto University is performing well in creating value from research and education, and the development of a unique innovation ecosystem. In this ecosystem, the Aalto Entrepreneurial Society, Startup Sauna, Design Factory, Aalto Ventures program and Slush have done a tremendous job in changing the general attitudes about entrepreneurship. Over half of all the start-ups coming out of Finnish universities originate from Aalto.
Long term collaboration with universities gives access to the research front and adds considerable value to industries and businesses, too. This has been shown in numerous reports worldwide and it is also true for Aalto: companies that collaborate with Aalto are export oriented, well performing and create more jobs than other companies.
Finland needs a bold future vision for education, research and innovation
The two presidents called attention to their key messages for the future. Milja Asikainen reminded of three main points: “Universities are vital for solving the challenges of modern societies; changing public attitudes toward supporting education and science is a responsibility for the entire Aalto community; and it’s important to get students interested in societal issues.”
Tuula Teeri emphasised that, in order to maintain its status as a globally successful knowledge economy, Finland must urgently reconsider its agenda for research, education and innovation. Politicians should open a dialogue with leading experts both in Finland and globally to support decision making – this is crucial for managing global competition. She concluded that, within Finland, a national dialogue is needed to set a bold future vision and progressive agenda for our research and innovation system over the long term, a vision and an action plan that carry beyond different government mandates and policies.
Dialogue: President Tuula Teeri and Chair Milja Asikainen, Aalto University 6 Sep 2016 (YouTube)