Marching towards new learning environments

The above title is modified from the Marching Towards Mars learning environment symposium organised in connection with the SciFest 2017 fair at the Joensuu Campus last week, where our experts together with e.g. NASA astronauts discussed future innovative learning environments and technologies.

Globalisation, digitalisation and robotisation are changing societies, living environments, as well as working life faster than probably ever before in the history of humankind. These changes provide huge opportunities for us, but at the same time, they challenge our current way of life in all possible senses, including education.

We have to face these complicated challenges through thematic, multidisciplinary approaches to research and education. So far, the Finnish educational system has been very successful in providing discipline and subject specific expertise for its students. In addition to these skills, we have to equip our students with the skills needed for acting in multidisciplinary and multiprofessional groups working together to solve the great challenges.

UEF has set the goal to be the best academic learning environment in Finland. However, we cannot do it alone, and we need partners to form ecosystems to increase the societal impact of our education and research.

One exciting example of such an ecosystem is the NASA Epic Challenge programme, where our students, together with partners from companies and other universities, are seeking solutions for the mankind to conquer the planet Mars in 2030s.

We are also building the Global Education Park Finland together with the city of Joensuu and other collaborators to form a platform for the development of modern learning environments in Finnish primary schools.

Through these ecosystems, we also teach ourselves as an organisation to operate in open platforms that are essential in this increasingly complicated world.

Jukka Mönkkönen

Natural sciences – A joint challenge in Finland

Last week, the Deans of universities offering natural sciences in Finland came together in Kuopio to discuss the challenges we are facing in university level education. A common view on the challenging situation of natural sciences in Finland was shared, and universities are also seeking ways to improve the attractiveness of natural sciences in the Finnish school system in general. At all levels of education, starting from the elementary school, there are serious attempts also by UEF to contribute to a better future of natural sciences in Finland. As a negative mood or giving up is not helping us, we must seek new ideas and practices, even if everything we try may not be a success.

The development of Bachelor’s programmes with a wide scope and, subsequently, highly focused Master’s programmes is a strategic approach in the Faculty of Science and Forestry in UEF. However, we should probably think the scope of our Bachelor’s programmes similarly as they do in the University of Helsinki. At the first stage of planning in UEF, these programmes were planned to include a maximum number of compulsory courses for all students. However, following the Helsinki model, at Bachelor’s level, the contents should be based on the individual choices of each student. Of course, we have to link the contents of the Bachelor’s programmes to the Master’s programmes the student is eligible to take later on. Personal guidance and supervision of each student then plays a critical role.

We have to share experiences from the initiatives of other Finnish universities and apply the good practices we learn from each other. Indeed, this is a learning process for us all, and failures will be part of the game. At the Master’s level, we have to design programmes that are unique to UEF, build on the strengths of our university and address problems of the modern world. Then, I believe, the programmes can be attractive also to future students of UEF.  Based on the discussion in the Deans’ meeting, I am confident that the faculties of natural sciences in Finnish universities will do their part to promote the importance of education, also in the field of natural sciences, for the success of future societies.

Jukka Jurvelin


Finns still believe in science and education. Only organisations responsible for the internal and external security of our society are trusted more than universities and colleges. The Finnish Science Barometer 2016 – a study of the attitudes and opinions of Finns towards scientific and technological progress – proves this without a doubt. How come is this outcome so clear in times of post-factual populism, alternative facts and doctrines? Obviously, it has something to do with our previous experiences of how science and education have influenced our lives. This trust grows from our country’s fast development from a poor agricultural society to a modern innovation system with a working welfare economy. It is widely accepted that this success story is largely based on research and education. In a similar manner, the value of education has been experienced by citizens at an individual level. It pays off to have a higher education.

Today, citizen trust in science is being tested in many levels. Some of the megatrends reshaping and shaking the reliability of information in general are the new media and growth of populism, among others. The information flow is no longer one-way traffic, it is interactive allowing creative participation, but unfortunately also manipulation. Sometimes it feels like the loudest voices and biggest mouths represent the biggest truth in social media. And what a shame it is to see that some of the world’s political leaders ignore the value of science and turn into proponents of alternative facts. How to maintain trust in the power of science in such world?

One-way reporting of scientific achievements through TV news, newspapers and the like is old-fashioned and too boring for young people. Social media should be taken as an opportunity to articulate science in an interactive way. This should create mutual interests among scientists and the surrounding world. This could even develop into citizen science – one of the cornerstones behind open science and open innovation thinking. Similarly, education programmes should be open to interactive learning and, again, with young minds. The developments in the knowledge environment, however, do not define trust alone. Finally, trust will be based on how well science and education can fuel our intellectual and material resources towards a better future.

Jaakko Puhakka
Academic Rector

More borders, less mobility

Brexit has awakened us to the threat of new ‘hard’ borders being established within the European Union, which has for decades striven to do away with such barriers to free movement of labour and goods. The UK Parliament’s recent decision on backing Theresa May’s exit plan effectively means that Britain is very likely to leave the Union in 2019 or soon thereafter, and that in turn – despite what May might hope for – means a return to the old customs border services and various kinds of restrictions on people’s movements across the borders into the UK.

In the academic world, this prospect has already given rise to a great deal of concern in both the UK and elsewhere in the European Union. It has also begun to be reflected in researchers’ wariness of engaging in long-term research collaboration with colleagues in the UK. In turn, academics there are increasingly worried about the future of their collaborative research projects and especially about their future opportunities to benefit from research funding from EU sources. As the largest beneficiary of, e.g., Horizon 2020 funding, the academia in the UK will certainly feel the difference if, and when, all that funding drains out.

This reality has begun to dawn on even many of the ‘leave’ voters. On the continental European side, there does not seem to be any willingness to give Britain special favours in the eventual exit deal. Somewhat paradoxically, this means, for instance, that border posts will have to re-erected between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, despite the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK. This would be in conflict with the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement and thus open up an international dimension to the question. In an interview with the Observer (11 Feb 2017), the former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic Bertie Ahearn expressed his concern about the loss of what he calls the “calming effects” [of an open border] and about the “bad feeling” that would follow from any attempt to re-establish a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Ahearn also points out some figures which testify to the absurdity of having a hard border between the two countries: 200 crossing points between the Republic and Northern Ireland, 177,000 crossings by lorries a month, 208,000 by vans, and 1.85 million by cars. Add to these the corresponding figures for the cross-Channel traffic and you soon realise that May and the British Government haven’t quite thought the matter through.

Closer to home, Brexit is also making its mark, e.g. in the numbers of students wanting to study in British universities. Traditionally, Britain has been the destination of most of the Finns admitted to British higher education institutions, with currently some 2,000 enrollments of Finnish students. While the number of applicants from Finland has for long been going up year by year, this year marked a clear drop, from 910 to 760, according to the statistics published by UCAS, the UK’s central Universities and Colleges Admission Service. Interestingly, this decline does not concern Finland only; applications from the EU as a whole fell by 7 per cent. Of course, there may be other factors at play, too, but many observers put the decline down to the imminent threat of Brexit and its consequences. In any case, we seem to be heading towards a Europe with more borders and less mobility. A lot will also depend on the outcome of the upcoming general elections in France and Italy, which may turn the tide in one direction or the other.

Markku Filppula

Brain drain

Researchers are facing tough times, as the competition for research funding is getting harder and harder.  In Finland, many funding instruments have been developed in the direction steered from above. An example of this is funding available through the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland, highlighting impact. At the same time, funding for basic research in particular is hard to come by.  Research is dictated by money: the funder sets the pace and the researcher is expected to keep up. This warrants the question of whether this kind of an environment fosters long-term research at the top level.

Statistics show that over the past few years, people with academic degrees are migrating abroad in increasing numbers in the hope of better conditions for working and doing research. Many, including the Chair of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers Petri Koikkalainen in an interview by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, have expressed their concern over the brain drain, as many Finnish scientists and entire research groups are relocating to research institutes abroad.

We find ourselves in this situation following a long recession. The Finnish Government’s cuts on higher education institutions’ funding also play a role in worsening the situation. The effects are becoming increasingly visible towards the end of the decade.

Published recently, the State of Scientific Research in Finland report shows that science in Finland is in a moderate shape, yet falling behind in the competition. There is a risk that we continue to decline in international rankings.

Science is global in nature. Networking is essential, and researcher mobility is desirable. But how do we make sure that our well-trained researchers return home and commit to Finland? We need attractive research environments and infrastructures, continuity and visions of the future. Currently, our research is too scattered. We need larger entities and removal of overlaps.

Many countries at the top of science attract researchers with money. In Finland, we train our own researchers and our research training is of an outstanding quality. However, we need to critically review the situation regarding research funding and make wise investments – otherwise we’ll end up just prepping researchers for a career abroad.

Hilkka Soininen

Weighing quality

This week, two years of preparatory work will come to a culmination, as UEF is being audited by an international team of auditors from the Finnish Education Evaluation Centre, FINEEC. Finnish universities are required by law to undergo auditing every six years, and this takes plenty of effort from staff members and students alike, with everything led and coordinated by the university’s Quality Manager.

A positive thing about the current audit method is self-evaluation, forcing us to critically evaluate our own activities. Combined with benchmarking, this constitutes an efficient way to make changes to processes where change is needed. Another good thing about the audit is the university’s opportunity to select an optional audit target, which is our case is international student mobility. This provides us with an external evaluation of the current state of our activities, as well as novel ideas for development, which we might not come up with on our own.

Having said that, not everything about the audit is positive. The entire preparation process and the background materials required by FINEEC are disproportionate to the objective – whose value as such of course isn’t being denied by anyone. For instance, having to deliver all materials to FINEEC in ten printed copies is not a modern way of doing things. Moreover, as I mentioned in the beginning, the audit preparations tie down a significant amount of the university’s resources for a long time. It almost feels like quality management thinking has been forgotten in the actual audit process. Luckily, the delivery of materials will become easier in the future, as materials can be submitted electronically.

Quality work is not something that can be separated from the university’s other activities. It can be justifiably said that here at UEF, quality is directly and elegantly integrated into our everyday operational processes. We are also confident about our performance in the audit – we’ve done everything that can be done, and we feel that our activities stand any scrutiny, any time. This is not to say that we are indifferent to the audit, as we definitely want to pass it. The audit results will be published in spring 2017, and we’ll be wiser then.

meriläinen tuomo-100x130Tuomo Meriläinen
Director of Administration

Big data changes the ways of producing information in human sciences

Commerce, search engines, social media and other actors of the digital world meticulously record in their databases the purchases we make and the websites we visit. Already now, they know a lot about us and our preferences, and would be more than happy to include register data on us in their databases, if only legislation allowed. For these actors, the management of large data sets and their systematic analysis is an everyday activity, and a seemingly productive one as well.

In scientific research, natural sciences and medical sciences have long-term experience in the management of large data sets. In human sciences, linguistics has been a pioneer in Finland through the national FIN-CLARIN consortium, which constitutes part of the European CLARIN network. The attitudes in human sciences towards data resources known as big data haven’t been unreservedly positive. The new way of producing information with its computational models and artificial intelligence, as required by big data processing, has even been regarded as a threat to hermeneutic research. On the other hand, advocates of big data have highlighted the opportunities it offers in the analysis of large data sets by using the above mentioned methods.

Within human sciences, there is an agreement on the fact that the amount of big data is growing exponentially in tandem with the digitalisation of our society and the digitisation of previously created, historical materials. The usability of these data sets, on the other hand, is promoted by investments in open science, multiplying the number of potential users. Big data can’t be ignored or hushed away in human sciences either, as evidenced by the appearance of theme issues in the field’s journals and the emergence of publication series devoted to big data, for example Big Data & Society from 2014 onwards. Semi Purhonen and Arho Toikka provided an excellent analysis of the significance of big data for research in social sciences in an article published in Sosiologia (1/2016). According to them, new methods allowing the use of large data sets and the change in the ratio between quantitative and qualitative methods are revolutionary. Computational methods enhance transparency and repeatability in the analysis of text materials. After presenting this view, a radical one in the context of human sciences, the authors note that the new computational methods do not undermine the significance of context-related understanding and substance-related expertise.

The fact that mastery of the computational methods is not included in the basic methodological tool kit of social scientists – or humanists for that matter – is largely overlooked in the discussion relating to digital humanism and big data. In order to mine relevant and in-depth information from big data, the researcher must be well versed in the phenomenon and its contextualisation, and the researcher also needs to have expertise in data collection and data analysis pertaining to large data sets. When presented to an individual researcher, the challenge seems and is too great to overcome. In-depth mastery and analysis of big data in social sciences calls for multidisciplinary collaboration involving at least computer science and statistics.  Big data challenges the paradigms relating to the production of scientific information in human sciences, and also calls for our educational system to renew itself. The utilisation of exponentially growing data sets must not remain the privilege of the few, but needs to be harnessed to serve the development of society at large.

harri_siiskonenHarri Siiskonen

Open your science or perish?

Daniel Sarewitz analysed excellently in May issue of Nature how the pressure to constantly increase the number of scientific publications pushes down quality. The number of publications continues to grow exponentially, and because we tend to think that more is good, this is considered to be favourable for science.

However, more could also be bad. It is widely accepted that an increased share of published research is unreliable. The production of poor-quality science, the responsibility to cite previous work and the compulsion to publish create “a vicious cycle” and decrease the overall reliability of research.

The quality problem has been recognised in biomedical sciences, but similar negative feedback also occurs in other areas of research. According to Sarewitz, the problem is likely to be worse in policy-relevant fields such as nutrition, education, epidemiology and economics, in which the science is often uncertain and the societal stakes can be high.

Sarewitz suggests that avoidance of this destiny would, in part, require less frequent and more selective publication. However, are the current publication practices overall appropriate and the most feasible way to make scientific research available? Should we adopt the context of Open Science in a wider perspective than just publishing in open access journals?

This would mean a shift from the standard practice of publishing results as an individual paper toward sharing and using all available knowledge at an earlier stage in the research process. That is for science what the internet has been for social and economic transactions: allowing colleagues to interpret the research and end users to be involved in the production of ideas, relations and services, and in doing so, enabling a new operational model for science.

Open Science in a wider sense is yet a very complicated and dimly seen entity, requiring numerous ethical, legal and technical issues to be clarified and solved. However, it requires a shift from the “publish or perish” to the “open your science or perish” culture, involving the indicators for scientists to merit in doing that.

Jukka_Monkkonen_100X130Jukka Mönkkönen


Students make the university

A research institute is an organisation with active scientists working on chosen scientific fields and topics. Based on that, any university is also a research institute. In UEF, the Faculty of Science and Forestry can call itself an intensive research institute.   An institute with teaching activity is traditionally called a school. A university also has a commitment to teaching its students. Actually, through teaching universities educate new researchers and professionals. As research and teaching are thus linked, to be a true university, both activities must be in order. In the strategy of UEF, both missions are appreciated and ideas for development are provided. My faculty makes 2/3 of its income from output that is related to research. It does not mean that our departments with a high level of research can ignore teaching; instead we must make a significant effort in the development of teaching to be convincing as a university faculty.  The development of learning environments is not the only instrument that is needed for future success in teaching.

In UEF, university students will judge if our teaching activities are of high quality. Students can also tell us potential flaws in our teaching arrangements and practices. Therefore, students’ feedback, and our analysis of that feedback should provide the basis for the development of our teaching activities. The feedback should not only guide us for the optimal development of our teaching system as a whole, but also help individual teachers to develop their own ways of teaching. As many of us recognise, the university’s feedback systems may not be optimal and development is obviously needed. However, I am sure that useful feedback can be received any moment provided that we appreciate its importance, have regular contacts and informal relationships with our students.  The quality system of UEF, when functioning as expected, will certainly pinpoint potential problems in teaching.

In natural sciences, the recruitment of new, talented students is a true challenge. We have to work in many ways to be successful in the future. To help ourselves, we need the support of our present students. Their positive experience and satisfaction with the university education they have received serves as the most important basis for success in the competition for future students.

Jukka Jurvelin

Jukka Jurvelin
Dean of the Faculty of Science and Forestry

Dark clouds over Turkish and UK Academia

Visitors to Istanbul often first go to see the eighth wonder of the world, Hagia Sophia. This is also what my research group did – actually several times – in connection with joint research meetings with our Turkish partners. Hagia Sophia has a history of being a Byzantine church for over 900 years, then it was used as an Ottoman mosque for over 480 years, and in 1935 it was converted to a secular museum. For over 10 years, we have worked together with our Turkish partners to find secular solutions for the production of renewable energy carriers. During these years, we have learned to appreciate the excellent research quality and true commitment of our Turkish friends. The research exchanges can be counted in years.

The news from Turkey this summer after the failed coup trial have been very confusing and discouraging: the attacks on academic freedom and putting the education sector under a tight control. This has been demonstrated by sacking large numbers of Turkish university staff, academics from abroad have been told to return home, and bans on international travel have been set. It is very important that the European University Association, followed promptly by Universities Finland UNIFI among other organisations, have called on European universities and scholars to speak against these crude developments.

The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union has been another headline in this summer’s world news. Brexit is going to have widespread consequences – and not least for European science. Seven UK academies in their open letter to the new UK administration expressed their concern that Brexit is putting UK science at a serious risk. This warning is warranted already from the funding perspective alone. A Royal Society publication from 2015 reports that the UK contributed to the EU 7th Framework Programme by 5.4 billion euros, whilst it received 8.8 billion euros. As first aid to UK scientists, the UK government announced this weekend that Horizon research funding granted before leaving the EU will be guaranteed.

UK universities are dominating the top of the best universities in Europe as measured by various ranking systems. Times Higher Education, for example, lists the best 200 European universities, and UK universities take four out of five top positions and they also represent one quarter of the overall list. These figures alone show that the contribution of UK universities to European science and innovation must be very significant. Therefore, the risk caused by Brexit is not limited to UK science but that of the European Union – and we Finns are not outside the risk zone. Over the years, Finnish university scientists have established mutually fruitful co-operation with UK universities – typically with the help of EU funded projects.

In addition to scientific contributions, the UK’s involvement in the development of the EU’s science policy has been instrumental. At present, EU funding decisions are based on scientific criteria. This policy has been strongly influenced by the UK together with several other countries including Finland. How will this be after Brexit? Possible science policy changes after the UK’s withdrawal could also be detrimental to our opportunities and successes in sustaining future funding.

Going back to Istanbul. We have team photos from Hagia Sophia by the wishing column with a bronze-covered hole in the wall. The advice given by our friends was to put a thumb in the hole, rotate the thumb a complete 360-degree tour inside the hole and at the same time, make a wish. According to the legend, there is a tendency for the wish to come true. Applying this method is not going to be enough for clearing the present challenges around academic life in Turkey. More secular actions are needed. In addition to political statements and sympathies, practical solutions by universities and especially at research team level are needed. First, securing our Turkish visitors the continuums of conducting research in our laboratories and groups.  It is important to find ways of pursuing active research relations over the difficult times.

As for cooperation with UK partners, our researchers should take every effort to maintain and further strengthen research ties. And for politicians, actions towards sustaining the UK’s contributions to the EU’s competitiveness through science and innovation just makes sense.

Jaakko_Puhakka_TTY_100x130_3Jaakko Puhakka
Academic rector