Åbo Akademi University needs to articulate a distinctive perspective on its differentiation and profiling. So says Professor Mikko Hupa, whose term as the new rector of Åbo Akademi University started in January 2015. According to Hupa, the University has three main focus areas: to offer university education in Swedish; to be active in international cooperation; and to fund internal centres of excellence in research.
“Our statutory duty is to offer a wide range of university-level education in Swedish for the Swedish-speaking population in Finland. This requires education in a number of different fields. The fact is, however, that we simply can’t be at the international forefront in all fields. Deciding what to let go is not easy for us, since we already have many small subjects with only one professor. We need to try a different tack in building a distinct profile, highlighting our strengths,” says Hupa.
“That being said, a key goal for us is to operate at the international cutting edge in chosen fields. We don’t want to define our top fields for decades to come. Instead, we believe that new research areas, too, can rise to become very competitive. It’s essential that we demonstrate a readiness to maintain excellence in specific areas.”
Åbo Akademi University has done quite well for itself in chemical engineering, functional materials and psychology as well as in medical biology, a field in which it collaborates closely with the University of Turku.
Though the obligation to provide education in Swedish partly makes profiling more difficult, Hupa says it is a national goal worth pursuing. The decisions on funding to support university profiling, he says, should take into each university’s special characteristics and functional framework.
“It’s clear as day to me that all universities shouldn’t try to do everything. In designing the profiling measures and in granting funding to support those measures, we must nonetheless be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.”
Stronger profiles through collaboration
Hupa says the Finnish universities can build distinct profiles in a more natural way by being better aware of each other’s activities. Here, cooperation and exchange of ideas between university rectors are of key importance.
“As vice rector, I was a member of a number of collaborative groups. I learned that knowledge exchange and benchmarking between universities works especially well in the field of engineering. When we know what each university does, that knowledge inevitably leads to spontaneous direction and coordination of activities. Why do something that someone else already does much better?” Hupa asks.
Armed with increased collaborative actions and knowledge of other universities’ activities, Åbo Akademi University is in the process of updating its strategy. Working with the University Board, Hupa expects the new strategy to be completed after spring 2015.
“We need a more concrete and precise strategy. The demand for a stronger and clearer profile is a definite challenge, and we will therefore focus a lot of effort on elaborating our strategic intensions.”
More international engagement
Looking ahead four years, Hupa hopes to see a more open and increasingly international Åbo Akademi University.
“We face specific challenges in internationalisation. Our Swedish-language mission doesn’t rule out international cooperation. We can still establish good collaborations with, for instance, the other Nordic countries. Student and researcher mobility continues to increase, although not as rapidly in Europe as in North America.”
Hupa touts Åbo Akademi University for its multilingualism – practically everyone speaks three languages, he says. Nearly half of all doctoral theses completed at the University are by international researchers.
“On the whole, Finnish researchers aren’t as mobile as their peers in the rest of Europe. It’s very important that researchers do postdoctoral work outside their native country. Finland clearly needs to improve this situation. Although there’s funding available from sources such as the Academy of Finland and scholarships, Finnish researchers rarely seek research opportunities abroad,” Hupa says.
Putting the changes into practice
Åbo Akademi University has undergone a number of major reorganisations. As of the beginning of 2015, its twelve departments were reorganised into four faculties headed by deans. The deans were given more duties and responsibilities than the previous department heads, and they have quite wide authority to propose and implement changes within the faculties. They also have power to decide on recruitments and discipline classifications.
“Working with a new executive group of deans is an interesting operational model. The shift to four faculties is a huge structural reform that offers new opportunities to change things for the better,” says Hupa.
“There’s a lot of discussion about university administration models. Some people would prefer the old system of collegial decision-making, while others want to assign more decision-making power to heads of large units. I believe most people agree that there’s a need to make decision-making more efficient. This is why our model might become common elsewhere as well.”
Hupa hopes that, in four years’ time, the new organisational model at Åbo Akademi University will have lived up to expectations.
“By then, I hope that the organisational reforms will have taken root so well that there will be no need for large committees to speculate on them.”
Photo: Robert Seger