UniPID - your friendly neighbourhood voice at the bridge

June 6, 2022
Roseanna Avento, Global Development Manager - University of Eastern Finland

In this month's Anniversary blog, Avento brings to our attention universities' third role on contributing to society, and invites us to examine our actions critically to ensure that partnerships are responsible, equitable, and inclusive!

For what is the university? It is to teach; it is to research. Then there is the university’s third role: to contribute to society. I have found it tough reaching a comprehensive definition of the university’s third mission. The definitions in academic literature are quite broad and ambiguous, including engagement with communities, society and enterprises, driving regional development, and commodification of knowledge. The third mission of universities is increasingly linked to sustainable development, mitigating climate change and engaging in global responsibility.

Regardless, we as universities certainly do not function alone in these third mission endeavours, but in collaboration with other academic institutions inside and outside our borders, with enterprises, with non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, with our own government and with other governments. These interactions can at times be complicated to navigate and we must continue to examine our actions and engagements critically to ensure that they are responsible, equitable, and inclusive.

These issues are intrinsically visible in Finnish university engagements with the Global South. We have just come to the end of a 5-workshop series training on responsible academic partnership that has been arranged by UniPID and the Finnish higher education institutions’ global networks supported by the Ministry of Education and Culture.

An issue that has repeatedly emerged, is how much funding instruments steer and drive the collaborations. Critically examining Finnish funding provided to universities for Global South collaboration, one notices that it is based on Finnish development policy, and not necessarily education and science policy. Increased coherency between these policies is then important, so not to diverge academic interests and resources. It is important to note that sometimes the Finnish development policy may not be of priority for partner institutions in the Global South, who also have demands from their own governments.

When we examine existing strategies that steer Global North and Global South relations, we still find many gaps. In 2020, the Finnish government published its Africa Strategy, focusing on political relations and trade development. The strategy is ambitious calling for doubling of trade between 2020-2030. The strategy emphasizes ‘mutual benefit’ repeatedly.

A few years ago, Eva Kagiri-Kalanzi and I, set about looking at the Finnish-Africa collaboration landscape in science, technology and innovation (STI), as part of UniPID’s FinCEAL + Initiative. We found that Finnish and African researchers perceive their collaborations similarly in terms of networking, gaining and co-production of knowledge, capacity development and contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. African researchers expressed interested in access to publications, libraries, and resources like well-equipped laboratories. Finnish researchers, mentioned interest in access to data in Africa, access to specimens, and finding good research and project subjects.

We also found that while Finnish STI collaboration centres around anglophone southern Africa, East Africa and West Africa, this does not translate to where commodities trade occurs between Finland and Africa. The trade revolves around import of metals from regions like Congo and Angola to Finland, fruit from South Africa and Egypt, and coffee and tea from Kenya; whereas exports mainly comprise paper, board products, and machinery to countries like South Africa and Egypt and in some cases, even old vehicles. Finnish-African relations have not really evolved on a practical level any further than they were in the 1800s. Unfortunately, Africa is still deemed as a place to extract from, and we still live a very colonial-like relationship.

Meanwhile, here we are at universities with the pressure of teaching, research, and a third mission. I view UniPID in its 20 years existence as a network that can navigate the wicked child called development, a forum where we can discuss openly and transparently, the voice of Finnish academia in policy debate in Finland and at EU level, and beyond in the Global South.

UniPID has certainly supported the University of Eastern Finland in making those steps to building responsible and equitable partnerships, and even in the drafting of our global development policy. UniPID is that voice at the bridge calling us to pause and reflect. A friendlier and nicer version of the troll that stopped the 3 Billy Goats Gruff:

“Trip, trap, trip, trap!”, went the bridge.

“Who’s that tripping over my bridge?” said a roaring voice.

“Heippa-hei! It is only I, a Finnish university, going over the seas to the South to make myself more international, so my researchers can gain new insights, publish articles in high quality journals, and my rankings may rise.” said a small voice.

“Now, now, not so fast. I may just gobble you up. Take a moment, reflect: Why are you going to the other side of the bridge? Do they want you there? Will you be responsible, humble and conscious, fair and inclusive? Raise the others as you rise. Only then, may you be on your way!


Check Roseanna's profile on UEF Connect, and follow her on Twitter and LinkedIN

Photo: "Kallansillat bridge in Kuopio taken at sunset". Credits: Foodion.fi/JP Korpi-Vartiainen.