Why Finns excell

Nieuws | de redactie
3 juni 2009 | Looking for a university with great beta courses? Try the University of Helsinki. This Finnish institute has not only obtained top places in the CHE’s Excellence Ranking in biology, mathematics and chemistry, their Department of Physics was rated ‘excellent’ as well, because of great scores on publications, citations and two highly cited authors. “The key to succes is to maintain strong interaction between research and education, especially between researchers, teachers and students”, states the head of the physics departement, prof. Juhani Keinonen.

The University of Helsinki is the largest university in Finland – with eleven faculties and nearly 40000 students – and one of the leading European Universities. Ever since it was founded in 1640, physics has been a discipline at the University of Helsinki. Today, the research and education at the Department of Physics has obtained great reputation, with some of their research programmes being at the cutting edge of the research field worldwide. The teaching at the department is based on topical research and there is a continuous effort to develop teaching that utilizes the newest in physics education research. When it comes to evaluations of teaching, the department has done exceptionally well.

Head of the physics departmentment, prof Juhani Keinonen states he was really content when he heard his department obtained a top position on CHE’s excellence ranking. “I thought it was great, it gave value to the work done to develop the department. It was important to have an evaluation, which concentrated on essential questions and aspects for the improvement of the quality assurance of the department.”

Key factor for success

“The key factor in our success is the interaction between research and education, especially between researchers, teachers and students. We have combined high quality research in multiple fields and based on a long tradition, with good leadership, and strong interaction among researchers. Also, the reputation of the department is good and we have been successful in getting motivated students.  Meanwhile, the department has succeeded in attracting good researchers and teachers. During the past decade, much effort has been put into developing research-based education. In an early stage of their studies, students become ‘integrated’ in the department’s teaching and research. This way we are able to create a valuable, good relationship between students and staff.”

When asked to pinpoint the strongest research programmes and master courses, Keinonen hesitated. “It is difficult to point out a particularly strong program, because every program has its own strengths. A successful common feature they share is that they maintain good contacts with other distinguished research groups in Europe and the USA and are integrated into many important research programs. Many of our scientists are actively in involved in research at CERN, ESRF and ITER. This naturally helps to keep up with high quality research and this also is an important component in advanced education.”

“But if I have to pick our strong fields of research, I think of materials physics, environmental physics, and elementary particle physics. In research, there is strong emphasis on both fundamental research connected to physics itself, but at the same time on important topics like energy technology (in materials science), climate and its change (atmospheric sciences), physics of marine environment (geophysics) and medical physics, which have a strong impact on society.  The structure and research culture of the department give really good possibilities for this kind of interdisciplinary research strongly founded on physics.”

Female participation

Considering the fact that almost two thirds of the University of Helsinki students are female, the female participation figures in physics seem a bit disappointing. Nevertheless, the department of physics earnt a CHE ‘gold medal’ for their female participation rate, because compared to many European sci-tech faculties a high percentage of the Helsinki physics students and staff is female – 38% of the master students, 33% doctorates, and 22% staff. Why are Finnish women more eager to take up a physics degree?

“One reason is evidently the broad coverage of research and teaching, with strong emphasis on environmental physics, atmospheric physics, medical physics and biophysics. These areas have an interdisciplinary character and this seems to attract many women, as the number of female students is high in them. We have also paid attention on gender equality and ways to support female students’ careers in physics. Research and projects have been launched in the department on this issue, as well.”

Policy on valorisation

Of course, Finland has some great lakes. But the country also got a huge international reputation when it comes to Sci-Tech valorisation and developing innovative links between industry and university. What is Keinonen’s departement policy on this?

“Our Department encourages valorisation to the staff and students and encourages the development of links to industry. The University of Helsinki has arranged that there are specialists on the campus to advise them in law and technological matters. About 15 percent of the funding – i.e. about 30 percent of the external funding – of the Department is connected to the collaboration with industry. As an example, one of our professors is jointly funded with a global Finnish company. There are actually several companies we collaborate with.”

“The trend in valorisation is guided by the increasing collaboration of universities and industry in Finland based on the development to bring universities, sectorial research institutes of different ministries, and industry to a closer collaboration than what the situation is now. The trend is not only to utilize the basic research, but also to develop it to enhance this collaboration. The new trend is that it has become an official policy matter in Finland.”

Main focus points

What is new as well is the Finnish university reform aimed to come into force next August. The draft law will further extend the autonomy of universities by giving them an independent legal personality, either as public corporations or as foundations under private law. Keinonen: “The university reform will change administrative structures and duties in the universities, which our department has anticipated. Also the university reform is designed to enhance closer connections between the universities and the society outside them. We have already taken all necessary actions concerning the reform.”

“The next couple of years our main focus will be to develop the multidisciplinary curriculum including the contents of courses, and systematically develop teaching methods to increase student centred teaching. Furthermore, we will try to enhance utilization of virtual teaching methods. Also, support of teaching and learning and student counselling during the first two or three years of the studies should be raised to an equally good level as it is during last years of the studies.”

Finnish torture

If you are a student willing to study abroad but you are still not tempted to go to Helsinki, maybe this well help: according to the University of Helsinki website ‘the exchange students are even introduced to the exotic Finnish form of torture in a hot smoke sauna along with swimming in icy lake water in midwinter – an experience to tell later still to grandchildren.’ If you don’t want to tell your grandchildren that you got an extreme cold in Helsinki enjoying traditional Finnish culture, you can always just enjoy the great ambitious atmosphere at the physics department.

“The atmosphere, which encourages to develop teaching and research, including new fields of research, and is based on the motivation of staff and students in teaching, learning and research, curiosity and openness to innovations, and good contacts to other European universities and universities abroad, that’s the thing I like most overhere.”

For CHE’s facts and figures on Helsinki’s physics department click here. Click here for the official website of the department.

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