The year 2020 was supposed to be a high-profile milestone for the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. After all, it had been 25 years since the Faculty was founded at the University of Helsinki in 1995 and 75 years since higher education in veterinary medicine began in Finland with the establishment of the College of Veterinary Medicine in 1945. However, the Covid-19 pandemic put a spanner in the works, not only at the Faculty, but throughout the world. With the pandemic dominating the agenda, the time was not right to physically bring together researchers, supporters, staff, alumni and students for a celebration, so the Faculty decided to postpone the festivities to a safer time.
The Covid-19 pandemic starkly demonstrates the importance and timeliness of research on zoonoses, or diseases that are transmissible between animals and humans, as well as efforts to manage such diseases. It also shows the key role our Faculty plays in the One Health research strategy for safeguarding the health and wellbeing of humanity as a whole.
As a result of the pandemic, the Faculty’s management group met virtually. From top left: Vice-Dean Maria Fredriksson-Ahomaa, Head of Administration Marko Niemi and Dean Antti Sukura. From bottom left: Vice-Deans Olli Peltoniemi and Mirja Ruohoniemi
Values guide the community
In 2020 the University’s values were highlighted and distilled into the following four core values: truth, Bildung, freedom and inclusivity. These same values, or signposts, have actually pointed the way for the University community since the establishment of its predecessor, the Royal Academy of Turku, in 1640, through wars, political turmoil and changing forms of government, epidemics and pandemics, and economic downturns and upturns. Occasionally, the community’s values are re-articulated, and the great thing is that the values can be regarded in different ways in different contexts. The University’s basic idea is strong and flexible: to autonomously (freedom) seek new knowledge (truth) and provide teaching based on such knowledge (Bildung) to serve social needs (inclusivity).
During the pandemic, remote working and studying made it difficult to promote inclusivity in the academic community, and there was considerable concern that staff and students would feel abandoned. Both the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Finnish Veterinary Student Association EKY have been striving to monitor and support their members during the pandemic, but students will inevitably have different experiences of studying at the University this year than in previous years. Inclusivity can also support graduates when they enter employment, and I hope that our alumni will support recent graduates in their integration into the professional community and help them build networks that they have perhaps been unable to establish during the pandemic.
In 2020 the research conducted under the Helsinki One Health umbrella that attracted the most media attention naturally focused on Covid-19. SARS-CoV-2 is a typical zoonotic virus, neither the first nor the last pathogen to cause a pandemic by jumping from an animal to a human. An extensive network of One Health specialists is seeking solutions to other human, animal and environmental problems as well. Unfortunately, the problems are many, such as resistance to antibiotics, animal welfare, environmental hygiene, control and supervision, diseases brought about by climate change, the safe use of pharmaceuticals, genes underlying diseases, and neurological diseases affecting humans and animals.
Strong support from stakeholders
In 2020 the Faculty’s new advisory council brought together 14 representatives of various stakeholders in the field. An important event in terms of veterinary education to be provided in the coming years was a workshop in November outlining the Faculty’s education vision for 2040 and exploring stakeholders’ education needs. The redesign and development of education requires long-term efforts. Degree programmes are redesigned at approximately three-year intervals, and it takes at least six years to achieve licensing as a veterinarian in Finland, so we must look several years ahead. However, because undergraduate education cannot provide all the knowledge and skills required at all career stages, we must also provide continuing education and specialist training. In 2020 the Faculty began to develop specialist training together with stakeholders, aiming to launch the redesigned training in the 2023 autumn term.
The plans of the Ministry of Education and Culture to cut the funding allocated to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital for the completion of its national special duties in the 2021–2024 planning period raised major concerns in 2020. However, broad support from the Faculty’s stakeholders convinced political decision-makers of the hospital’s importance for veterinary education and research, and the plans were eventually scrapped.
In 2020 the Faculty’s researchers succeeded in their efforts to obtain external funding. The Faculty also received financial support from various private sources. For example, Heidi Andersson, LLD, made an important donation to upgrade the Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s equine radiography equipment, and more than other 100 donors contributed to the University’s Giving Day campaign, which featured veterinary research and education as a special theme in 2020. Moreover, the Assar and Ester Lahtonen memorial foundation donated €170,000 to support veterinary education within the framework of the government matched funding scheme, which will continue until summer 2022, and we were also contacted by many individuals regarding legacies for veterinary medicine.
A highly productive year by all measures
In this year marked by the pandemic, the Faculty was pleased to note that the number of graduates remained high, and the Faculty again exceeded the target number of degrees. This demonstrates that the Faculty’s learning path functions well and that students and teachers are willing and able to adapt to changing circumstances. The Faculty strives to actively maintain contact with its graduates through alumni activities.
The Veterinary Teaching Hospital is in an especially vulnerable position in the context of pandemics. The year was particularly difficult for the hospital staff, who faced a great deal of uncertainty and constantly updated and changing restrictions. The hospital excelled in its work with patients. Clinical traineeships were carried out as planned, and students who had completed the clinical stage were granted fixed-term professional practice rights by the Finnish Food Authority. Had students been unable to assist veterinarians in the summer, Finnish veterinary medicine would have faced an unusual situation in the middle of the pandemic, and our students would have missed out on an important summer in terms of their professional growth.
I would like to thank our students and staff, our friends and supporters, and all the clients of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Without you, 2020 would have been even more difficult.
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
University of Helsinki