An exceptional year
Information about a new coronavirus spreading in China began to accumulate in late 2019 and early 2020. The first infection in Finland was confirmed in January 2020. As for the University of Helsinki, the first coronavirus infection was recorded on 1 March 2020 at the Viikki Teacher Training School. On the evening of 12 March 2020, the University declared that it would take exceptional emergency measures.
The new situation led to the introduction of a special management system. At the same time, the University decided to repeal the regulations on compulsory attendance at teaching and to introduce restrictions on travel by members of the University community and on the number of people permitted to attend a teaching session or another event organised by the University.
Many of the regulations and guidelines concerning teaching, the closure of facilities and remote working will remain in effect until the end of April 2021. By that time, the exceptional circumstances will have lasted close to 14 months.
What has happened in that period?
Remote but present
The University decided to close its facilities on 17 March 2020. That evening, I sent the following message to our small Administrative Services team:
“The University decided today that, due to the current exceptional circumstances, University staff will for the most part work remotely for the time being. We will immediately move to remote work.”
It had been a long day, and I closed the door of Building EE in Viikki at nine in the evening. The next time I opened the door was six months later. At present, it seems likely that the recommendation to work remotely will continue until the end of June 2021.
Of course, the recommendation to move to remote work as well as the subsequent regulations did not apply to all members of the University community: some staff, such as porters, cleaners, instrument technicians, laboratory staff, Veterinary Teaching Hospital staff and many other professionals continued to work either partly or fully on site despite the pandemic, without compromising on the quality of their work. The Faculty strove to continue its research activities in as undisturbed a way as possible, and the majority of the Faculty’s courses were offered as contact instruction even during the pandemic to the extent permitted by the regulations applying to the University and its own guidelines.
For us at Administrative Services, as I believe was the case with many specialist and support staff, the transition and adaptation to remote work was fairly painless: our work is mostly independent of time and place, and the duties that could not be performed remotely were completed in the workplace if necessary.
Many of us struggled the most with the loss of our familiar immediate community and day-to-day contacts. Whose door can I knock on if I encounter a challenging situation or achieve an unexpected success? Should I find an excuse to call someone even if I don’t really have a specific enquiry or important or urgent business? Do my colleagues think the same if they wish to call me? Why does no one ask each other how they are doing?
Face-to-face meetings are difficult to replace, but we tried our best. Our team held its first virtual coffee break on 20 March 2020, and since then we have met every week on Teams (with the exception of July). Over the past year, similar but idiosyncratic remote sessions for groups of different sizes have brought work communities together over the past year. The experience of being present and of your own community being there for you is important, even if the physical distance between people increases – or precisely because of it.
The instant transition of all University operations to a remote environment in March was a forced leap of faith, a digital leap into the unknown. Will our technological tools serve their purpose? Will our digital skills be sufficient when it comes to the crunch?
It is no use hesitating when you have no options. Luckily, people, including us at the University, learn and adapt quickly. The majority of courses were moved online. Public examinations of doctoral theses also took place remotely. Administrative bodies and working groups continued their meetings and other activities remotely.
The new arrangements gave rise to a series of new questions: How can a remote examination be invigilated in compliance with data protection regulations? How can the public examination of a doctoral thesis be organised in accordance with the law if no members of the public can attend the examination? How can elections of administrative bodies be held so that voting and the documentation of the voting results comply with the University’s instructions for meeting and presentation procedures? And it was not just the online environment that had to be adapted to the new situation. Traditional contact teaching also had to be redesigned due to the restrictions on teaching sessions.
As of mid-March 2020 until the end of the year, I personally convened or attended a total of 622 Zoom or Teams meetings. Due to the exceptional circumstances, the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine established a response centre in March 2020 to coordinate the Faculty’s operations during the pandemic. The centre met 47 times in 2020, always remotely.
The numbers speak for themselves. Taken into use at the University of Helsinki in late 2019, Zoom had close to 10,000 registered users at the University within one month of the beginning of the exceptional circumstances. Within a year of that, the capacity of the service implemented collaboratively by CSC – IT Center for Science and other Nordic information network organisations in the field of research and education had increased to 300,000 simultaneous users.
Not everything can be done on Zoom, however: by the end of 2020, the University had acquired some 50,000 fabric face masks and 500,000 disposable face masks for its staff and students to wear in work- and study-related situations. The actual figures were probably even higher.
The University’s occupational health provider carried out some 2,000 coronavirus tests in 2020. The Faculty’s response centre received no information of a coronavirus infection or exposure to the virus among the Faculty’s staff or students that would have taken place in University facilities or at University events. The progress of the pandemic is not entirely in our hands, but we are thankful to our staff and students for their responsible actions.
How are we doing?
In spring 2020, feedback was collected for the fourth time on the activities of University Services. The response rate was again low, but the responses received indicate that satisfaction with the services provided has continued to improve.
The exceptional circumstances also forced University Services to invest more in the development of tools and practices that support digital and remote working and service provision. This is nothing new as such, but the reasons and framework are new. One example of the new approaches introduced in 2020 is the digital YPA-Help service and advice channel adopted at all faculties. Its purpose is to support all members of the University community with day-to-day issues via their desktop.
The experiences of University staff during the pandemic were also surveyed in the spring. Although many respondents stated that remote working had had a positive impact on their workplace wellbeing, they also reported ergonomic deficiencies and a longing for their work community. The variety of responses among individuals was significant. For example, the reduction of face-to-face meetings may have led to a cumulative load that we are capable of withstanding in different ways. The result is a social debt for which no payment plan exists.
In 2020 the dean wrote a total of 22 letters to the Faculty’s staff and students. The messages highlighted the guidelines that would change as a result of the pandemic and described the Faculty’s latest news and occasional celebrations. In turn, the response centre received messages asking for more specific instructions or guidelines for applying the University instructions in various situations. The centre aimed to respond quickly to all questions and resolve problems pragmatically.
With the power of knowledge – for the world
In February 2020, the Board of the University approved the University’s new strategic plan for 2021–2030. The strategic plan outlines the University’s objective to be one of the leading universities in the world and a nationally and internationally recognised stronghold of edification by 2030. The strategic plan is based on shared values that guide the University’s operations, interaction and choices: truth, Bildung, freedom and inclusivity.
The Faculty’s implementation plan for 2021–2024 was prepared by the Faculty’s management group and discussed over the year in various forums, such as the extended management group, department meetings and the Faculty Council.
When considering the measures to be included in the implementation plan based on the strategic plan, the aim was to prioritise the Faculty perspective on development areas and to use a pragmatic approach. Eventually, the implementation plan included a total of 21 measures of different scopes, from strengthening international networks to redesigning specialist training in veterinary medicine and from developing virtual expertise to enhancing the wellbeing of the work and study community. The Faculty Council decided on the implementation plan on 13 October 2020.
For the first time, the University’s strategic planning period encompasses 10 years. Pandemics will come and go during and after this period, but the university as an institution will remain. The mission of universities is to promote independent academic research as well as academic and artistic education, to provide research-based higher education and to educate students to serve their country and humanity at large through interaction and engagement with society. Even in the exceptional circumstances in 2020, the Faculty and its staff and students worked successfully to complete this mission.
Next year, 2021, has been designated in Finland as the Year of Research-Based Knowledge. The aims of this joint initiative by the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Academy of Finland and the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies are to increase the visibility of different sources and providers of knowledge, thus enhancing people’s notions of research and of the nature of scholarly knowledge, including the fact that not even researchers are infallible, but that knowledge is updated as new research results emerge.
The World Health Organization WHO is concerned not only about the worldwide pandemic, but also about the ‘infodemic’: as the pandemic has progressed, an increasing amount of false information has been spread both intentionally and unintentionally. Although not even research-based knowledge can contain the absolute truth, the gradual accumulation of knowledge reduces uncertainty, making knowledge a sought-after resource.
People’s trust and confidence in research have been tested, but at the same time many of us count on research more than ever.
Head of administration
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine
University of Helsinki