A worldly wise tradition

December 1, 2006

Finland's international intellectual links have been a central part of its history, says Marjatta Hietala

From the Middle Ages onwards, Finland's location on the outskirts of Europe has not stopped students travelling to the main European universities.

Even when the first Finnish university was founded in Turku in 1640 (it later moved to Helsinki), students left for Dutch and German universities to keep abreast of academic developments. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, study and study tours abroad were encouraged and financed by the Government, foundations, associations and Helsinki University - the only university until the 1920s.

The Finnish scholars' varied language skills opened the doors not only in Scandinavian universities but also in Germany, the Swiss technical universities and research institutes in the UK. So European labour markets were open to Finnish academics before the First World War. Academics travelled to international conferences and congresses for professional reasons and because the Finnish academic community was relatively small. Travelling and publishing abroad became very important before Finland's independence in 1917.

During Finland's time as an autonomous state in the Russian Empire, there were decades of nationalistic awareness, and so-called national disciplines, including history, flourished. But Finnish anthropologists, philologists and ethnologists were also given excellent opportunities to conduct fieldwork in Russia.

Similar possibilities for Finnish scholars opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Historians and other scholars in the humanities, working with Russian scholars in Moscow's archives, found valuable material relating to Finland's difficult situation after the Second World War - including documentation that revealed Stalin's plans to occupy the country.

In the interwar years, Finnish scholars, philosophers, psychologists, philologists and theologians had close contact with the rest of Europe, in particular the German-speaking countries. The Second World War meant the total collapse of networks connected to Germany and other countries in mid-Europe. The academic world looked to America. Funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the ASLA (Amerikan Suomen Lainan Apurahat)-Fulbright programme helped hundreds of Finnish scholars to follow the latest development in their disciplines.

From the 1990s onwards, the European Union has made studying in foreign universities easier for Finnish students. Some 4,500 students each year leave for foreign universities and the same number of foreign students come to study in Finland. In 2005, there were 700 long visits by Finnish university teachers.

To increase knowledge of our neighbouring countries - Russia, the Baltic states and Eastern Europe - the Government has invested large amounts of money in increasing expertise by promoting research projects such as Russia in Flux (2004-07) and by founding the Finnish Centre for Russian and Eastern European Studies at Helsinki University.

In the humanities, there are new international projects for comparative and long-term studies, such as the project under my leadership about how science, universities and scholarly networks are factors in making cities attractive.

Marjatta Hietala is professor of general history at Tampere University.

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