Transforming the north through collaborations

12 May 2023

My last two weeks have been spent on national and international collaborations with different parties. I'd like to take this opportunity to present how Umeå University participates in collaborative projects to strengthen our position from a European perspective.

My first example is the Europaforum Northern Sweden event that took place at Folkets Hus in Umeå last week. Europaforum is a collaboration between the municipalities in the four northernmost parts of Sweden, and to the annual event, universities and the business sector in the region are also invited. The purpose is to discuss the common position on regional development issues and join forces on strategies to influence EU policy set by the European Commission and European Parliament.

Dieter Müller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor.

Photo: Mattias Pettersson

I'm glad to see that so many parties can work together to achieve common goals – and this despite any political views represented by each party. The interests of northern Sweden are also coordinated with the neighbouring regions in Norway and Finland within the Northern Sparsely Populated Area Network (NSPA). This network too sets huge expectations on the universities' roles and abilities to contribute to positive change. Simultaneously, Europaforum also attempts to influence EU research policy in a favourable direction for northern universities through the North Sweden Office in Brussels.

My second example concerns Umeå University's collaboration with our partner university, the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø. This week, the University Management and I visited Tromsø to discuss challenges shared by our northern universities. Our mutual collaboration, which has also been expanded to the Arctic Five network, aims to exchange experiences, and it really is remarkable how many similarities our universities share. There are similarities between the positioning of the universities in academia on a national scale but also in relation to the existing expectations on the universities to solve all kinds of challenges in society. Just like in Swedish debate, issues of talent acquisition in a tricky demographic situation are being discussed at the other universities, as well as how to contribute to the ongoing societal transformation, which in northern Norway also revolves around battery factories and wind farms.

A recurring theme for both these meetings was how the current geopolitical situation affects each of us. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a need to replace old strategies for international cooperation with new ones. Also, frantic search for new solutions are taking place to strengthen the North in the international turmoil we're facing. This becomes particularly evident to our colleagues in northern Norway who have had rich contacts with Russian partners in the past. As a result of the Russian invasion, however, they have left a large exchange agreement with Russian universities, reclaimed an honorary doctorate from the Russian Foreign Minister and also uncovered a spy earlier this year. Regional health authorities and municipalities in northern Sweden are also considering how the Finish, and potentially later the Swedish, NATO membership affects the region. Just like in northern Norway, they are counting on the new geopolitical constellation to draw more attention to the area, which may affect universities too.

The limited population and low population density of the region also means collaboration between Nordic countries is advocated. It's easy to be forgotten or disregarded and it's also challenging to make yourself heard when you're small. By pooling our resources and sharing experiences, we equip ourselves with better chances to influence the EU, for instance. In time, this will hopefully also render a more widespread participation in European research programmes. Together, we have spotted opportunities to collaborate with trade and industry in interdisciplinary ways. As comprehensive universities, we can also envisage opportunities to secure talent acquisition in certain limited fields.

Translating words into deeds is often demanding, but the major societal challenges are good incentives. International work is also both rewarding and enjoyable – even when dealing with strategic difficulties.

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