University community involved in the campus development work

We take a stand on the article published by Ilkka-Pohjalainen on 18 May, which criticised the development plans of the university’s Palosaari campus area. We were surprised to see the criticism on the columns of the media. In order to ensure interactive development work in the future, we will try to present in a neutral way the progress of the campus development project as a result of thorough consideration.

Professor Vähämaa, who was interviewed in the article, claimed that in the planning of the reform project, which has been underway for about four years, “the opinions of users have not been taken into account at all and any involvement has been illusory.” In addition, the interviewee was concerned about the working opportunities on the premises, the weakening of the sense of community, the renovation work that he predicts will cost “at least tens of millions of euros” and the increase in facility costs.

We are happy to receive feedback about the campus project, which is important for the whole university community. The most valuable and effective feedback is the kind that is based on facts. These are the cornerstones of operations in the academic world. It must be taken into account that in recent weeks, the development work has progressed rapidly and all the improvements proposed by the staff in the planning process have not even been presented to the public yet. This is unfortunate, as the changes that have been made address many of the targets of the criticism.

The campus project understandably strikes a chord with people, which usually shows that people care and are interested. However, decisions must be taken after careful preparation, weighing the various options. This is exactly what the University Board has done, drawing on the best external expertise in the field. In addition to the economy, the project has consistently sought to optimise the needs of the campus community now and in the future.

Below, we will explain the financial and operational benefits that we are seeking, which have also been available to Vaasa residents for two years on the public website of the campus development project. First of all, however, we will describe how the members of our university community – students and staff – have constantly been warmly invited to participate in joint development work.

The project planning of the university campus has been promoted in the University Board and other democratically elected administrative bodies. The Steering Group, representing the different units of the university, prepares proposals for the Board, which discusses the matters and makes decisions in accordance with good governance. According to the law, the board of a university must act diligently to promote the interests of the university with care. Those who participate in the decision making in the Board include representatives of all staff groups, such as professors, other academic staff and other staff, as well as a representative of the students. Almost 30 Board meetings in 2018–2021 have addressed campus development from a variety of perspectives. Only twice in these years has an individual member of the Board expressed a dissenting opinion. It can thus be seen that the Board has been unanimous about the main guidelines for campus development.

The entire staff, from professors to research assistants and from financial managers to training planners, have had the opportunity to influence, challenge, give feedback or just keep updated in dozens of different ways from digital and literary channels to events and workshops led by our project experts together with partners. Professionals in spatial planning and construction who have developed learning and working environments in other higher education institutions have brought us special expertise to complement our own multidisciplinary expertise in order to incorporate the needs of the community into the plans. In good and close cooperation with the Student Union, places for students to participate have been created through information sessions, workshops, interactive Instagram campaigns, surveys and student communication channels.

It has also been possible to contribute by responding to a number of general or personalised surveys, such as the recent survey of the need for personal offices among professors and associate professors. Plans have been refined and information has been shared in ten-person working groups focusing on space solutions, the placement of functions and handling changes, in seven ad hoc groups, in more than ten information sessions for all personnel, in workshops, in surveys and in unit meetings. It has been possible to follow the project through internal communication channels, such as the intranet and the Teams group, lectures and the project’s own website under the university’s website. Most of the channels enable interactive communication.

As with many organisational development projects, some people actively participate and influence, some mostly follow and some only wake up to participate and notice the whole project when it comes close enough to their own workstation. It is also clear that not everyone has the time to participate in every stage of the development work due to their work and studies. For some, the range of opportunities for participation is overwhelming, while others would like even more opportunities. Polyphony is the wealth of the university, but the majority of people in the community seem to know or trust that things are moving in the right direction.

The core working groups for campus development have been able to discuss creative ideas that improve study and work environments and community, doubts about the sufficiency of office facilities and additional questions regarding parking spaces, the exact location of one’s office, digital solutions or even the restaurant concept. Feedback makes a difference. For example, criticism of the adequacy of personal offices resulted in room capacity being increased to meet the needs of professors and persons in academic units in accordance with the wishes of users.

Ideas and feedback have been incorporated into plans, which have been boldly shaped into even better ones. It is unfortunate if such a number of joint interactions are perceived as “illusory”, and we are sorry for the full-time experts hired for the project, as well as the active people across the university who are promoting and communicating the joint project and the university’s future success factors on a voluntary basis.

Functionally, the aim of the campus development project is to create a more flexible and lasting working and study environment, as the importance of spatial solutions promoting collaborative work and well-being is emphasised internationally. At the Vaasa campus, we are gradually moving from individual rooms towards a more flexible multi-space office, which includes space that the staff can adapt to their needs, closed team rooms, meeting rooms and individual office spaces.

There are tasks where researchers, teaching and administrative staff and also students need private, peaceful spaces for concentration. Based on the feedback, these have been added and the units can have access to additional rooms if they consider that they are necessary for work performance and job satisfaction. In general, however, the need for individual rooms is expected to decrease further. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the occupancy rate was remarkably low, and it will not even return to that level. With the learning of hybrid work, as many as 58% of the teaching and research staff at the University of Vaasa expect to work remotely for 2–4 days a week, which in practice means that in the future, the campus will certainly have enough space for everyone to meet their various needs. We look forward to seeing the campus filling up with people again. As the coronavirus pandemic is partly easing off, the campus is still echoing with emptiness, meaning that the current individual offices are not missed by many. 

Up-to-date learning environments will be created for 5,000 students, supporting studying as well as social interaction and well-being. More attractive student organisation spaces will also be built for them. After bringing their ideas into the planning process with enthusiasm and determination, the students should expect the plans to progress towards implementation soon.

We believe that the reform will lead to a more attractive and vibrant university campus in Vaasa – a modern experimental and innovation environment that will attract researchers, students and partners from all over Finland and the world even better than before.

In economic terms, the campus development project aims to annually free up EUR 800,000 of current facility costs for strengthening teaching and research. The facility cost savings of the completed reform project were initially estimated at EUR 1 million per year, but as the project team wanted to take into account more feedback and wishes from the community, the annual savings target was reduced by EUR 200,000. At the annual level, approximately 12% of the university’s budget level of approximately EUR 40 million is spent on facilities, which is why the management of property costs plays a significant role in the management of the university.

The Palosaari campus by the sea will be developed over a period of decades together with the City of Vaasa, various educational institutions and other actors in the area. Responsible spatial planning is carried out step by step, using the principle of continuous renewal, smartly utilising the change in learning and working methods, the support for the well-being of the community and various surprising changes that affect everyday life.

It is clear that the facilities of the future will also create opportunities for encounters, not only between people working along the same corridor but also between city residents, students, neighbouring disciplines and students and staff from different educational institutions. In addition to the team’s own spaces, a sense of community that supports job satisfaction, well-being at work, work efficiency and innovation can also be created in the library, in open working spaces, in outdoor areas and even on the restaurant terrace overlooking the sea.

Instead of recognising the “heated contoversy” around the campus development work that Ilkka-Pohjalainen speculated on, we are, as the university’s administrative and academic leaders, proud of the readiness for change that the people involved in the campus development project and the majority of our community of 5,500 people have shown in relation to developing the campus.

The project welcomes criticism and feedback with open arms, as it is the most effective way to make the plans even better. However, creating the impression that everything has gone wrong creates an unnecessary confrontation that is difficult to see as contributing to the development of the university campus. Within the framework of the preconditions, efforts are made to respond to the concerns raised without jeopardising the negotiated agreements and schedules, which are economical to the university, and the realisation of the whole project. Development also means compromises, and not everything that is asked can be implemented. In the big picture, the project is progressing every day in a better direction through constructive cooperation.

We welcome members of our community in greater numbers to the planning and exchange of ideas. Let us develop and build Finland’s most beautiful campus to be even stronger and more attractive in order to increase the future competitiveness of research and education and the vitality, internationality, employment and growth of the Vaasa region and Finland as a whole.

The rectorate of the University of Vaasa: Jari Kuusisto, Annukka Jokipii, Minna Martikainen and Martin Meyer
The deans of the university: Raine Hermans, Marko Järvenpää, Pirjo Laaksonen and Adam Smale

The university’s campus development can also be followed on the project’s public website.

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