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Strengthening the EU: Nordic Higher Education Institutions Unleashing Resilience & Equality

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are integral to advancing societal progress by tackling challenges, providing solutions, and offering guidance to policymakers. By fostering research and education, HEIs nurture democratic principles, combat discrimination, and promote equality, thereby mitigating polarization, writes university researcher Kai Lehikoinen who shares his comments presented at the panel organised as part of the EU’s Research & Innovation Week.

In Finland, the right to engage in the arts, nurture personal growth, and express oneself freely is protected by both the Constitution and international human rights agreements. Research confirms that participation in the arts improves health, well-being, and learning. However, inequality starts early, before school age, as socio-economic backgrounds unevenly position children. This disparity, affecting not only access but also cultural capital, hampers the realisation of potential in disadvantaged people, thereby limiting their societal and economic contribution.

On this premise, Uniarts Helsinki’s ArtsEqual, a six-year consortium project funded by Finland’s Strategic Research Council with 6.5 million euros, aimed to uncover mechanisms of inequality in publicly funded arts and arts education services. Through over 200 research publications, 13 policy briefs, and extensive outreach, ArtsEqual significantly advanced equality and cultural well-being in Finnish society. The project underscored the importance of institutional change, cross-sector collaboration, and the need to reduce elitism in the arts and strengthen individuals’ relation to art and culture to uphold basic human rights, break cycles of vulnerability, and foster cultural well-being.

The success of ArtsEqual was largely due to its broad societal engagement involving ministries, municipalities, and national NGOs. This collaboration led to the integration of art and culture into various sectors, influencing policy reforms. ArtsEqual’s participation in high-level task forces and international networks, including the WHO’s European Office, amplified its impact. By organizing interdisciplinary events and forming partnerships, ArtsEqual extended its outreach, fostering collaboration among stakeholders and integrating arts and culture into educational programmes – also outside the arts field, such as the training of nurses and other care workers.

Notably, ArtsEqual influenced the preparation of the Act on Cultural Activities in Local Government, and it is currently impacting the preparation of the Act on Basic Education in the Arts. This approach highlights the importance of HEIs conducting socially engaged research with diverse societal actors to promote democracy, non-discrimination, equality, well-being, and resilience while preventing polarization.

Building Resilient States: Research Needs for a Future-Ready EU

In addressing the challenges facing the European Union and its member states, three key points emerge.

Firstly, we must adopt forward-thinking strategies rather than simply focusing on present concerns like sustainability deficiencies. Futures studies plays a central role in EU member states by anticipating future social challenges and informing strategies to promote social sustainability and resilience. Policymakers can develop proactive policies to strengthen social cohesion, inclusion, and community resilience with research-informed scenarios that identify emerging trends, weak signals, and potential vulnerabilities.

Secondly, solving complex challenges requires embracing multi- and interdisciplinary approaches, which is widely acknowledged.

Thirdly, neglecting the value of SHAPE disciplines – social sciences, humanities, and the arts – is a serious oversight. These disciplines offer invaluable insights into people, human experiences, and societies, deeply impacting society and the economy.

In the past two decades, there has been increasing discussion on skills shortages and the need to strengthen STEM disciplines. However, to foster economically and socially sustainable states, it is vital to undertake future-oriented, interdisciplinary research and innovation programs that incorporate also SHAPE expertise. We also need a fundamental shift in our worldview, moving beyond the prevailing reliance on consumerism and resource overconsumption. Instead, we need to reimagine various aspects of life by reassessing our values and reidentifying ourselves as different from consumer citizens.

This re-evaluation underscores the importance of prioritising social and institutional innovations, which are equally—if not more—vital than technological advancements. Addressing pressing issues such as social polarisation and disparities in human and social capacities requires comprehensive approaches that safeguard democracy, uphold the rule of law, and promote respect for human rights.

As for commercial value, think of all the creative content we are consuming daily through technology. Without artistic and cultural content, these gadgets would be empty vessels. However, artistic thinking and research can generate value added by playing a vital role in fostering openness to uncertainty, imagination, and innovation. Artists can challenge conventional thinking and offer unique perspectives on complex issues, deserving serious recognition from the EU and its member states on par with other research fields.

Multidisciplinary research is needed to inquire, for example, how EU member states can make radical shifts in their resource dependence while giving their citizens equal opportunities to lead meaningful lives. Or how can we reconceptualise interspecies relationships to reduce harm to ourselves and the natural world?

Fostering Innovation for EU Resilience and Sustainability

Innovative approaches and partnerships are essential for enhancing the EU’s resilience and fostering economic and social sustainability. However, focusing solely on labour market needs constricts higher education, which is aimed not merely at catering to the labour market but—first and foremost—at producing new knowledge and letting students educate themselves to lead a life that they have a reason to value. Also, linear innovation models are insufficient for today’s multifaceted challenges.

A cultural shift—or rather, an onto-epistemological shift including a systemic approach that considers human, posthuman, and environmental perspectives—is vitally important. That includes taking a critical distance from Eurocentric and colonialist ideologies and establishing a respectful dialogue with indigenous knowledges and African knowledges for Europe has a lot to learn from these knowledges to promote sustainability, resilience, inclusivity, cultural diversity, and holistic well-being in its societies and institutions.

Integrating SHAPE disciplines into research and innovation is a promising avenue. Artistic thinking, for example, has vast potential to fuel imagination, intuition, and innovation, enriching experiences and promoting divergent thinking in problem-solving. By integrating artistic thinking into research and development, we can better address complex social challenges, deal with perplexity, challenge stereotypes, promote empathy, and engage communities in participatory processes, generating new narratives and creating hope.

HEIs in the Nordic Region are well-positioned to leverage artistic thinking and SHAPE expertise in various projects, tackling issues like inequality, migration, and education. Theme-based transdisciplinary collaboration together with long-term phenomenon-based R&I budgeting is vital, prioritizing partnerships and inclusive approaches to innovation, and ensuring the sustainable development of these research areas.

Partnerships with civil society organizations are crucial for grounding research and development activities in community needs. Co-creating solutions with civil society fosters meaningful interventions and promotes inclusivity.

HEIs in the Nordic Region and across Europe are ready to utilize their SHAPE expertise for the benefit of the EU, but this requires EU policymakers and funding bodies to broaden their innovation mindset. By embracing research in SHAPE disciplines, HEIs together with civil society and public and private sector actors can shape economically and socially sustainable states while fostering a resilient EU that navigates global challenges.

Investments in arts-based research generate value added by nurturing an understanding of art’s contributions to interdisciplinary collaboration, positive societal renewal, and inclusion. With EU support, HEIs can utilize artistic thinking and arts-based research to address societal challenges in the European Union and globally.

The panel discussion on the EU’s Research & Innovation Week

The text is based on my comments presented in a panel I was invited to. The panel discussed how collaborative efforts in research, education, innovation, and policy can contribute to societal development, foster equality, harmony, and well-being, ultimately bolstering societal resilience. The dialogue explored innovative proposals and suggestions from HEIs to inform policymakers and governments, emphasizing critical research areas. Other panelists included Barbara Kauffman, Director for Employment and Social Governance, DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion from European Commission, Professor Mikko Niemelä, from INVEST Flagship at the University of Turku, and Charlotte Eide, Head of the University of Bergen Brussels Office. The Helsinki EU Office, together with the European University Association and Lärosätet Syd from Sweden, organised the panel, which took place on 19 March at Residence Palace in Brussels as part of the EU’s Research & Innovation Week.

About the author

Kai Lehikoinen is university researcher in Uniarts Helsinki’s Research Institute

Art makes a difference

Taidekasvatuksen tutkimusverkosto CERADAn blogista löydät verkoston uutiset, tapahtumat ja puheenvuorot. Verkoston tutkijat kirjoittavat taidekasvatuksen tutkimuksesta sekä taidealan korkea-asteen koulutuksen tutkimusperustaisesta kehittämisestä. Tutkimusverkosto on osa Taideyliopiston Tutkimusinstituuttia.

Research network CERADA’s blog offers news and views about how research into arts education can have an impact on society. CERADA researchers at Uniarts Helsinki blog about their work. The research network is part of Uniarts Helsinki Research Institute.

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