We are completing another challenging academic year that required us to concentrate and have patience, ingenuity, and motivation. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it was the crisis that brutally threw us out of the routine into an unusual environment that emphasized both the meaning of university studies and the importance of science in social and state life. Never before have the scientists been so appreciated, although, of course, one would always want more science-based decisions or public opinions.
Although we were able to return to normal academic life in the first months of autumn, the pandemic situation and the associated quarantine restrictions still impacted most of this academic year. Nevertheless, the University continued its work and ended the year with a traditional ceremony in the open yard, awarding diplomas to more than 4,000 graduates. A few weeks ago, the VU Senate made a decision that the study process and its activities will be carried out non-remotely during the autumn semester of the 2021-2022 academic year. Of course, the basic condition for such a return to the University premises is the safety of all, and the most important precondition is mass vaccination. I believe that our community is one that actively takes advantage of the opportunity provided by science and in solidarity solves the problem that affects the University and society as a whole.
We will return to the University spaces with the experience of remote activities from the pandemic period, evaluate and maintain the measures that could complement or expand teaching and learning opportunities. However, a live teacher-student relationship, an emerging connection, questions and discussions arising from face-to-face communication are values that set the University apart from all other forms of learning.
After more than half a year of intensive work and group discussions, we prepared and approved the University’s strategic action plan for a period of five years. The strategy is a document of our wide and diverse community, declaring and defining the directions in which we want to further develop the University and the ways the University will participate in the life of Lithuania and Europe. The main goals are the internal mobilization of the community, the growth of meaningful freedom of choice for students, the unfolding of each of our vocations as the realization of responsibility towards society and the state. We will strive to move in the direction of interdisciplinary and international development of science and studies, the greater influence of the University in the life of the state and society, and will create the concepts of 21st-century pedagogy and “green university.” Our potential will increase if we better integrate science and studies, discover new interdisciplinary links in the process of cognition and innovation, and consolidate the resources of faculties, institutes, centers, and general departments.
Expected results and indicators are only guidelines, not everything can and must be accurately planned or measured, so we will monitor progress and discuss ways to act. We strive for national leadership in all academic fields and have the means to be among the best universities in the world.
These ambitions have been confirmed by a recently published rating: Vilnius University has risen to record highs in the QS World University Rankings and ranks 400th. Being among the 400 best universities in the world is a significant achievement not only for the University but also for all Lithuanian higher education, testifying to the fact that our country has all the prerequisites for the highest level of international science and studies.
Rankings are not the only and final criterion. However, it is a simple and universally understood measure of the competitiveness of the national higher education system. This achievement reflects the professionalism and efforts of the University staff. It is not by chance that we grow and rise in rankings. The University has great potential, and I believe that by working together we can realize it and be properly valued and respected not only in our own country but also internationally. Not so long ago, the aim was to be among the top 500, and now the Government’s programme is already projecting an ambitious goal to get at least one Lithuanian university to be among the top 300. The recent achievements and initiatives of Vilnius University (Prof. Virginijus Šikšnys’s discovery of the value of the Nobel Prize, the participation of our physicists in the establishment of the European Research Infrastructure Consortium “Extreme Light Infrastructure,” involvement of representatives of other disciplines in prestigious networks of researchers, the victory of the iGEM student team in the global competition, etc.) show that we are able to establish ourselves among the best universities in the world, to adhere to the highest standards as they are understood in the international scientific community. However, this requires constant constructive dialogue with the public authorities so that the funding of science and studies would allow for the planning of a long-term perspective. We prove that we can achieve and exceed the set goals, the state must prove that it considers education a priority. We will make every effort to keep this promise.
The government’s decision to increase the price of normative studies is a first step indicating real changes rather than cosmetic ones. The government has responded to our call for a qualitative path of higher education development, where instead of mechanically increasing the number of positions, the amount of funding per student is actually increased. We have also prepared more proposals that would change the state of science and studies in Lithuania and raise the University to an even higher level.
I am glad that the people of the University are recognized and respected in society, devoting part of their precious time to social commitments or academic work, responding to current events. Among various works of physicians, life scientists, physical scientists, psychologists, and others (some of the achievements will be reflected in the forthcoming awards for significant scientific achievements), I will mention the monograph of Prof. Ramūnas Vilpišauskas and co-authors on the Lithuanian public response to the Covid-19 crisis, which demonstrates the ability of researchers to boldly take on and conceptualize relevant issues when the lack of data is compensated by deep methodological insights.
The pandemic period is not the best time to develop international relations but we are increasingly defining the activities of the Arqus university network. Together with the Universities of Padua, Leipzig, Graz, Lyon, Bergen, and Granada, we are developing an academic community covering all European regions. Vilnius University is a constant generator of new initiatives: in the spring, we remotely organized Arqus academic week seminars, and in October, the first major alliance conference will take place in Vilnius, where we hope to discuss important issues of the alliance itself and global higher education in general.
As of 1 January, Vilnius University has been grown with the addition of a new department: VU Šiauliai Academy started operating. We must work in solidarity to enable the smoothest possible integration of the academy, thus reaffirming our commitment to quality higher education reform.
Both through this consolidation of the country’s higher education and other initiatives, we have repeatedly demonstrated our determination and ability to undertake work important to society and the state. I continue to call on members of the community to show examples of leadership in areas that go beyond academic activities. Let us set an example in terms of academic quality, openness, social commitment and, furthermore, the vaccination process. But at the same time, let us not forget the science and we have limits. Let us ask, persuade, and discuss, not impose or convert.
We continue the tradition of social scholarships, memory diplomas (today, we will honor a number of people who were once repressed at the University, thus partly settling with our institutional conscience), and invite persecuted Belarusian students and lecturers to the University. We even found time to support Lithuanian football. In the summer, the University will host the International Physics Olympiad, we will honor the memory of a long-term University rector Prof. Jonas Kubilius. Further work awaits in the autumn: taking into account the employee survey and the pandemic experience, we will prepare a “workplace standard” document, modernize employee incentive arrangements to include a wider range of activities, and most importantly, we will, hopefully, agree on how we can best mobilize resources to achieve our main goals.
At the University, we support and will continue to support the style of open speaking, discussion, listening, and criticism. I am glad that the new strategy was born in this exact ambience. I would very much like you to trust us and remember the vision of the University in large projects and daily work: “We work together to be a center of scientific knowledge and critical thinking, recognized in the world and changing Lithuania.”
Thank you all for your efforts in developing science and studies at the University. I want to believe that we feel valued and listened to, see the meaning in our work, preserve and, perhaps, even grow our motivation for the future.
Congratulations on the successful completion of, hopefully, the last pandemic academic year and the exhausting state of separation. I wish you all a good holiday and see you on 1st September. When we return after the summer, let us continue building the University.