Starting with the University of Oulu in 1958, the first universities began to appear in the northern parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway. Their aim was to serve the people of these regions through research and teaching, and to promote comprehensive development of the northern parts of the countries. In short, the universities were founded in and for the regions in which they were located.
This was also the beginning of higher education collaboration in the North Calotte, which culminated in the establishment of the Cooperation Commission of the North Calotte Universities and Colleges in 1972. The University College of Lapland (now the University of Lapland) joined the Commission in 1980, and as its rector I was actively involved in the Commission. The meetings were an excellent way to receive updates on higher education and research activities in the Nordic countries, especially on student and faculty mobility and developing research that was relevant for the North Calotte.
Gorbachev’s famous 1987 Murmansk speech and its implications for Arctic collaboration also sparked new ideas in higher education. For many northern universities the natural direction for collaboration had been the South. There was one clear exception though: the North Calotte higher education cooperation. On an August day in 1988, Geoffrey Weller and Douglas C. Nord from Lakehead University appeared in Rovaniemi and wanted to meet me. They had an idea of creating a cooperative university network that would span the whole circumpolar region from North America to Russia and beyond. Weller and Nord were visiting universities in the region to share the idea with them, and they now wanted my opinion. I was of course excited and introduced our North Calotte cooperation to them. We agreed that more cross-border collaboration was needed also east-west and vice versa, not just north-south.
One year later, in November 1989, the first circumpolar universities’ cooperation conference was organized at Lakehead University with 150 participants from about 50 universities throughout the region. At the third conference in Rovaniemi in 1992 the cooperation was formalized and rules put in place. The Circumpolar Universities Association (CUA) was born, and its Secretariat established at the University of Lapland.
The CUA had familiar aims: to encourage cooperation, to promote higher education and research in northern areas, and to assess and promote the status and role of circumpolar universities in regional development work. In that capacity, it proved to be an excellent and effective body for cooperation, and a forum for the exchange of information, experiences and research findings. However, the increased interest in the North and the establishment of the Arctic Council in 1996 brought along an even broader idea of an ‘Arctic university’. With Bill Heal and David Stone as the spokespeople, a proposal went forward to the Arctic Council in early 1997. Both I and Outi Snellman, CUA’s Secretary General, were of the opinion that there was no point in establishing a competing organization to the CUA; instead, the activities of the two should be combined. Soon after, the CUA was commissioned to prepare a feasibility study on the initiative. The resulting recommendation was that the University of the Arctic should be established, and in 1998 the proposal was accepted and put into motion. In 2001, UArctic was officially launched, and the activities of the CUA merged into it.
In just four decades, the collaboration between northern universities and colleges has developed from smaller North Calotte cooperation into covering the entire circumpolar region. Of all higher education collaboration in the North, UArctic has proven to be the most enduring.