Icelanders have long taken pride in their high level of education. With eight universities and an ever-growing student body, there seems to be legitimate reason to brag. Now it seems that the Bifröst School of Business is witnessing its golden age with the biggest boost in applications since its establishment nearly 90 years ago. While multiplying its student body in only a few years, the school is also transforming a small rural area into a thriving community.
Bifröst is located in Norðurárdalur valley in Borgarfjörður, only 90 minutes away from the capital, and the increase in the number of students this last decade at Bifröst has been truly remarkable. In 1997, 100 students attended the school; in the fall of 2006, the number has risen to around 700.
Bifröst offers accommodation for all the students attending the school, as well as for their families, and today almost 800 people live on the school campus or in nearby summerhouses where they can get tanned, work out, relax in the sauna, play golf or chitchat with fellow students while grabbing a bottle of beer at the Bifröst Café between classes.
The price for all of this is 236,000 ISK per semester, making Bifröst the most expensive school in the country. Still, its popularity is growing and young Reykjavík residents are moving away from their homes in the city to attend. The school is surrounded by towering mountains and dramatic nature, far from the bustling nightlife in the capital, a choice that would have been unheard of a decade ago.
“The establishment of two new faculties can explain the increase in students in some part,” Bárður Örn Gunnarsson, a former student and now the marketing manager of Bifröst, explains. Now there is a Faculty of Law, Business and Social Sciences and Economics, offering various programs at the bachelor and master levels. We also have foreign professors teaching classes and taking part in research projects.
“But for the most part, people attend the school because of the quality of study,” Bárður adds.
Although the study is the primary reason for all the people at Bifröst, the campus is getting a reputation for its social life, with active political organisations, a gym, hot tub, sauna, nine-hole golf course, a weekly pub quiz and its famous Thursday drinking. Judging from those students I talked to, life at Bifröst seems pretty damn good.
Both the small class sizes and the location rank high in the students’ comments about the advantages Bifröst has.
“Because the school based in the coutryside the atmosphere is quiet and students have an easier time concentrating,” Davíð Klemensson, a third-year business student told the Grapevine. Before he moved to Bifröst, Davíð lived in downtown Reykjavík and was surprised by how much he liked living outside of the city.
“The school’s emphasis on interaction in classes, challenging assignments and teamwork is a big plus. Everyone wants to help each other out and you get to know fellow students much better than in large classrooms where students scatter around in different directions after school. Here you get to know people you will probably come across in the work field after graduation,” Davíð said.
When asked about the high percentage of graduates who work as executives or administrators in various Reykjavík businesses: “Together with the companionship, what I find most important are all the practical skills you learn when working for example on big research projects, skills that are truly helpful when students flock to the work place.”
For that, the school has earned a good reputation in recent years. The research at Bifröst has also gotten an impressive amount of coverage.
When a couple of students in the business department got the idea of putting up a golf course in Viðey, mayoral candidate and Independence Party Golden Boy Gísli Marteinn Baldursson lent his reputation to the endeavour.
Regarding whether or not Iceland, a country of only 300,000, needs another major university, Davíð Klemensson is adamant that Bifröst is an essential element to the local educational system. “I had looked into all the universities before applying to Bifröst and found this one suited me the best. Bifröst is quite different from the others and in my view, after graduating, students are better prepared for the work place. The other universities don’t suit everyone and of course the same applies to Bifröst, so I think it is very important to maintain a good variety in education.”
Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, a student of business law, agreed. After moving from Reykjavík while pregnant and starting school at Bifröst, she now lives in an apartment on campus with her one-year-old daughter, husband and dog.
“I started studying law in the University of Iceland, but got bored of having to sit in the stairs of crowded Háskólabío and found the study both boring and uninteresting. At Bifröst, we have fewer students, which results in a more personal connection between teachers and students as well as among the group itself. That can lead to some lively discussions in and out of the classroom, not to mention the benefits of knowing everyone when you are here with a child. There is always someone ready to babysit and the nursery school is just next door. Being close to nature is also great for the kids.”
In a small community like Bifröst, everyone knows each other and, as Klemensson points out, it is a great place for exchange students to study and get to know the locals. Every term a group of foreign students from all over the globe travels to Bifröst, as courses in English are offered in all faculties.
“In a small community like this, the exchange students blend in much more easily. Usually they room with a local and everything is done to make their stay easier, ” Klemensson explains, which is quite different from what those exchange students attending universities in the capital usually experience, as they often find it hard to mingle with people other than other foreign students during school hours.
Apart from being benefitial to students trying to get a degree, make friends or get to know a different culture, the university also has caused many new developments in the countryside, as all the new inhabitants have brought a booming business for the neighbouring area. The students use services in Borgarnes, like the bank, supermarket and restaurants. A large group lives at Bifröst all year round, 70 children go to the preschool on campus and the older kids attend the elementary school of Varmaland. Teachers and waiters have jobs year-round, which is not typical for small towns in Iceland. New apartments, a bigger preschool, more teaching facilities, a larger gym and a new service area to meet the growing need of the inhabitants has also opened up new employment possibilities for developers. All this has to be considered as a positive step for the area and a much better industry to build on than we are witnessing in other parts of the country.
“The universities at Bifröst and Hvanneyri have almost become the base market in Borgarfjörður. Hundreds of jobs have been created in the area which has had great effects on Borgarbyggð,” Bárður Örn Gunnarsson explains.
Kolfinna Jóhannesdóttir researched this issue for her graduation project at Bifröst. She found that the school played a significant role in population growth in the Borgarbyggð area since the year 1997. With its operation, the school has increased the number of young inhabitants in the area, which has not been the case in comparable municipalities in the country, not to mention raised the level of education in Borgarbyggð. All this strengthens the human capital in the meantime.
While no one can see the end of this boom, students, spouses, children, teachers and staff members will keep living in harmony in this small but growing community that sounds more like a luxury holiday lodge than a school. The development and establishment will continue and the aim is set at having 1,500-2,000 people inhabiting the area in the next ten years. Hopefully achieving this goal won’t diminish the school’s charm or hurt its personal teaching policy.