From Iceland — Learning From The Past, Moving Into The Future

Learning From The Past, Moving Into The Future

Published August 30, 2011

Learning From The Past, Moving Into The Future

For a country of Iceland’s size, the education system is particularly vibrant, especially on a university level. The Grapevine contacted acting Minister of Education Svandís Svavarsdóttir for her thoughts on the state of Iceland’s universities, where they’ve been, and where they’re going.
“In Iceland there are seven higher education institutions, accredited by the Minister of Education, Science and Culture,” Svandís says. “They offer higher education in various forms, but vary greatly in size and scope. Some are research intensive universities, such as University of Iceland, which offers education in all fields of discipline, and awards bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees while other higher education institutions could be considered university colleges that offer mainly undergraduate education in limited fields.”
However, the trend now seems to be towards one of cohesion rather than separation, for both idealist and pragmatic reasons. In August of 2010, the ministry issued a Policy on Public Universities. It states: “The policy of the Minister of Education, Science and Culture is to safeguard the activities of the public universities in Iceland by establishing a collaborative network, with the possibility of a merger. The objective is threefold: First, to promote university teaching, research and innovation to strengthen the future development of Icelandic society. Second, to optimize the financial administration of the universities for the purpose of maximizing the efficiency of financial resources. And third, to maintain strong and varied higher education nationwide.” A task force is currently working on implementing the policy.
Part of the motivation behind this has been, of course, the tightening of government purse strings following the bank collapse in 2008.
“The greatest challenges facing the university system since the collapse of the financial system has without a doubt been the serious budget cuts to the university system,” the minister says. “The budget has been cut by a total of about 20% and we are facing a budget cut for 2012 as well. In addition agreements that specified increased research funding to universities had to be postponed at the onset of the crisis.”
Many Icelandic students choose to study abroad, for a variety of reasons. Rather than being cause for concern, Iceland’s government applauds this.
“Until recently all students had to go abroad to pursue postgraduate education,” Svandís says. “Some fields of education are still not offered in Iceland, and in addition some students prefer to study in another country. Studying and living abroad is a cultural issue, and it is something that we consider an asset, that young people go abroad, and gain a wider outlook on life. Most students have, up until now at least, decided to return back to Iceland, and this fact enriches the work force. The fact that young people will train and study in another country, in many different universities, both in Europe and the U.S., and be immersed in another culture is a positive thing. One has also to bear in mind that there is a tradition going back at least 400 years of young Icelanders going to Denmark for their education, which may be a contributing factor in why more the half of all Icelandic students abroad are studying at Danish universities.”
She adds that Iceland’s loan system acts in accordance with this reality, saying, “The Icelandic Student Loan Fund does not make any distinction between students that chose to study abroad and those who study in Iceland. Student Loan Funds in most countries that we tend to compare us with, have much greater restrictions on student loans for those who choose to study abroad.”  
In 2010, there were roughly 2.200 Icelandic students studying abroad (10% of the local student population). At the same time, there are around 20.000 in the Icelandic higher education system in total. The number of foreign students studying in Icelandic universities has been increasing in recent years and counts for about 5% of the student population.
On a side note, one of the conclusions of the Special Investigative Commission (SIC), which examined the possible causes of the 2008 collapse, was that universities are too closely tied to businesses. Has the government taken this to heart?
The minister says yes: “All the universities have undertaken constructive steps in examining how they can improve, and to be above such criticism.  To deal with the criticism in the SIC report, the Science and Technology Policy Council has played a leading role in that all universities and research institutions comply to rules of research integrity, that have recently been written by a specific ethics committee, working closely with Rannís, the Icelandic Center for Research.  
Otherwise the universities have certain freedom to determine the conduct of teaching according to article 7 of the Higher education institution act nr. 63 from 2006. Thus the ministry does not meddle directly with how classes are taught.”
So with all this higher education going on in a country that prides itself on its independence, are the universities on par with what’s being taught in the rest of Europe? The minister believes so, but also sees room for improvement.
“The University of Iceland is on par with many other European universities,” she says. “It has an ambitious focus on education and research. All universities have undergone accreditation by the ministry, and have to report to the ministry on internal quality control.  The minister has recently appointed a quality council of foreign experts that are responsible for quality control of teaching and research in Icelandic universities”.  
“There is always room for improvement, but the University of Iceland has in recent years achieved remarkable achievements including doubling the number of publications in peer reviewed journals, increasing the number of doctorate degrees fivefold, and improving internal quality control. They have recently published a policy for 2011–2016, with more ambitious goals.”
Keeping up with the status quo is all well and good, but Svandís also believes the country can and should raise the bar on education. Furthermore, she contends that Iceland’s small size is an advantage when it comes to innovating education.
“The Icelandic education system as a whole is not that different from the rest of the Western world regarding structure and governance. But it is a fact that it is small,” the minister says. “That gives it an edge, which is also structured into the legislation and regulation regarding education. In Iceland we have had a subject called ‘innovation education and the use of knowledge’ as a part of the national curriculum for primary and secondary schools since 1999. This is not a compulsory subject, but it is geared towards allowing students to use their knowledge and skills to develop their own inventions and products.  This subject is an example of how the Icelandic system is flexible enough to allow enthusiastic teachers to develop teaching methods.”
The minister adds that in the university system, there is constant development in curriculum. The ministry has recently published a revised National Qualification Framework for Higher Education. It is a systematic description of the structure of qualification of degrees at the higher education level based on learning outcomes.  
With this in the works, where does she see Iceland’s university system in the near future?
The minister is optimistic. “In ten years time, I hope that the financial crisis will be a way behind us, and that we will have had time and financial resources to rebuild the university system, with focus on quality and achievements.” 

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