For University of Iceland student council representatives, María Rút Kristinsdóttir and Jórunn Pála Jónasdóttir, the start of the fall semester has been spent largely outside of the classroom. “It’s good that the first week starts easy,” Jórunn confides. “I’ve only been able to go to class one day so far.”
As the chair and the student rights and loan officers respectively, both María and Jórunn have been dedicating the majority of their time to an ongoing legal dispute between the student council and Iceland’s government-run student loan fund, LÍN. The issue at stake is a recent change in the eligibility requirements for part-time students who want to receive loans.
As of last year, Icelandic students only had to register for 18 credits in order to receive loans from LÍN (a full-time course load at the University of Iceland is 30 credits). In June, however, LÍN announced that in response to government-mandated budget cuts, the new requirement—effective immediately—would be that students register for 22 credits.
María says that this decision meant that approximately 2,000 students—many of whom attend classes part-time because they are raising families, juggling employment, or have learning disabilities—will not qualify for loans this year. Without other financial resources or time to prepare for the requirement change, many of these students would simply drop out, María predicts. “They will not get very good jobs,” she says, and as a result, many may have to apply for government assistance. “We have to think about the future,” she says. “It’s better to have people studying than to have them on benefits.”
The Court Rules
The student council, led by María and Jórunn, decided to take LÍN to court over the matter—the first time in Icelandic history that a student council has sued a government institution. And in a rather surprising turn of events, the district court ruled in the students’ favour. According to the decision, it was not legal for LÍN to change the loan requirements with so little warning. For nearly two weeks after the court decision, however, none of the requirements were reversed. “We have three weeks from the date of the decision to appeal, or 15 days to implement the changes,” explains Guðrún Ragnarsdóttir, the managing director at LÍN.
Guðrún says that she understands some of the students’ frustration. “I know that they didn’t have much time to prepare for this,” she says. “Neither did we. We didn’t expect further budget cuts.” When the additional cuts were announced, she says, the LÍN board explored multiple options for reducing their spending other than raising the credit requirement. However, the board felt that all of these other options—such as reducing funds for students studying abroad—would have been too burdensome on specific groups of borrowers. “It was a simple mathematical exercise,” she says. “This was the least radical solution.” Moreover, she says, raising the credit requirement was a way to return to the “core concept of the student loan fund. It is meant for students who are attending school full time,” she says. “If we need to make cutbacks, then it is best to go back to the original idea behind the fund.”
From the student council’s perspective, however, this decision reflects both a lack of research into the consequences of changing the credit requirements, as well as a disinclination to involve students in the decision making process. And there is a precedent for student involvement: the LÍN governing board is actually comprised of four government-appointed officials and four students representing Icelandic student associations. María and Jórunn say that the student board members were not made privy to preliminary discussions about the requirement changes, that only the “political participants” were invited to these meetings. “We were only given three days to prepare for the full board meeting,” they said. “We got there and they said ‘this would be the decision.’ The students had no say.”
Guðrún disagrees that the students were left out of the decision process. “We held preliminary meetings with government ministers to see what options were available. Once the options were in place, we presented them to the full board. Everyone was given three days notice, which was in accordance with the board’s governing procedure.” She also says that the students were presented with other options for reducing the LÍN budget, such as lowering the cap on how much total money students could receive from the fund. The other options, she says, would necessitate “major cutbacks in other areas,” and so were rejected by the students.
For Now, That Is…
María and Jórunn say that they were prepared to negotiate and suggest that there were several other ways in which LÍN could effectively reduce its budget. Students could be made to apply for only one semester’s loans at a time, for instance, thereby ensuring that they were only borrowing money that they actually needed. At the very least, they hoped to lower the new credit requirement to 20 credits a semester instead of 22. They insist that the student council is not against implementing some changes in the application process: “We understand that there is a need to downsize the government’s budget and were willing to look at other possibilities.”
In the wake of the court’s decision, María and Jórunn were frustrated by what they perceived to be LÍN’s blatant disregard of the ruling, but they have been heartened by the response from their fellow students. “There is a lot of solidarity about this matter,” María says. “Students are stopping me in the hall and saying thank you. We are going through some uncertainty now, but it really matters that we stood up and didn’t take this silently.”
The day this issue went to print, LÍN decided that they would comply with the district court´s ruling instead of appealing the decision. The new credit requirement will not go into place for the current academic year, but it is very likely that it will be implemented in the future. “This is a change that is going to take place,” Guðrún says. “It is only a question of when.”