Lack of Funding to Maintain Westfjords Roads

2018 Vatnsnesvegur, A screenshot from RÚV

Many roads in the Westfjords and West Iceland have become dangerous due to lack of maintenance, according to representatives of the Road and Coastal Administration, RÚV reports. In both regions, a lack of funding has left roads in poor shape, posing risks for travellers. Infrastructure funding would need to be quadrupled to complete all of the maintenance and construction currently needed on West Iceland roads, says Pálmi Þór Sævarsson, the area’s regional director for the Road and Coastal Administration.

A driver narrowly avoided a rollover last Sunday on the road between Búðardalur and Bifröst in West Iceland. He stated that he lost control of the car due to the number of potholes in the road. Despite the road’s poor condition, the speed limit was set at 90 km [56 miles] per hour. Sæmundur Kristánsson, the head supervisor of the Road and Coastal Administration in Búðardalur, says the road where the near-rollover occurred is narrower than the standard width. While widening the road is on the agenda, its financing has not yet been approved.

Pálmi Þór says similarly poor road conditions can be found across West Iceland, the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and the Westfjords, and they point to a larger problem across the Icelandic countryside: a lack of funding for road maintenance. Iceland has a “maintenance debt” that has been built up over many years, says Pálmi, and many roads are starting to give way under increasing traffic. The problem needs to be dealt with before it goes from bad to worse.

Students Express ‘Grave Concern’ Regarding Financial Situation at the University of Iceland

Háskóli Íslands University of Iceland

In the wake of reports that University of Iceland is facing a deficit of as much as ISK 1 Billion [$7.02 million; €6.46 million] this year, the Student Council (SHÍ) issued a statement on Sunday expressing its “grave concern” about the situation.

“It’s clear that the lack of funding has had a serious impact on the school’s basic operations,” reads the statement, and the university council has, as a result, “approved austerity measures that include, among other things, teaching cuts and hiring freezes.” With even further cuts on the horizon for the 2024-25 academic year, the student council fears that the university will be unable to maintain comparable standards to other Nordic universities or adequately prepare its graduates to be competitive on the international labour market.

Stated goals not in line with existing funding

SHÍ says it has been vocal about its concerns regarding funding at the university on a number of occasions, most recently in its comment on HÍ’s 2023 budget. SHÍ’s president has also “repeatedly raised the issue and the seriousness of the situation with the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, as well as the fact that the university budget does not correspond to the priorities or goals that the new Ministry of Higher Education has outlined.”

“It defies logic that at the same time calls are being made for an increase in the number of students in the health sciences that the School of Health Sciences has a deficit of ISK 240 million [$1.69 million; €1.55 million] and that goals are being set for increased STEM course offerings while at the same time, the School of Engineering and Natural Sciences has had to significantly reduce teaching due to lack of funding.”

‘The University has fallen in international rankings’

“The University of Iceland plays an important role in Icelandic society and is one of the world’s leading universities,” continues the statement,  “but the fact is that due to a lack of adequate funding for research and teaching, the school has fallen in international rankings,”

“Immediate action needs to be taken to foster the foundations of the educational system and strengthen it for the future. SHÍ agrees joins the university council in urging the government to accelerate its review of the university’s operations model such that the funding for public university education is in line with those in comparable countries.”

The current state of affairs is contrary to what the government has declared to be its policy regarding higher education in Iceland, says SHÍ, namely that it will “aim for comparable funding of universities in Iceland as is observed in the other Nordic countries.” SHÍ calls for the government to develop an operations model for the university that is not subject to dramatic fluctuation by increasing incentives and fixed funding for universities.

“The Student Council demands that the government live up to its constitutional obligation and significantly increase funding for public university education,” concludes the statement. “It is essential to Icelandic society, and will improve standards of living, value creation, and the competitiveness of the educational system, as well as Icelandic society on the international stage.”

Funding for Municipal Services for People with Disabilities to Increase by ISK 5 Billion

Alþingi Icelandic parliament

Local municipalities will now receive a permanent increase in funding for legally required services for people with disabilities. RÚV reports that this increase will amount to ISK 5 billion [$35.028 million; €33.043 million] a year.

Per an announcement on the government’s website, the agreement was c0signed by the chair and executive director of the Association of Local Authorities and the Ministers of Finance and Economic Affairs, Infrastructure, and Social Affairs and the Labour Market on Saturday. It is aimed at helping local municipalities “achieve established performance and debt targets according to the current financial plan for the years 2023 – 2027.”

Under the terms of the agreement, local taxes will increase by .22% against a corresponding reduction of state income tax. The tax burden on individuals will not change, however. Rather, the agreement deals with the specific transfer of funds from the state to local municipalities.

Local municipalities have long called for increased funds to provide services for people with disabilities and are still calling for higher contributions. Per Saturday’s agreement, both local authorities and the three undersigning ministries agree to conduct expense analyses for services provided with the aim of renegotiating the agreement next year.

Annual Artist Salaries Allocated for 2023

The Ministry of Education and Culture’s annual Artist Salary allocations were announced on Friday. RÚV reports that 236 artists across six disciplines were awarded salaries for periods of two to twelve months. This represents but a fraction of the 1,083 applications—from 972 individuals and 111 performing arts groups—that were received.

See Also: Icelandic Government Raises Artist Salaries

Salaries are awarded for periods of two to twelve months. At the beginning of the year, Minister of Tourism, Trade, and Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir announced that funding of artists salaries would increase with individual monthly stipends being raised to ISK 428,000 [$3,330, €2,908] per month during 2022. In the coming year, the monthly stipend will increase to ISK 507,500 [$3,551; €3,354].

Both well-known and emerging artists are among those awarded salaries this year. Those who received a full year’s salary include (but are not limited to) designer Hanna Dís Whitehead, visual artists Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir and Sæmundur Þór Helgason, actor Arnar Jónsson, saxophonist Óskar Guðjónsson, and composer Viktor Orri Árnason.

Writers’ salaries

Allocations for writers’ salaries are always a hot topic of debate and conversation, not least because this discipline has the most allocations. This year, a total of 555 months’ salaries were allocated to writers. (The next largest number of allocations, or 435 months total, was made to visual artists; a total of 50 months were allocated to designers, 190 months were allocated to both theatrical performers and composers, and 180 to musicians.)

A full year’s salary was allocated to twelve authors, many of whom are available to English-language readers: Auður Jónsdóttir (author of Quake, trans. Meg Matich); Gerður Kristný (author of Bloodhoof and Drápa, both translated by Rory McTurk); Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir (The Creator; trans. Sarah Bowen); Hallgrímur Helgason (Woman at 1000 Degrees; trans. Brian FitzGibbon; A Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning); Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Heaven and Hell; Summer Light and Then Comes Night, both translated by Philip Roughton); Kristín Ómarsdóttir (Swanfolk, trans. Vala Thorodds; Children in Reindeer Woods trans. Lytton Smith); and Steinar Bragi (The Ice Lands, Trans. Lorenza García; The Haunting of Reykjavík).

Other authors familiar to English-language readers also received funding for the coming year. Andri Snær Magnason (On Time and Water, trans. Lytton Smith), Bragi Ólafsson (The Ambassador, trans. Lytton Smith), Einar Már Guðmundsson (Angels of the Universe, trans. Bernard Scudder), Kristín Eiríksdóttir (A Fist or a Heart, trans. Larissa Kyzer); and Oddný Eir (Land of Love and Ruins, trans. Philip Roughton) were all among those receiving nine-month salaries.

Three Major Media Outlets Receive 63% of Government Support

Nineteen privately-owned media outlets will receive financial support from the government this year RÚV reports. The allocation committee received 23 applications requesting a combined ISK 880 million [$6.92 million; €5.84 million] in support. A total of ISK 389 million [$3.06 million; €2.58 million] was distributed to 19 outlets, although 63% this funding went to just three major companies. Two applications were rejected on the basis of having been received after the submission deadline.

Media support applications were reviewed by a three-person allocation committee overseen by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science. The committee was staffed by Supreme Court attorney Árni Vilhjálmsson, accountant Stefán Svavarsson, and head of the journalism program at the University of Iceland, Valgerður Anna Jóhannsdóttir, and advised in its efforts by the Icelandic Media Commission.

The highest allocations of roughly ISK 81 million each [$637,443; €537,680] went to three major parent companies. These are Árvakur hf, which publishes the daily paper Morgunblaðið, its online outlet mbl.is, and the radio station K100; Sýn ehf, which operates the Stöð 2 TV channel, the Bylgjan radio station, and the online paper Vísir; and Torg ehf, which publishes the daily paper Fréttablaðið, its online outlet frettabladid.is, and the Hringbraut TV station.

After the top three allocations, the next five grantees were: The Farmers Association of Iceland, which publishes the free farm- and agriculture-focused paper Bændablaðið (ISK 12.4 million [$97,560; €82,333]); online paper Kjarninn (ISK 14.4 million [$113,296; €95,613]); the N4 TV channel (ISK 19.4 million [$152,647; €128,812]); investigative outlet Stundin (ISK 25.3 million [$199,055; €167,986]); and Myllusetur ehf, which publishes the business-focused paper Viðskiptablaðið (ISK 27 million [$212,397; €179,274]).

A temporary initiative
The funding comes as a result of legislation proposed by Minister of Culture Lilja Alfreðsdóttir and passed by parliament earlier this year. Per the terms of the legislation, the state will grant up to ISK 400 million ($3.3 million/€2.7 million) to privately-owned media companies, which can apply for up to 25% reimbursement of eligible expenses: salary costs and payments to contractors working on collecting and disseminating news.

The legislation is a temporary initiative: it provides grants to independent Icelandic media companies this year and next year. Parliament passed similar legislation in 2020 to establish a fund to help independent media companies address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some journalists have argued that such funding is biased toward Iceland’s largest media companies at the expense of smaller, local media.

Operating at a loss
This year’s allocations to Árvakur, Sýn, and Torg mark a shift from last year—two for the worse, and one for the better. In 2020, Árvakur hf received ISK 100 million [$786,967; €663,807] and Sýn ehf received ISK 91 million [$716,028; €604,064]. Torg ehf, on the other hand, received more money this year—in 2020, it was allocated ISK 64.7 million [$509,088; €429,596].

However, in spite of the substantial funding it received, Árvakur operated at a loss of ISK 75 million [$589,854; €498,017] last year. It has, indeed, operated at a loss every year since the company was bought by new owners following the crash in 2009. Sýn has also been operating at a loss. Last year, it lost ISK 405 million [$3.18 million; €2.68 million] and according to current figures, it is still operating at a loss this year. No current data was available for Torg, but according to data obtained from the Icelandic Revenue and Customs office, in 2019, it operated at a loss of ISK 212 million [$1.67 million; €1.41 million].

‘It’s crazy that we’re taking money from the state’
Stundin was quick to point out that the big three received over half of this year’s media grant allocations—63%, to be precise. Interestingly, the allocations process and distribution has drawn criticism even from those who benefit from it. Just last week, Þórhallur Gunnarsson, the head of media and broadcasting at Vodafone and Stöð 2 (owned by Sýn ehf), remarked in an interview that he felt it was wrong for large media companies, such as Sýn and Árvakur, to receive special state support, which he thinks should be reserved for smaller media entities, rural media outlets, and publications with a focus on investigative journalism.

“It’s crazy that we’re taking money from the state and are supported by the government,” said Þórhallur. “We are a hugely powerful media outlet, with a large subscriber base. We have countless opportunities.”

Þórhallur was echoed in his views by one of the owners and editors of the online newspaper Kjarninn, Þórður Snær Júlíusson. “We should improve the whole media landscape with multifaceted measures that benefit large and small outlets alike. Grants for small and growing media companies. And in return, the nation gets a robust and diverse media. Everyone wins.”

Iceland Review is one of the independent publications receiving financial support this year.

Companies Return COVID-19 Aid Funds to Icelandic Government

origo

Six Icelandic companies have announced they will either return or stop taking advantage of the government’s partial unemployment funds intended to help companies avoid layoffs due to the economic impact of COVID-19. Mbl.is reports that none of the companies are facing operational difficulties and as a result have decided to pull out of the initiative, whereby the government pays up to 75% of employee salaries.

Computer support and services company Origo put 50 employees on the partial benefits scheme on the same day it announced an ISK 425 million ($2.9 million/2.7 million) first-quarter profit. Origo then backtracked on the decision to seek government support last Monday. Company Esja Gæðafæði ehf. decided to repay the ISK 17 million ($117,000/€107,000) it had received from the government through the initiative. Seafood company Brim, fuel company Skeljungur, and retailer Hagar have also decided to repay the government funds they received. Retail company Festi also decided to stop its participation in the scheme.

Iceland’s Directorate of Labour was criticised for failing to monitor whether companies who were taking advantage of the government funds had in fact lost profits and therefore required the funds to pay salaries. The organisation’s director has stated that the Directorate’s efforts were focused on minimising layoffs, but a review of companies who have participated in the scheme will begin in the fall at the latest.

Samtökin ’78 Receives ISK 15 Million for Outreach and Education

The Icelandic government has signed an agreement with Samtökin ’78, Iceland’s LGBTQ Association, earmarking ISK 15 million [$124,709; €109,968] for expanded education, services, and consulting related to LGBTQ issues. Vísir reports that the agreement, which will be in effect for one year starting February 15, was signed on Thursday by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Samtökin’s chair, María Helga Guðmundsdóttir.

Samtökin’s ‘78’s funding has been increased from the ISK 12 million [$99,767; €87,974] it received in 2018. (That year, its funding was actually doubled from what it received in 2017.) The new agreement stipulates that Samtökin’s funded projects will be carried out in close collaboration with the Prime Minister’s Office of Equal Rights. At the same time it announced its agreement with Samtökin ’78, the government also announced a similar arrangement with the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, which will receive state funding in the amount of ISK 10 million [$83,139; €73,312] in the coming year.

The additional funding to Samtökin ’78 is intended to promote an LGBTQ-friendly society and increase the visibility of the LGBTQ population in Iceland. Funded services will be aimed at people in the LGBTQ community and their loved ones, as well as public service professionals, i.e. people working in the government and schools.

Under the terms of the agreement, Samtökin ’78 will be responsible for yearly meetings with educators who teach gender, equality, and LGBTQ studies at all levels; annual meetings with elected officials and public policy experts who are working on equality and LGBTQ issues; establishing international collaborations with sister organizations in the Nordic countries; and participation in the annual Congress on Gender.

The Icelandic government has placed a great deal of emphasis on equality issues and per its policy statement, aims to ensure that Iceland is on the vanguard of LGBTQ issues. The Prime Minister’s Office is currently working on a number of policies related to LGBTQ issues, including a pending bill on sexual autonomy.