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.”

Government to Fund Summer Jobs and Summer School for Students Again

Lilja Alfreðsdóttir Ásmundur Einar Daðason

The government will spend 2,4 billion ISK on creating summer jobs and providing summer school opportunities for students this summer. This was first done last year to combat the effect of the global pandemic on the economy but students criticised its execution.

This year, the government will spend 2.4 billion ISK towards creating temporary jobs for 2500 students 18 years and older, within government institutions, municipalities, and associations. Workplaces hiring students will receive funding for a full-time salary, up to 472,000 ISK per month (the limit for unemployment benefits) including 11.5 % for retirement funds for a duration of two and a half months. According to Minister of Social Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason, “it’s vital that as many students as possible will get a job this summer, where they will gain a valuable experience as well as creating value for the economy.”

In addition to the summer job program, the government will spend 650 million ISK to ensure the availability of summer studies this summer, 500 million to universities and 150 million to secondary schools. 650 secondary students attended summer school last year and just under 5000 university students. Finally, the Icelandic Student Innovation Fund issued 311 million ISK in grants, funding 206 projects and providing 351 students with work. The fund’s goal is to give universities, research institutes and companies a chance to hire undergraduate and master’s students for summer jobs in research and development.

Last year, The University of Iceland Student Council criticised the initiative for not meeting the requirements of students hit hard by the pandemic’s effect on the economy, claiming the jobs created were too few and too specialised to serve a large number of students. Student Council President Isabel Alejandra Diaz states that while students were thankful for the initiative, its execution was flawed. “This was supposed to benefit both University and secondary school students but most of the jobs required a year or two of University studies.” The Student Council hopes that the initiative could be more than a short-term solution and instead become a long-term program that would help university students find work in their field to gain valuable experience. The Council claimed that students’ interests would be better served by allowing them to qualify for unemployment benefits and to raise the basic subsistence allowance within the student loan system. They also criticised the duration of the program as last year, the initiative funded student jobs for two months, which wasn’t enough to cover the whole summer. This year, the jobs will cover two and a half months but the jobs available to students are yet to be revealed.  The Government’s press release does note that authorities will keep a close eye on how the initiative progresses to ensure that students won’t be without work or means of subsistence this summer.

The government’s press notice also states that they are continuing their efforts to raise the basic subsistence allowance for subsistence loans while noting that basic subsistence allowance has increased more than inflation but haven’t kept up with overall increased purchasing power. “Work on bridging this gap is ongoing and an important step in this direction is planned for the coming weeks. Suggestions on the matter will be introduced to the Minister of Education and Culture before May 1.”

University Students Unhappy With In-person Exams

Háskóli Íslands University of Iceland

Students at the University of Iceland have called plans for in-person final exams this December irresponsible. President of the Student Council Isabel Alejandra Diaz states that in no way does this comply with infection prevention regulation. The student council is currently weighing its options when it comes to a response. Teachers and authorities of the School of Engineering and Natural Sciences think that it’s unavoidable that some exams take place in person in the University of Iceland’s facilities, as Sigurður Magnús Garðarsson, Dean of the School of Engineering and Natural Sciences, told RÚV.

Earlier this month, University of Iceland Rector Jón Atli Benediktsson announced that all final exams would be online, except for competitive exams and exams where teachers can’t conclude course assessment in any other way. Yesterday, the school released a list of exam arrangements, and it became clear that these exceptions were more numerous than students had expected. According to Isabel, the number of planned in-person exams varies.  “the School of Humanities has only planned two in-person exams, but the School of Health Sciences has 72. It surprised us how differently the schools are taking the situation. In December, the School of Health Sciences has planned exams that would have 1,100 students turning up to the same place. That would be a gathering of people who don’t usually interact with each other,” Isabel told RÚV. According to Isabel, the Student Council will confer with healthcare authorities as well as the School administration and hope for a fruitful collaboration.

According to Sigurður, 53 of the 120 final exams planned for the School of Engineering and Natural Sciences will take place in person in the University’s buildings. He told RÚV, “We assessed it this way, listened to the students and acted according to results of a survey of students’ state of health during the pandemic.” When asked if the students couldn’t have taken the tests online, Sigurður answered that teachers estimated that the exams in question couldn’t be completed any other way.

Sigurður also stated that the University had had a close collaboration with healthcare authorities since the pandemic began and that the exams will follow infection prevention protocols, just like all other school operations. He told RÚV, “there won’t be many tests, so it should be easy to spread students over several classrooms.”

The Student Council’s statement can be read in full below:

Dear Students

The Student Council expresses disappointment with the arrangement of the final exams at the University of Iceland and that the stand/fail resort will not be available this semester. The Council has repeatedly urged the University’s administration to take into account all the students and their diverse circumstances.

It’s clear from the Student Council’s survey, on the wellbeing and situation of students, that students don’t feel well in these circumstances due to COVIS-19 and are experiencing pressure that they believe will affect their progress of study. In accordance to these results, the student Council demanded that assessment methods be revised and criticised the Minister of Education’s new regulation on restrictions of school operations due to stricter COVID-19 restrictions, which did not take into account students despite consultations with government.

The Student Council has demanded that the University of Iceland’s reactions are fair and does not consider these reactions sufficient. Even though the pandemic comes in waves, it is not acceptable to force students to take in-person exams and not offer other solutions, especially when most studies have been online this semester.

It is crucial that students are safe in their studies and that they feel well. We underline that this is not a traditional semester and that traditional assessment methods are not the solution. The Student Council will support as much as it can and continue to speak in your interest.

 

University Pressured to Stop Dental Age Analysis of Asylum Seekers

Jóna Þórey Pétursdóttir Student Council President

University of Iceland students are protesting their school’s practice of dental age analysis on young asylum seekers, RÚV reports. The school shouldn’t be conducting border patrol for the Directorate of Immigration, says Jóna Þórey Pétursdóttir, President of the University of Iceland’s Student Council, nor participating in a process that can have negative consequences for young people.

Age affects asylum decision

The University of Iceland signed a one-year service contract with the Directorate of Immigration in March of last year to provide age analysis of young people who come to Iceland to seek asylum. Dental analysis is one method used by the university to determine the age of asylum applicants.

The Directorate of Immigration conducts dental age analysis on asylum seekers in Iceland when it is unclear whether or not they are under 18 years of age. If they are under 18, they are automatically granted asylum, whereas if they are over 18, they may be deported.

Immoral and inaccurate, students say

Nearly 200 staff and doctoral students at the university protested the practice last year and yesterday a student protest was held at the university. Jóna Þórey says the students are simply adding their voices to human rights organisations and scientific associations around the world, which assert that dental age analysis is both immoral and inaccurate.

“But beyond that, we believe that the University of Iceland shouldn’t be in this position, this border patrol, and participate in a process that possibly has a negative impact on asylum seekers’ case proceedings, those who come here in search of a better life,” Jóna says. “These are minors, these are children.”

Decision made this week

The University Council of the University of Iceland will meet this week to decide whether to renew the service contract. All of its members except one approved the contract last year. Jóna hopes for a different outcome this year.