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27/09/2023 - 11:50

Fifty years since UI began offering nursing degrees

Fifty years since UI began offering nursing degrees - Available at University of Iceland

Half a century has passed since teaching began on the first nursing programme at the University of Iceland. This milestone will be marked with a grand celebration on Friday 29 September in the UI Main Building. The University has come a long way since the Department of Nursing was first established and today the Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery educates students to fill a diverse range of roles within the healthcare system.

The University of Iceland began training nurses in the autumn of 1973. The discipline had previously been taught at the Icelandic College of Nursing, which in fact remained open until 1986. The UI Department of Nursing was initially under temporary management within the Faculty of Medicine. For the first few years, there were no permanent members of teaching staff and the programme was actually run by enthusiasts who also had full-time positions elsewhere. 

In 1976, Ingibjörg R. Magnúsdóttir was appointed head of the Department and a year later Marga Thorne became the first permanent instructor when she was hired as a lecturer in nursing. As the Department developed the curriculum and teaching in these early years, they relied on support from experts in the US and Canada as well as the World Health Organization.

To start with, the Department had no fixed location near the University campus but since 1986 the subject has been based in Eirberg, a building next to Landspítali University Hospital that had previously housed the Icelandic College of Nursing. Eirberg contains offices, student facilities, teaching facilities, and a fast-growing skills and simulation centre. 

Strong early foundations 

25 women made up the first group of students to join the UI nursing programme in the autumn of 1973. One of those women was Sóley S. Bender, who will be one of the speakers at the celebration. She would go on to spend decades working at the University as a lecturer and researcher, although to begin with she had very different plans. "There were a few of us in my class at Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík who influenced each other. I actually planned to go to Norway to study physiotherapy and to prepare for that, I worked at one of the departments of Reykjavík City Hospital the whole summer of 1973. That summer I learned about the challenging circumstances for people recovering from illness or injury," says Sóley, explaining her decision to go into nursing.

Sóley S. Bender, professor emeritua and student in the first group of students to join the UI nursing programme.

Sóley reports that the programme was built on strong foundations from the outset and that much of it is still used. "But of course, in those early years, the programme was still very much a work in progress. There was a strong emphasis on critical and independent thinking and working practices, which is still the case today, since of course these focuses are fundamental for all higher education. Management and pedagogy were very important subjects. There was a real lack of instructors in various subjects, so experts were brought in from other countries to take responsibility for certain courses. One example was the nursing management course, which was taught by Margaret E. Hooton, a professor from the School of Nursing at McGill University in Canada. As her obituary said,  "She was able to challenge students to think critically and unconventionally", adds Sóley.

Significant opposition in the early years

Sóley was also among the first group of graduates in 1977. For several years, she worked at Landspítali University Hospital and Reykjavík City Hospital, as well as spending one year teaching at a nursing college in Nepal. She then went to the US to do a Master's degree at the University of Minnesota. After returning home, she began teaching at the Department of Nursing. She was promoted from lecturer to senior lecturer, finally becoming a professor in 2009, a position she held until she formally retired this summer. Sóley specialised early on in sexual health and has worked on many projects and studies in that area. Her knowledge and professional contributions have had a profound impact on government policy and sexual health services here in Iceland.

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The first group of graduates in 1977.

Sóley recalls that she and her fellow students often had to defend their place in the University community. "Early student nurses like me faced a huge amount of undeserved criticism from the nursing profession, where people weren't happy that the University of Iceland was offering an undergraduate programme but not graduate studies. And on top of that we were often asked by all kinds of people whether it was really necessary to teach nursing as a university subject," explains Sóley.

Significant expansion of graduate studies and research

As mentioned above, the nursing programme was organised within the Faculty of Medicine for the first few decades. But at the turn of the century, the Department became an independent faculty, the Faculty of Nursing, which taught both nursing and midwifery. The University began teaching midwifery in 1996, as a Master's programme for nursing graduates. In 2022, the name was formally changed to the Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery. The shift to university-based training for nurses and midwives represented a significant change for these professions and the Faculty has always been a leader in undergraduate nursing and midwife education, as attested by reviews and lists of the world's best universities for certain subjects. The Faculty now offers Master's and doctoral programmes in nursing and midwifery, as well as the undergraduate nursing programme and graduate programmes in health sciences.

The Faculty now employs over 30 permanent members of teaching staff as well as many sessional lecturers and, according to Sóley, graduate studies have expanded significantly over recent years and decades. "Perhaps the biggest change in this period is that a lot more instructors have PhDs. Faculty staff are now conducting outstanding research, which makes its way into the teaching and the development of Master's and doctoral studies at the Faculty," says Sóley.  
Ingibjörg R. Magnúsdóttir was a passionate supporter of this trend, establishing a fund that allocates grants for nursing and midwifery research at UI. The latest round of allocations from the Ingibjörg R. Magnúsdóttir Fund is in fact scheduled to take place on the same day of the celebration. 

The nursing programme was organised within the Faculty of Medicine for the first few decades. But at the turn of the century, the Department became an independent faculty, the Faculty of Nursing, which taught both nursing and midwifery. The University began teaching midwifery in 1996, as a Master's programme for nursing graduates. In 2022, the name was formally changed to the Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery.

Nurses on the front line during the pandemic

Alongside changes in nursing education, the healthcare service has also evolved significantly. Sóley says that one dramatic change was the merging of the hospitals in the capital area, which has not been uncontroversial. "There has also been a growing focus on mental health over the years and shifting national demographics have meant that more resources need to be put into services for the elderly. And then the role of local health clinics has expanded, as well. In times of crisis, like the pandemic, nurses stepped up and showed the nation how strong they are. Their priority was the health of the nation," explains Sóley.

She believes that from a nurse's perspective, the most important thing for job satisfaction and wellbeing is to be valued and that nurses should "have opportunities and support to develop within the profession and try new things. Good working partnerships with other healthcare professions are also essential for resolving the various problems that affect our patients. When nurses are happy in their jobs, that translates to a better healthcare service."

Working on a new handbook for young men about sex

Although Sóley has officially retired from the University of Iceland, joining a distinguished group of professors emerita, she still has plenty of irons in the fire. "I will continue to supervise my Master's and doctoral students. I've taken on temporary leadership of the Sexual Health Association and we are planning this year to publish new, comprehensive sex education material for teachers and school nurses in upper secondary schools. I'm also planning to publish a digital handbook for young men this year, based on my research and the research of my Master's students, entitled Are you ready for sex? So I will remain active in my field, but I'll have more time to spend with my family and enjoy the outdoors," says Sóley.

When she reflects on her education and career and whether there is anything she would change, Sóley says she would have liked to finish her PhD sooner. It would have been difficult to do so, though, due to the great shortage of instructors in the field. "In terms of the future and advice to my fellow nurses, I would like to see a lot more nurses with BS degrees travel abroad for Master's and doctoral studies, for example to the US or Canada. It gives you an opportunity to get to know different healthcare systems and students from other countries and take on various challenges that help you grow as a person. It also promotes open-mindedness and diversity," says Sóley.

Found her place in life as a nurse

One of the most recent graduates of the University of Iceland's BS programme in nursing is Lovísa Snorradóttir, who finished her degree this spring. Like Sóley, nursing wasn't the original plan for Lovísa. "After upper secondary school, I started a programme in biomedical engineering at Reykjavík University and completed that degree in the spring of 2018. The programme was interesting and has served me incredibly well, but at the end of the day I felt I wasn't quite on the right path in life. I took a year out from education and started working in a nursing home. My mother is a nurse and my father is a technical specialist, so I suppose I wanted to try both sides since they are both important role models for me. In the nursing home I felt like I'd found my place," says Lovísa, who started studying nursing at UI in the autumn of 2019. "I certainly don't regret it!"


Lovísa Snorradóttir, a recently graduated nurse.

Lovísa says she was surprised at how varied and fascinating nursing can be. "Nursing isn't one of those monotonous jobs where every day is the same. You never know what the day will bring and I really enjoy that, although of course it can also be demanding," she explains.

Won a prize for her final project

Lovísa says she also learned a lot from the incredible people she met on the programme. "Not just my fellow students and the instructors at the Faculty, but also my colleagues at the hospital and other healthcare institutions. During the programme, we do a lot of practical training modules, which is another of the highlights in my opinion.  Studying nursing opens up an incredibly diverse range of work environments after graduation, so it's great to get that insight and try out various jobs while you're a student," says Lovísa, who works on the cardiology ward 14EG at Landspítali University Hospital and has done alongside her studies for almost three years.

"I am grateful for the experience I've gained there. I've learned so much and met so many wonderful colleagues. They are great role models and they encourage me to succeed. After graduating, I've also attended board meetings for the ICNP Research and Development Centre in Iceland in connection with my final project," says Lovísa. This final project earned Lovísa a prize from the Faculty of Nursing and Midwifery.

ICNP (International Classification for Nursing Practice) is an international terminology classification system, developed by the International Council of Nurses to promote standardised nursing records. The Directorate of Health has decided to implement the system here in Iceland, which has required a lot of preparatory work. "There is still a lot to do before the system can be formally adopted. It will be interesting to see how that work continues and evolves and it's exciting to be part of it," says Lovísa.

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Asked whether she intends to pursue further studies in nursing, Lovísa says that she hasn't ruled anything out. However, she believes it's important to take some time after the undergraduate degree to get some experience as a working nurse before making any decisions about further specialisation. "There are such a lot of possibilities within nursing and I think it's important to get a sense for what you really want to do before committing to further study. As things stand, I do want to do a graduate degree. But as to which field, time will tell," she concludes. 

You can check the programme for the nursing half-centennial celebration, held in the Ceremonial Hall of the Main Building, here.
Register for the event here.

Sóley S. Bender and Lovísa Snorradóttir