"We must remember that in times of great upheaval and technological revolution, such as we are living through now, there are boundless opportunities for people with a good education. Universities are the driving forces in innovation, industry, and public life, especially when there is much at stake."
So said Jón Atli Benediktsson, Rector of the University of Iceland, at the Graduation for 2,050 undergraduate and postgraduate students at Laugardalshöll today. Emphasis was placed on keeping the event safe with regard to infection prevention and it was organised in consultation with public health authorities.
The Rector expressed particular thanks to University students and staff for how well they had responded to some of the most challenging circumstances in the history of the University of Iceland. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic severely restricted all operations at the University, but academic and administrative staff strived to maintain high standards in teaching and examinations.
"In a very short period, we lost a lot of the things we take for granted. These are certainly not optimal conditions for concentrating on your studies or a demanding final project," said the Rector, "on the contrary, such conditions generally foster hopelessness and increased drop-out rates. What is wonderful is that evidence indicates that student progression and achievement at the University of Iceland has generally been no worse this year than last year."
Jón Atli referred to the national poet Jónas Hallgrímsson, the first person to use the Icelandic word 'seigla' ('tenacity'), praising in particular the tenacity of students in dealing with adversity this past spring semester. He said that students had played a huge part in how successfully University operations were transformed, almost overnight. Jón Atli also said that he was convinced that the students' experience of the past winter and spring would serve them well in the future, leaving them stronger and with a deeper understanding of that which truly matters in life.
Importance of education and research
In his address to the candidates today, the Rector also discussed the importance of universities and education, and not least research and innovation. He said that without the tireless endeavours of scientists through the ages, we would have been completely defenceless against the coronavirus.
"Most technical innovations and discoveries that have improved our lives in one way or another have their origins in universities. Universities are also the source of new movements and ideologies that have revolutionised our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. In circumstances such as these, characterised by great upheaval and transformation in every part of society, we must hold to those enduring values that make life worth living: justice, friendship, and freedom. We must defend these values every day, because they cannot be taken for granted."
Jón Atli also drew attention to the influence of the University of Iceland in Icelandic society, not least in recent weeks and months in the struggle against COVID-19. He said that scientists at the University of Iceland had quickly managed to design a prediction model which described the development of the epidemic here in Iceland with great accuracy, which made it easier for the authorities to respond in the right way. "Due to the high level of education in Iceland, we have the good fortune to be able to base our decisions and responses on the best substantiated scientific data. Scientists, particularly at deCODE genetics, the University of Iceland and Landspítali University Hospital, were among the first to shed light on the development and spread of this viral disease, with their research attracting global attention. When the stakes are high, that is when it really matters to be able to rely on robust scientific knowledge."
Unemployment – education is the answer
Jón Atli also talked about the dramatic increase in temporary unemployment here in Iceland and pointed out that this has led to a huge demand for higher education. "Applications for undergraduate programmes at the University of Iceland for the autumn of 2020 have increased by more than 20% compared to last year, and applications for postgraduate programmes have increased by no less than 50%," said the Rector. "I am convinced that this significant rise in demand will bring us new opportunities to grow and develop, if we unite to protect our values and the standards of higher education in these difficult times."
The singer GDRN performed two songs at the Graduation Ceremony today and the Rector quoted from her poem about spring. "Allar leiðir liggja sama veg, held að samferð okkur fari vel (All paths lead the same way, I think our journey together will go well)," said Jón Atli, adding that the time students and University staff had spent together had been particularly fruitful this year.
“Your tenacity and the great education you have received will get you far.”