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Short History of the University

1911–1920: From seedlings grow mighty oaks

Great optimism prevailed at the founding of the University of Iceland on the centenary of Jón Sigurðsson's birth because everyone agreed it would become a key institution in shaping Icelandic nationalism and be a basis of an independent state in the 20th century. The school was relatively well endowed at its start because the funding for each student was more generous the first years than at any time since in the University's history.

The main complaint of those at the University was that it had no building for its operations and therefore had to make due with the lower floor of the Althingi Building housing Iceland's Parliament. Since there were only just over 40 students, and few subjects were taught – theology, medicine, law and Old Norwegian/Old Icelandic, in addition to philosophical logic – this was deemed sufficient in the beginning.

The University's first Rector, Björn M. Ólsen, Professor of Icelandic Grammar and Cultural History, interpreted the view of the University leadership well in his inaugural address for the school on 17 June 1911. He reminded the audience that although the school was one of the smallest and most imperfect universities in the world, it aimed at becoming a full-fledged member of the “republic of the sciences,” i.e., the international community of universities, at the same time as it would serve Iceland as a nursery of culture and the entire nation's educational institution.

1921–1930: Public officials' school in straitjacket

In the early 1920s the number of registered students at the University exceeded 100 for the first time, and many then thought this was a large enough number of students. People predicted that the country would soon become an “educated proletariat mass” that would be no good to Icelandic society. Ideas therefore emerged on limiting enrolment at the University although most university people would choose to address the problem by increasing the number of majors at the school rather than limiting the number of students.

However, no changes could be made to the University's operations until it received its own building because the crowded situation in the Althingi Building prevented all innovation. Nothing happened on this matter until toward the end of the decade since the government long emphasised thrift in the State's operations. This could be seen, for example, in the cuts made in the number of teacher positions at the University.

In the 1920s students began an organised fight for their interests; the University of Iceland's Student Council was founded in 1920. The main issue the first years was the construction of a student dormitory at the University, but the Student Council also ran a student restaurant, Mensa academica, in the 1920s.

1931–1940: Skies clear

There was some tension between the University of Iceland and the government in the 1930s. The Minister of Education repeatedly meddled in the hiring of teachers at the school, but from the very beginning the University's leaders had heavily emphasised the institution's independence from the State.

The government was also unenthusiastic about university people's ideas about strengthening research at the school, for the University Council proposed in 1934 that a research institute be founded under the University's direction that would engage in applied research for the economy. This was not approved because the University's Faculty of Applied Sciences was actually not connected with the school.

However, the tone of communications between the University and the government was not always negative because with the passage of the University Building Construction Act, the school's construction agenda finally began moving forward, not least in 1933 after passage of the Act on the University of Iceland's Lottery. Here, the University benefited from the support of Minister of Culture Jónas Jónsson from Hrifla.

When the act was first introduced, it was assumed that the University would be located in Skólavörðuholt, but in accordance with Reykjavík's Mayor Knud Zimsen's proposal, the University campus was moved to the Melar above Vatnsmýri.

The first building related to the University that was built in the area was a student dormitory (later Gamli-Garður) which was opened in the autumn of 1934, and in 1936 the cornerstone for the University Building was laid. Better times were in the offing.

1941–1950: University Building

The University Building was consecrated on 17 June 1940 and was regarded as one of the most magnificent buildings in the country at that time. The building opened great possibilities for new operations at the University. This was fortunate because many of the countries that Icelandic university students applied to were closed during the Second World War. There was therefore great need for a more diverse university curriculum in Iceland.

During the war, teaching began in engineering, business administration, and dentistry at the University and also for BA degrees in various subjects in the humanities in the Faculty of Arts.

Throughout this decade, the number of students increased rapidly, not least in the Faculty of Arts, where in the autumn of 1950 there were 630 students registered at the University of Iceland. During these years, a growing proportion of women characterised the students registering at the University, but very few women engaged in studies at the University of Iceland before the Second World War.

The number of teachers also grew rapidly during the war years, for the University then took the first steps from being a school solely for public officials to one providing general basic education at the university level.

1951–1960: Lull before the storm

After the University's rapid growth during and after the Second World War, in the 1950s the University of Iceland's operations somewhat stagnated. During this decade, the number of students increased slowly since the student classes were rather small. There were also few innovations in teaching at the University, and the funding per student continuously decreased in real terms.

The University authorities' repeated attempts to increase research and teaching in natural history and other natural sciences, which was manifested, for example, in their determination to build a museum of natural science on University's grounds. However, the desire to link the activities of the Icelandic Museum of Natural History with the school came to nothing.

Nevertheless, toward the end of the decade changes seemed to be in the offing. The first indication of the University's Science Institute came in 1958, when a radiation laboratory was established. Moreover, under a new University Act, which was passed the year before, a professorship in physics was established at the Faculty of Engineering.

In the 1960s, courses also began to be taught in various natural sciences toward a BA degree in the Faculty of Arts; this curriculum was especially intended for future teachers in compulsory and upper secondary schools.

1961–1970: Frameworks burst

The University of Iceland celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1961 in a new and magnificent cinema, Háskólabíó at Hagatorg Plaza.

The school then stood on the threshold of a new period. New waves of students were expected the next several years. This materialised, and the number of registered students at the University nearly doubled the next decade. This could be attributed to the rise in the birth rate occurring in Iceland during and after the Second World War.

There were no fundamental changes in the school's operations during this decade. The only addition was the Faculty of Business Administration, created when the Faculty of Law and Business Administration was split in 1962.

However, in these years, a foundation was laid for a revolution in the school's organisation, not least through the work of the University Committee, which submitted an extensive report in 1969 on the University's future. The same year the name of the Faculty of Engineering was changed to the Faculty of Engineering and Natural Sciences, for the teaching of natural sciences had been moved from the Faculty of Arts to the Faculty of Engineering.

Toward the end of the decade, there were loud student protests on both sides of the Atlantic, identified with the year 1968, and distant reverberations from them reached Iceland. The problems were the same everywhere, i.e., a constantly growing number of students in schools organised for tiny privileged groups.

1971–1980: School of basic education

Although the University of Iceland was originally a school for public officials, by the end of the 1960s, it had long offered a basic curriculum in certain subjects.

The 1970s saw a change in the nature of the University when the basic curriculum became an ever larger part of the school's curriculum offering. The Faculty of Arts cleared the way for this around the mid-1960s when the BA degree became a three-year curriculum in all subjects taught in the Faculty. In 1970, a BS degree was initiated in subjects in the natural sciences at the Faculty of Engineering and Natural Sciences, and the same year, a major in sociology was established, which became a recognised University faculty in 1976; a BA degree was offered there in several social science fields.

In 1973, teaching in nursing was initiated, and in 1976 special courses in physiotherapy related to the Faculty of Medicine were established. Another change in the University's work was students' ever-growing participation on the school's boards and councils.

Students first had a limited right to participate on the University Council in 1957, but in the 1970s they had become active on all levels of the University community, from curriculum committees, organising teaching in quite a number of subjects, to the University Council. At the same time, growing radicalism amongst students became noticeable, which began in the wake of student uprisings in Europe in 1968.

1981–1990: University for all?

In 1936 the Building Committee for the new University Building forecast that half a century later, i.e., around the mid-1980s, there would be 400-500 students at the University of Iceland. This proved to be a complete underestimation of the school's trend. There were ten times more students than forecast in the winter of 1985-1986;  nearly 4500 students were then registered at the University of Iceland – 100 times more students than in the school's first year of operation.

This great increase in the number of students far exceeded the increase in Iceland's population and clearly reflected changed attitudes toward education. In Iceland, as in neighbouring countries, a university education is no longer viewed as the privilege of a small group of people appointed to the highest positions in the state's administrative system, but rather it is deemed to be necessary preparation for many kinds of work in society.

The increasing number of students also bears witness to the fact that a university education was no longer the privilege of men as it had been in the University's first decades of operation, despite a legal right to gender equality in schooling and public offices.

In the 1980s, the number of women students even began exceeding the number of male students in both enrolments and graduations at the University of Iceland. Changes in the group of teachers were slower because at the end of the decade, women were still less than 5% of the professors.

1991–2000: Research university

From the beginning, it was the University of Iceland's ideal to be a research university since teaching and research are inseparable aspects of the operations of all real universities. For the longest time, teachers nevertheless got little leeway for research, and an actual research curriculum was only offered in a very few subjects.

Toward the end of the last century, a concerted effort was made to change this, both by initiating Master's and doctoral programmes in all the school's faculties and with specific incentives for teachers demonstrating good productivity in research. The research curriculum was built up slowly in the 1990s; 16 students in two of the school's faculties were registered in Master's and doctoral programmes at the beginning of the decade, but by the end of the decade, there were over 500 in all faculties.

Another innovation in the University's work in the 1990s was increased emphasis on international collaboration. The University has long benefited from most of its teachers obtaining part of their education abroad, and the University has in this way been an international institution from the start.

Through increased participation in international educational efforts, under the auspices of both the Nordic Council of Ministers and the European Economic Area, the University has become connected with the rest of the world in a new way.

Now Iceland and Icelandic universities are no longer solely recipients in international educational efforts. In fact, for quite some time, the University of Iceland has accepted more foreign students than it has sent abroad with grants from Nordic and European education plans.

2001–2011: "Citizen in the great respublica scientiarum?"

In his inaugural address in 1911 Björn M. Ólsen voiced his dream that the University of Iceland would eventually become an active participant in the republic of the sciences – respublica scientiarum – and that it could "make its contribution to world culture, discover new lands in the realm of the sciences, in cooperation with other universities."

Through growing international collaboration and more diverse research and research curricula, the school appears to be moving closer to this goal. In 2006, the University of Iceland set the long-term goal of becoming one of the 100 best universities in the world, as measured by international standards. This ambitious goal partially reflects the unrealistic optimism characterising Icelandic society in the years before the economic collapse in 2008, but it also bears witness to fundamental changes occurring at the University at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.

With dynamic research and a broad offering of curricula at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, the University now certainly lives up to its name; it is a university – universitas – as Rector Ólsen foresaw in 1911. This has to be deemed something of an accomplishment for the school's first century of operation, given the rating of it by the University's first rector as “not only one of the world's youngest universities but also one of the smallest and most imperfect."

Author: Guðmundur Hálfdanarson, Historian at the University of Iceland.