01 - Iceland - Historical overview

The foundation of the University of Iceland in 1911 marks the beginning of the modern Icelandic system of higher education. This first national university was established by merging three professional schools founded during the previous century – a school of theology, a school of medicine and a law school – and adding a new faculty of arts. Before that time Icelandic students had mainly travelled to Denmark for higher education. The University of Iceland has grown rapidly during the past century.

In 1971, the Teachers college, originally founded in 1908 was upgraded to tertiary level and changed its name to the Iceland University of Education. The main function of the institution has been research and teaching of primary school teachers. In 1987, the University of Akureyri was established in Northern Iceland and thereby becoming the first higher education institution outside the capital area. At the beginning, the institution had two faculties, for health science and insdustrial management but has grown substantially in recent years.

Agricultural education at tertiary level was first established at the Hvanneyri agricultural school in West Iceland in 1947 and the school gained university status as Agricultural University of Iceland in 1998. In the last three decades the higher education system has grown more diverse. New higher education institutions have been established and several post-secondary institutions have been upgraded to the higher education level. Thus four teacher-training institutions merged at the beginning of 1998 to form the Iceland University of Education under a 1997 law, and three art colleges merged into one in 1999 when the Academy of the Arts was founded. The Technical College of Iceland, established in 1964, gained university status under the Technical University of Iceland Act in 2002, and in 2005 it merged into Reykjavík University.

In July 2006, a new Higher Education Act was put into practice. The new Act is a framework law, covering all kinds of Higher Education Institutions, see 6.3.Laws and regulations, covering each institution within the framework Act of 2006, are currently under revision. With the Higher Education Act of 2006, the regulations of the Bologna Process are fully implemented.

A new organisation for science and technology policymaking and implementation was established in Iceland in 2003. The Icelandic Research Council, which had functioned for 62 years, was superseded by the Science and Technology Policy Council, which is headed by the Prime Minister of Iceland and includes three other ministers, i.e. the Ministers of Education and Science, of Industry and Trade, and of Finance. Fourteen other representatives of the science and industrial community sit on the new Council. The secretariat of the previous Research Council, retains its well-known acronym (RANNÍS) and logo and continues its operational support for scientific research and innovation under the new system. It will for example handle the grants allocation of the Research Fund (created by merging the previous Science Fund and the Technology Fund) under the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, as well as the new Technology Development Fund under the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Short Tertiary Education Programmes

 From the foundation of the University of Iceland in 1911, higher education institutions in the country have mainly offered undergraduate programmes that last from 3-4 years. Students had to go abroad for their postgraduate studies, although the number of post graduate programmes has multiplied in recent years.

Long Tertiary Education Programmes

Over the last decade institutions of higher education have increasingly started to offer postgraduate programmes. This has been to meet demand from society for more education and to accommodate an increasing number of students. However, programmes at master’s and PhD level are still not offered in all study fields. At present two higher education institutions offer PhD degrees. In spite of this development, Icelandic students continue to travel abroad for their postgraduate studies.


University of Iceland
Iceland Academy of the Arts
Iceland University of Education
Ministry of Industry and Trade
Reykjavík University
Science and Technology Policy Council
Technical University of Iceland

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Date: 2009
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