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Iceland: education, research and innovation to counter economic meltdown

The fate of higher education in the current economic crisis, and higher education’s possible contribution to turning the economic tide, are hotly debated topics everywhere these days. Against this background, a recently published set of recommendations by an OECD-led expert panel for a reorientation of Iceland’s education, research and innovation policy is gaining relevance beyond this nation of a mere 300 000 in the mid-Atlantic. For, after the collapse of its banking and financial sector, Iceland is witnessing an economic meltdown of unimaginable proportions.

What do the experts propose? First, not to reduce funding for education and research (without clearly stating where the money would come from). Second, to ‘streamline’ the country’s rather scattered higher education landscape, by clustering institutions around two universities based in the capital city, and to focus on priority areas in research and innovation where the country is already something of a leader: geothermal sciences, life sciences and the ‘creative industries’. Third, to focus on a better and faster exploitation of research results by businesses, through technology and knowledge transfer, amongst others. Fourth, to strengthen science and technology policy by improving its governance and making the Prime Minister’s Office directly responsible for it. Fifth, the experts also propose a set of measures to make the nation and Icelanders abroad subscribe to the cause.

None of this sounds particularly new, but it has, around the world, characterised debates, rather than concrete reality so far. Iceland now has the chance to seriously try it out, and become something of a laboratory of higher education. As Frank Sinatra put it: if you can make it there, you’ll make it everywhere…