Iceland’s top university paving the way forward

Iceland’s top university paving the way forward

Ari Kristinn Jónsson, President, Reykjavik University, supports that Iceland’s traditional characteristics set considerable niche spaces for its higher education system


You have been serving as President of Reykjavik University for over 10 years now. You have a strong foot into innovation, since you started your career in the Silicon Valley, spent 16 years there during the advent of the world wide web, including 10 years working at NASA. How are you infusing this culture of innovation into the university and implementing some of the best practices around innovation and research into the university?

I consider myself very lucky to have ended up at Reykjavik University, because it fits very well with my background in innovation, and is a university focused on having real impact. The university is still young, founded in 1988, and is thus only just over 20 years old. The innovative thinking element has been part of the university right from the beginning, especially in terms of the education that we offer, how we do research and how we work with industry and society.

When it comes to education, we want to give our students the best know-how for the modern world and for the future, but we also want to teach them how to innovate, how to be entrepreneurs, how to create their own opportunities. We need to go beyond preparing them as well as possible for existing jobs, because the world is changing so fast. We are a very good research university and produce a lot of highly cited resources, but what we really focus on is how that knowledge generation can create new opportunities for Icelandic businesses, and for society as a whole.


Recently the university has been ranked amongst the 350 best universities in the world in the Times Higher Education World University Ranking. It is #1 in Iceland and #1 in citations worldwide, which is a strong indicator of the quality of research conducted and of its tremendous impact on science and society. What are some of your key strengths or specialty areas at the university that explain this ranking and your distinctions as a research institution?

We are a focused university, emphasizing areas where we believe we can have an impact on society and industry. Our research covers everything from highly theoretical aspects to very practical output that is being used by companies, and everything in between. Our mindset is that we want to have an impact with our research. This has been a key driver for us, and has landed us in the spot where we are, being the most cited university in the world for research, while also being considered a great partner by companies in Iceland to work with, a great catalyst to create new startups and a contributor to the development of the economy.


Reykjavik University is also quite active in terms of sustainability research. Could you tell me more about the specific programs or projects that you are running in that field? How does RU position itself in that subject matter?

The focus on sustainability goes back to the idea of wanting to have an impact. As the university grew domestically, we saw the positive impact that we were having through the number of domestic students coming to university, but we also want to have an impact on a larger scale, in the world.

One of the areas that Iceland is very well known for is sustainable energy. Through our collaboration with industry – especially the energy industry and related industries – we put together a very strong and internationally appealing program in sustainable energy and energy engineering. We started offering this program about 12 years ago, and it has been growing ever since, with many more students applying today than we can possibly admit. One of the fundamental elements within this program is that we have qualified researchers who make real advances in terms of utilization of geothermal power, in terms of managing power consumption, in terms of the logistics of changing from carbon-based to electric-based clean energy, etc. All of these things, combined with the practical aspects that the companies bring, contribute to make the program so successful. We are applying this same recipe in most of our programs at the university: mixing the theory and what the students need to learn with a practical approach that they need to have when going into industry. It has been successful, for all our international programs.


What would be some of the key projects that you are particularly proud of in terms of research?

My background is in artificial intelligence, so even though I am not an active researcher myself anymore, I can most easily talk about this area. We are doing great work in computer science research, artificial intelligence, theoretical computer science and many other areas. We have been doing fantastic research as well in engineering, including the energy sector and related aspects. Another example is biomedical engineering where we are bringing technology to the health industry and thus helping hospitals, doctors and others to apply technology to real problems. We have a very strong research in psychology and well-being, and in particular we collaborate closely with an entity focusing on the well-being of young people that has been ongoing for a long time. We play a key role in research in law, which is mostly a domestic field of course, but we are very proud of our law research and some of it is attracting international attention to Iceland, for example when we get to natural resources, etc. We really have a lot of strength in the many different areas that we are working in.


You mentioned that the university is actively working with industry partners. What kind of efforts are you doing to expand your partnerships with other universities across the world, but also with other industrial partners at global level to really accelerate your research and development? In other words, how globalized is an institution like Reykjavik University?

From the very foundation of the university, international collaboration has been a key component of our research programs, of our study programs and all our activities. We have, as far as I know, the highest ratio of publications co-authored with international collaborators – at least among all of the universities in the Nordics and probably of all of the universities in Europe. This international collaboration, both in study program development and research, has gotten us to where we are today, despite being a small university. We have international collaborations in North America, Europe and much further afield. We attract students from all six inhabited continents into our programs. Nonetheless, we are building the development of international collaborations with industry partners slowly and carefully. We carefully select partners we have worked with to send our students to, for internships and one-term sessions. Also, while we have plenty of international industrial partners that are important, our primary focus has been on working with industry partners here in Iceland.


Are you looking at introducing more dual diploma or dual curricula in the future?

We already have joint degrees and dual degrees with other universities and we continue to work actively on strengthening our collaboration with universities, both in Europe and North America, so as to offer our students more opportunities, and for us to be an opportunity for international students to come and do part of their studies here in Iceland.


This has been quite an eventful year to say the least, with the COVID-19 outbreak. Aside from its dramatic health and economic consequences and looking at the positive side of things, this crisis has been a big catalyst for schools, universities and educative institutions as a whole, making them leap forward in terms of technology utilization and digitalization. What have been the main lessons learned from the crisis for Reykjavik University? How has the pandemic changed the course of things, programs and learnings, and how do you see the year ahead?

A major thing we have learned over those last few months is that we can actually execute even faster than we thought was possible. Before the outbreak, the University already had a clear strategy for development, revolving around the use of digital technology, shorter programs and a variety of other ways to meet and answer future demand on the university. Like everywhere else, we made long-term plans about how we were going to implement this and put it into effect. But then when you get a two weeks’ notice for making everything digital, it turns out you can actually do a lot of things really, really quickly.

For the next couple of semesters, we will continue building on this development, and we will work to ensure the highest quality possible for our student experience, given these various teaching and education methods. Our approach is very much founded on mixing education on site with digital education. We have always been very centered on projects, teaching students how to collaborate with students from different fields, how to work with companies. Some of these things you just have to do in person, with proper oversight. There is also a very strong social aspect to being at a university. We are working very hard to create the highest quality that we can, with this blended approach to doing part of it on-site and, because of the limitations, having to do part of it remotely.


The field of education is becoming more and more competitive with thousands of universities out there, all of them competing in terms or programs, research, ranking, etc. What is RU’s strategy to attract international students, but also world-class professors, researchers and talents?

When it comes to attracting international talent, we work very hard to use and implement international standards for how we do our research, for how we do our evaluations, to be internationally demanding of ourselves and those working here. That is in terms of how we set up our rules, systems and promotions, but also in accreditations and collaborations with other international universities. Being in a small country, it is very important to have reference points from abroad to compare yourself to and to develop yourself to the highest standards. I think that really helps us attract international talent. Iceland also helps: we are very lucky with the location that we have. We’re located in a safe, modern, advanced and beautiful country that is easily connected with Europe and North America. This makes it a good place for people to come and live – our excellent social support systems, our high gender equality ratio all contribute to make Iceland a very attractive location to work and live.

In terms of attracting international students, competition is extremely tough. There are so many universities offering international programs. Instead of going straight forward and competing with everybody on everything, we tried to find out where Iceland and Reykjavik University could provide added value that others would have a hard time providing to international students. The attractiveness of Iceland as a good place to live and study also helps. We have been quite successful in attracting international students to the programs that we offer, but this is an on-going effort, and we are nowhere near being done. We will continue on this path for the years to come.


What are your top priorities for the mid-term future? What are your biggest ambitions for the university for the next five years or so?

One of our priorities is obviously the implementation of the new strategy that we have defined for the University, regarding education, knowledge creation and dissemination through research and innovation. Executing on this vision will be a main focus over the next few years. Secondly, we will do our part in helping address the current economic situation, by pushing new opportunities for students to the forefront. For example, we want to get them study in new areas, enable them to take short degrees, provide training to make them more competitive in the job market, etc. We want to push even further our focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. We want to be at the forefront to help to create new companies, new jobs and new opportunities.


What is your final message to our readers, to conclude this interview?

Having lived in the Silicon Valley for 16 years and then moving back to Iceland, I actually fully realize all of the benefits that this country has to offer in terms of environment. As a native from Iceland, I have always been aware of the small size or our country, and of the issues that come with it. Yet I feel that even though Iceland remains small, the opportunities that we have here, the high standard of living, the connections that we have with the rest of the world, the quality of education and the possibilities around entrepreneurship and innovation, are big. This makes Iceland a fantastic place to study, to innovate and to work.