Access to education supports social innovation and competitiveness and, just as importantly, societies should be able to offer attractive and diverse job options, or an environment and conditions which engender a variety of professional opportunities (Byggðastofnun [Icelandic Regional Development Institute], 2013). In the case of Iceland, course offerings at university level were restricted to the capital well into the 1980s. In 1987 the University of Akureyri (UNAK) was established, resulting in greater availability of university education. Today, those who decide to embark on programmes of academic study in Iceland have a choice of seven universities, four of which are outside the area of the capital (Ólafsdóttir & Jónasson, 2017). This situation goes hand in hand with a constantly growing emphasis on the accessibility of a university education, seeing this as a significant aspect of the development of viable communities and sustainable economies in the Nordic regions (Johnsen, Torjesen & Ennals, 2015, p.10).
During the past few decades three main trends have characterised the development of university studies in Iceland. Firstly, the main growth in student numbers has been at postgraduate level (Sigþórsson, 2011). Secondly, a significantly larger number of women than men now embark on university studies and, finally, one should note the wide-ranging age of students at Icelandic universities (Ólafsdóttir & Jónasson, 2017). Probably both the latter trends have been largely caused by rapid progress in information technology which has enabled universities to offer study programmes which do not require students to reside locally. There is no doubt that the incentive to use information technology for more flexible course offerings relates to the residential patterns outlined above. Besides, the universities have seen this added flexibility as a response to growing competition due to the increased number of academic institutions (Ólafsdóttir, 2004; 2007). At the same time, however, attention has become more focused on how well students are prepared to embark on academic study with regard to family circumstances, work and financial situation (Ólafsdóttir & Jónasson, 2017). Thus, it is a significant challenge for those who organise academic study programmes to create circumstances which enable the students to complete their studies and to ensure that the education they have invested in is relevant to their professional fields.
The paper presents a two phased single case study which has the aim of identifying factors which either help or hinder the study progress of students studying for a university degree at postgraduate level. The focus is on various aspects of the postgraduate programmes offered, such as organisation of study, geographical and establishment-related factors, as well as personal circumstances.
The postgraduate programmes offered at the University of Akureyri [UNAK] was the case selected for the study. Both authors hold academic positions at this particular establishment and anticipate that the results of the research can contribute to quality improvement work at the institution as well as in the field in general. In phase I, individual interviews were conducted with 13 students who had graduated during the period 2010-2016. In phase II, approximately same number of students attending their second year of master´s studies in the school-year 2018-2019 were interviewed. Purposeful sampling was used in both cases wherein residence was taken into account, in order to ensure the most even geographical spread that could be achieved as well as making sure that the interviewees were relatively evenly distributed between the postgraduate study programmes offered at UNAK. The interviews were mostly conducted face-to-face, but where this arrangement was not viable the Skype communication software was used. The interviews were recorded and took 45-60 minutes each. Subsequently the interviews were transcribed and uploaded into the software NVivo for further processing. When analysing the data, attempts have been made to discover patterns and main themes which might indicate factors influencing the interviewees’ study progress.
In analysing the interviews conducted in phase I, the following principal themes revealed: Geographical factors: although the students reside in different regions of the country, sometimes at a considerable distance from the University of Akureyri, geographical factors did not appear of high significance regarding the students’ academic progress. Organisation of study: Most of the students chose a particular study path because it had an interrupted time series design; dividing the course into local study phases, or blocks, at certain intervals. Sometimes this was the decisive element in their choice. Teaching and study assessment: Students expressed the view that working on assignments and working in groups was more effective for their study progress than lectures and exams. Students also mentioned that methods of assessment could be better adjusted to students’ creative abilities. A large majority of participants made special mention of the fact that they much preferred assessment by practical projects as compared to examinations. Network of contact and communication: The research revealed that the network of links the students developed during their course of study appeared to strongly influence their study progress. All the participants mentioned that the study and its organisation encouraged them to communicate with their peers. Personal circumstances and their impact on study progress: Most of the students expressed the view that support from spouse and parents had been a conclusive factor in the successful completion of their academic programme. The analysis of the interviews with the latter group is still in progress, and will be reflected in the above reported findings as to seek elaboration and enhancement of the results from phase one. The research was funded by the Ministry of Welfare, Equal Opportunity Fund.
Byggðastofnun [Icelandic Regional Development Institute]. (2013). Byggðaþróun á Íslandi, STÖÐUGREINING 2013, [Status of reginonal development in Iceland, 2013]. Fylgirit með stefnumótandibyggðaáætlun 2014-2017. Retrieved from: https://www.byggdastofnun.is/static/files/Skyrslur/stodugreining-2013-11-11.pdf Johnsen,H. Chr. G., Torjesen, S., & Ennals, R. (2015). Higher Education in a Sustainable Society: Addressing Knowledge Disparities and Enabling Debate. In H. Chr. G. Johnsen, S. Torjesen & R. Ennals (Eds.), Higher Education in a Sustainable Society. A Case for Mutual Competence Building (pp.1-16). Dordrecht: Springer. Ólafsdóttir, A. (2004). Mat á notkun upplýsinga- og samskiptatækni í námi og kennslu í Háskólanum á Akureyri [The use of ICT in studying and teaching in the University of Akureyri - an evaluation]. Uppeldi og menntun [Pedagogy and Education], 13, 147-167. Ólafsdóttir, A. (2007). Change agents in the contemporary university: How do forces of change such as ICT impact upon developments and quality within higher education systems? Netla - Online Journal on Pedagogy and Education. Ólafsdóttir, A. & Jónasson, J. T. (2017). Quality assurance in a small HE system: Is the Icelandic system in some ways special? In S. Georgios, K. M. Joshi, & S. Paivandi (Eds.), Quality assurance in higher education: A global perspective (pp. 203-226). Delhi: Studera Press. Sigþórsson, G. (2011). Háskólabóla? Um námsframboð og vinsældir náms í góðæri [Universtity buble? On the supply and popularity of educational programmes in an era of prosperity]. Ritið [The Work]: Tímarit Hugvísindastofnunar [The Centre for Research in the Humanities], 11(1), 65-76.
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