The Public Role of Universities


  • Trausti Þorsteinsson
  • Sigurður Kristinsson
  • Hjördís Sigursteinsdóttir



Role of universities, academic freedom, autonomy of universities, communalworking obligations, performance evaluation.


This article presents research on how Icelandic university staff understand the role of the university and the service they owe to society as part of their job. The results are measured against four university traditions or ideologies, named after Cardinal Newman, Wilhelm Humboldt, St. Thomas Aquinas and Napoleon Bonaparte. A questionnaire was sent to all academic staff and specialists at Icelandic universities. The results strongly indicate that the basic values of the Humboldt university are strongly entrenched in the community of Icelandic academics. They emphasize that a university ought to be a force of criticism in society, and they share the vision that a university is an independent, academic zone of immunity, where academic freedom is of fundamental value. A large majority believes it is important to establish rules for governing the funding of university positions. This indicates concerns that university funding is becoming increasingly dependent on wealthy special interests with the consequence that researchers, specialists, teachers and students have less than full freedom to seek the truth in every matter. The working environment of Icelandic academics is also criticized, including the systematic evaluation of the effectiveness of university teachers and specialists, which determines their wages and promotion opportunities. Being directly linked with the academic workers‘ material interests, this evaluation system has a controlling influence. Its use appears problematic because it turns out that the incentives it creates seem to be at odds with the professional ideals that university staff adhere to concerning their participation in communal discourse.

Author Biographies

Trausti Þorsteinsson

Assistant Professor, University of Akureyri.

Sigurður Kristinsson

Professor, University of Akureyri.

Hjördís Sigursteinsdóttir

Specialist, UNAK's Research and Development Centre.



How to Cite

Þorsteinsson, T., Kristinsson, S., & Sigursteinsdóttir, H. (2012). The Public Role of Universities. Icelandic Review of Politics & Administration, 8(2), 281–302.



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