A visit to Svalbard

Tuesday 24. February 2015 | By: Ingi Björn Guðnason

University Centre of the Westfjords Administrative director of education and teaching, Kristín Ósk Jónasdóttir, and Academic Director of Coastal and Marine Management, Dagný Arnarsdóttir recently made a visit to their colleagues at the University Centre of Svalbard, based in the Norwegian town of Longyearbyen. The Svalbard islands lie at 78° north, which is 12° further north than Ísafjörður.

To get to Svalbard, Kristín and Dagný had to take four flights—a journey which usually takes about 48 hours, including stops. They had a layover in Tromsø, where they needed to go through passport control, because Svalbard is under international treaty and not part of Schengen like the rest of Norway.

During their winter visit it was dark all day long, though it is possible to see dark grey smudges at the edge of the sky under the right circumstances. The islands hold a return of the sun festival every March. Luckily, there are plenty of things for winter tourists to do, despite the fact that there is total darkness for several months. There are, for example, dog sledding trips on offer, snowmobiling and skiing. Northern lights tours are also popular. Meanwhile, the summer means a stream of large cruise ships bringing crowds to the streets of the town.

Svalbard is a tax and duty free area, meaning there is very good shopping on offer for such a small community. Around 2,000 people call Longyearbyen home. Around a third of them work in mining, a third in research, and a third in tourism and other services. The town’s demographic is different to most other places and the majority of the residents are young people. Interestingly, there are three pre-schools in the town. Svalbard is the northernmost community on the planet with a permanent civilian population.

The University Centre of Svalbard (UNIS)

The University Centre of Svalbard (UNIS) offers location-specific courses in biology and geography and teaching takes place in English. Around 500 students study each year at the Centre, and students can study there for no more than one term and many come for just one or two courses—though master’s and doctoral students spend longer on Svalbard conducting their research.

The Norwegian government’s generous support of the University Centre is plain to see and the school is excellently equipped with all the technology and tools needed for field studies in an Arctic climate. According to its annual report from 2013, the Norwegian education ministry invests about NOK 112 million a year in UNIS; which is around ISK 2 billion at present exchange rates.

There are large-scale economic changes taking place in Longyearbyen, as the importance of mining is set to diminish in the future. Norwegian authorities are searching for ways to support the community through these fast workplace and employment changes, and UNIS is at the heart of the ongoing project.

The University Centre of the Westfjords is very thankful for the warm welcome given by colleagues at UNIS. The visit was, without any doubt, the beginning of even closer co-operation and further student exchanges; though several University Centre of the Westfjords students have already taken courses at UNIS in Svalbard. In addition to this, one regular University of the Westfjords lecturer comes from UNIS.

The Norwegian-Icelandic Science Co-operation Fund also receives thanks for its financial support for this visit.