Education Is Our Best Investment

First elected to parliament in 2007, Katrín Jakobsdóttir currently stands as one of Icelandʼs most passionate advocates for education. A graduate of the University of Iceland, Katrín served as Icelandʼs Minister of Education from 2009-2013, successfully leading the nation’s education sector through the worst economic collapse in Iceland’s history. She is not only an accomplished politician and scholar, who chairs the Left-Green Party in parliament, but also a busy mother of three children, which gives her a personal stake in the success of Iceland’s public schools and universities. She took time out of her hectic schedule to discuss her tenure as a member of parliament and her hopes for the future of education in Iceland. 

The value of effective communication  

Katrín credits her studies at the University of Iceland for preparing her for a career in politics. “I started out as a French major because I was planning on moving to France, but then I switched over to Icelandic literature, which I am very happy about,” she says. “I think education empowers people to be successful, and being able to communicate effectively in any language is a necessary skill for those entering the workforce. I always purposed to participate in extra-curricular activities in college, like the Student Council, which taught me how to work well with others.”

She remembers two courses in particular that made a lasting impact on her. “My favorite classes were a course in literary theory and a later course about folk tales. I think literary theory is important because it teaches one to be analytical. It was eye-opening to realize how many different interpretations of a book are possible. I always found the psychology behind folk tales incredibly fascinating. I become very Freudian when I am reading literature.” 

She gives the following advice to students who want to follow in her footsteps and pursue a career in public service. “I think you have to look at working in public service two ways,” she explains. “Remember that it is a public service—your decisions must always serve the will of the public—and be willing to compromise. When you propose a motion in parliament, for example, you must be willing to listen to other opinions and be ready to make amendments to find the best solution for the country.”

Safe and happy in school

A tireless advocate for education, Katrín still has many opinions about how to improve Iceland’s public schools and what Iceland does particularly well with regards to education. “Of course the education sector suffered tremendous budget cuts during the financial crisis of 2008,” she recalls. “Now the state of our nation’s economic affairs has improved, so strengthening the university system should be a top priority for the government. I truly believe it’s the best investment our country can make. It’s not only about helping the students but it’s also about creating opportunities for the future. Right now we are focused on improving our scores on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test, but we must also remember that there are elements not measured in PISA that we are doing well. For example, students report that they feel safe and happy in their schools. We have in the past decades had superb access to education in the arts as well, and we see the products of that throughout Iceland’s thriving art scene.”

Rewarding but few surprises

She describes a typical day as Iceland’s Minister of Education and if there is anything she misses about the position. “A typical day was loaded with meetings, so I was kept on a tight schedule. There were seldom many surprises in a day because I never had five minutes to take a break! I don’t miss that because I actually like surprises,” she says. “However, I miss how as a minister I had the role of building something up. I was minister during the worst economic crisis in Icelandic history, but I could make important policy decisions and, thus, make a big difference. I find it actually much more fulfilling and rewarding to build something up rather than just spend time criticizing the majority coalition.”

Education in crisis

During her service as a member of parliament, Katrín passed a landmark legislation that helped preserve the Icelandic language and enabled the unemployed to further their education. “I helped pass a law making Icelandic and Icelandic Sign Language the official mother tongue of Icelanders, which I felt was important for the perseveration of our language,” she explains. “As minister, I had the responsibility of creating the curriculum for all the primary and secondary schools in Iceland, which involved a lot of democratic meetings[…]Even though the country was going through an economic recession, we cooperated with the unions to raise the funding that the unemployed could use to go back to school and finish their education.”

Enjoying today

Outside of politics Katrín enjoys a variety of activities and hobbies. “I am a member of the Magicians Guild of Iceland and the International Brotherhood of Magicians. I enjoy performing magic tricks, even though I’m not a very good magician,” she says. “Literature, I would say, is my biggest hobby. I try to read a lot, every day. As Iceland’s Minister of Education, I learned to appreciate all of the different art forms and the arts are still a big part of my life.”

Although she has big plans for her party’s future, Katrín stresses the importance of taking life one step at a time. “The only plan I’m making is for my party, as our platform and policies are currently being rewritten,” she reports. “Outside of politics, I never have a plan. I just take one day at a time[...]It’s something I was brought up with. I could be dead tomorrow, so I try to enjoy today so that I don’t ever regret not achieving something.”