Written by Anna Strunk
Nestled in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Faroe Islands are a self-governing territory within the Kingdom of Denmark. The archipelago of 18 islands is populated by around 52,000 habitants, most of which speak the local tongue of Faroese. Despite its isolated and small territory, as well as their small number of inhabitants, Faroese people have a quality of life that excels that of many other countries. For instance, the unemployment rate reached a record low of 0.6% in June 2023, one of the lowest among European countries. The Faroe Islands also possess one of the lowest crime rates in the world, making it an exceedingly safe place to live and travel to. In regard to education, another crucial quality-of-life indicator given its pivotal role in empowering individuals, fostering economic prosperity, and enhancing social well-being, the Faroe Islands’ schooling system is based on the belief that everyone should have equal access to educational attainment. This translates into public free education for the whole population at all levels, from primary school to higher education. However, that being said, education in the archipelago has its problems and challenges, as pointed out by a Faroese student who moved abroad for higher education interviewed for this article, such as the limited university degrees or the nature of the small communities negatively affecting young students.
Nature of small and dispersed communities
An important topic which emerged from the interviews was the nature of the small communities in the Faroe Islands affecting kids’ academic success and well-being in school. Much research has looked into the influence of community type on a child’s academic achievements and social-behavioral skills, among others, and although none have looked at it in the specific case study of the Faroe Islands, one can draw conclusions for it too. For instance, due to their small numbers, the Faroese live in small close-knit communities, in which everyone knows each other. This means that many parents and teachers had relationships or mutual associations before they created a parent-teacher relationship. This may be good, as much research has shown that “positive connections between parents and teachers have been shown to improve children’s academic achievement, social competencies and emotional well-being”[i].
Conversely however, if a teacher harbors negative perceptions of a student’s parents, this can lead to (sometimes unconscious) stigmatization of certain children through biased teacher-student interactions possibly resulting in lower grades. For instance, the interviewee mentioned an instance in which the daughter of a known shoplifter in the Faroe Islands received stricter teaching in which it was harder for her to pass her assignments just because her last name was associated with her dad’s criminal record. Similarly, in one another instance recollected, the daughter of a beloved teacher completed high school with minimal effort due to the positive associations teachers had with her dad. Furthermore, adding to the bias problem related to pre-existing negative perceptions between teachers and parents, Witte finds that small and less densely populated communities, such as those found in the Faroe Islands, experience lower quality parent–teacher relationships than big cities, which she speculated might be due to factors such as less and limited access to partnership-building opportunities and support in rural and town areas compared to big cities[ii].
While primary schools are very accessible, with many of them throughout the various villages or even teachers traveling to kids’ homes, there are less options for gymnasium, which means students and parents have to travel greater distances to go to school or interact with teachers, potentially leading to lower attendance rates and contributing to academic difficulties, or making it less likely for parents to attend ceremonies which involve them in their child’s educational upbringing. Therefore, the nature of the small and dispersed communities in the Faroe Islands can affect kids negatively both due to pre-existing negative associations between parents and teachers, as mostly pointed out by the interviewee, as well as due issues such as the distance between schools and families, which can limit parent-teacher time for collaborative, relationship-building meetings.
Reliance on other countries for educational resources
Another main issue pointed out by the interviewees is the reliance of the Faroe Islands on Denmark and the rest of the Nordic community for educational resources and opportunities. One of the most straightforward examples of this reliance is the fact that University of the Faroe Islands (Fróðskaparsetur Føroya, in Faroese), located in the capital city of Tórshavn, only offers 16 bachelor’s degree options. This means that many students seeking a (specific) higher education after high school are forced to move to another country, often mainland Denmark, in order to pursue their choice of studies. For instance, in the academic year of 2016/2017, 1,202 students pursued their bachelor’s degree in Denmark, 173 somewhere else, and only 996 stayed in the Faroe Islands.
The necessity of relocating abroad for educational pursuits may cause disparities in the accessibility of higher education depending on socioeconomic background, as not everyone has the economic and social means to depart from the archipelago and leave friends and family behind in pursuit of advanced studies. This is most evident by the fact that Faroese people get married and have kids very early on. The interviewee pointed out that some of their friends wanted to study medicine abroad with them, but due to starting families right after high school, leaving the country was not a viable option, and thus had to give up their educational dreams and study something more accessible within the archipelago. However, the effects of socioeconomic background on the possibilities for studying abroad in regard to the Faroe Islands are yet to be researched in-depth.
This trend regarding the expatriation of Faroese students has been on the downturn however, as in 2020 1,018 students stayed in the archipelago while only 767 went elsewhere. As recounted by Linda Klein in an article for DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation), this is most likely due to young people in the Islands starting to see a future at home: the University has added new degree opportunities in recent years, and a new dorm has been built for students of the University of the Faroe Islands, making it easier and cheaper for students to find their own place in the capital. However, even if the trend is in the downturn, the reasons have not been researched in-depth and the number of students who must leave the Faroe Islands to study is still quite significant. Thus, the government needs to continue to ease the difficulty of choice young people face in the Faroe Islands between their home, family, and friends, and the pursuit of higher education for better job opportunities later in life.
Another facet of this reliance on Denmark, other Northern countries and the English-speaking world in general is the fact that little books and other educational materials are written in Faroese, and more recently more English materials have been introduced in the classroom. Danish has for most of recent history been a principal language in the Faroe Islands, with most of the population speaking it fluently, and has so far coexisted without marginalizing and diluting the Faroese language.
However, with the introduction of English into classrooms, there’s a good likelihood that the Faroese are to become a trilingual society, as evidenced already by young people code-switching between Faroese and English in everyday conversations, and sometimes even only speaking in English. If this trend follows them into adulthood, Rakul Skaale Andreasen argues in her thesis that “it might mean that English will replace Faroese in the future”[iii]. Therefore, less and less people speak Faroese as fluently as they used to, which was pointed out by the interviewee when mentioning that kids nowadays have to be reminded of common words such as ‘airport’, as they only remember it in English. This has been shown to have negative effects on people’s sense of belonging, community, and inclusivity, as good proficiency in the national language contributes to these factors[iv].
Ultimately, university students being forced to an extent to move to other countries and thus receive education in a foreign language, as well as the large-scale introduction of school materials in English, violates Faroese people’s right to be taught in their mother tongue, a right stressed in many international human rights documents and conventions such as Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights and European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. However, more research into the topic is needed, as well as its effects, with Skaale Andreasen’s thesis offering a steppingstone into this field.
Although education in the Faroe Islands is that corresponding to one of general quality, it has many issues which need to be addressed. Of course, given the fact that the Faroese are small in numbers and the territory is dispersed in various islands, the education system cannot be expected to be perfect with all opportunities larger communities with more people can offer. However, the problems these characteristics give rise to need to be identified in order to minimize them, and whether some of those outlined in this article are anecdotal evidence from first-hand accounts or a symptom of a wider problem remains to be studied. Therefore, in order to make the system as accessible as possible and foster students’ well-being to the maximum extent, more research is needed, as without it, it is way more difficult to pinpoint the problems and address them. In this sense, the lack of research could be argued to be one of the main challenges to an ever-improving Faroese education system, which adapts to the various situations and challenges of the time.
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[i] Sheridan, S. M. (2018). Establishing healthy parent-teacher relationships for early learning success. Early Learning Network. https://earlylearningnetwork.unl.edu/2018/08/29/parent-teacher-relationships/
[ii] Based on findings by Kushman & Barnhardt, 2001.
[iii] Breum, M. (2020). Færøsk in a nutshell. Truer engelsk færingernes sprog? Uddannelses- Og Forskningsministeriet. https://ufm.dk/uddannelse/videregaende-uddannelse/priser-og-konkurrencer/specialekonkurrence-om-rigsfaellesskabet/2020/faerosk-in-a-nutshell-truer-engelsk-faeringernes-sprog. Article on Rakul Skaale Andreasens’ thesis about the attitude of young Faroese towards Faroese, English and Faroese-English code switching.
[iv] Verbal Planet. (n.d.). The Connection Between Language and National Identity. Retrieved October 29, 2023, from https://www.verbalplanet.com/blog/languages-and-national-identity.asp#:~:text=Language%20as%20a%20Source%20of%20Pride%20and%20Identity%3A&text=Proficiency%20in%20the%20national%20language
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