Tallinn University of Technology

The article was published in ERR opinion web on January 11.

What young lecturer would start working for a university if they knew they would be earning significantly less than a freshly graduated master’s student?

Hendrik Voll

Hendrik Voll, TalTech’s Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs

To start on a positive note, I recognise that the salary level of TalTech’s master’s graduates is undoubtedly the highest among Estonian public universities. This has been a strategic decision by the university – to teach the fields for which there is a high demand on the labour market, and whose graduates contribute significantly to the state budget.

Although it seems clear and simple on the surface, some smart and bold decisions were made to achieve this. In 2017, we carried out a curricula reform in TalTech, which reduced their number by around a quarter. One of the most important factors for making such a decision was the expected salary level of graduates.

The last two strategic plans also state that master’s graduates should earn at least 1.65 times more than the Estonian average, i.e. 2600 euros.  In the case of several curricula, however, the graduates’ salary is at least twice as high as the Estonian average, for example computer science, cyber security, analysis and design of information systems, power engineering, industrial engineering and management, etc.

Funding needs to be balanced

We are happy to aim for the well-being of Estonia. We want to increase the university’s ambitions even more, but there is a limit. As I said, graduates are generally very well paid. But unfortunately the lecturers and senior lecturers holding a doctorate degree are not. We are able to increase the minimum salary of a lecturer with a doctorate degree to 1812 euros this year. A lecturer without a degree can earn 1536 euros.

It is clear what the future is going to be like. One of the clearest developments is that the university will either lose experts purely because of the salary, or would instead have a hard time finding them. There have been years when no Estonian-speaking students have undertaken their doctorate studies in IT specialties. We are on a course where, in the near future, we will not be able to offer IT education in Estonian anymore.

Yet the state wishes the opposite. At the moment, universities are negotiating with the Ministry of Education and Research. The state expects TalTech to increase the number of prospective students and graduates in the fields of engineering and IT. But who are the people who will be teaching even more than before? And who are we teaching?

The final limit is already visible

I will first answer the former question. I predict that if our average graduate’s contribution to the state budget continues to be higher than our average lecturer’s, we will soon be in a situation where we need to start hiring lecturers with a lower salary expectation. And, inevitably, such people can only come from places we tend to call the Developing World. This is where the concern for Estonian-speaking higher education stems from.

We are currently nearing the absolute limit. We cannot accept more students as the state expects us to, and we are essentially unable to hire new young lecturers. This means that we also cannot care for the future growth of the Estonian state budget. There simply is nobody to increase it. There are no master’s graduates to send off to earn a salary of 2600 euros or more, and to pay taxes.

A simple solution would be for a university to pay lecturers a salary which at least corresponds to the average salary of the same curriculum’s alumni. This would further motivate universities to develop curricula in order to train the people most needed by the state.

When students can access the world from their home

Another important solution would be the possibility to invest in international cooperation. For the second year in a row, TalTech is a fully fledged member of EuroteQ – a consortium of Europe’s strongest universities of technology. Our next goal is for this consortium, which consists of six universities and 115,000 students, to act as one university in the near future. Think about it – you enrol at TalTech, but in addition to that, you are an official student of several European top universities!

Our partners from Germany, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the Czech Republic contribute to cooperation at a national level. The only one not appreciating such cooperation is Estonia. But only with such cooperation can we prevent the outflow of talent from Estonia.

It is estimated that 8% of the best high school graduates of Estonia currently continue their studies in foreign universities. By doing so, many cut their professional ties with Estonia. But so many young people could stay here if we offered them education in cooperation with Europe’s top universities.

As I said, the state wants us to admit even more students to several curricula. The only target group I see is essentially the 8% of high school graduates who are currently leaving for foreign universities. Yes, of course there is another way – that Estonian students gain a better command of mathematics and are thus able to apply to engineering, IT, natural science and economics curricula. Unfortunately, in the spring of 2021, 4247 high school graduates passed the extensive mathematics exam, whose average score fell below 50 points for the first time, which is the minimum threshold level to study in TalTech. In the case of three curricula, however, our threshold level is 75 points. The third alternative is to increase the percentage of foreign students...