In 2009, the leadership of IT higher education felt a clear need to make the same leap in their field as the Tiger Leap programme had done in general education. This is how the ‘Memorandum of Cooperation of the Estonian IT Academy’ was born. The memorandum aimed to bring Estonian higher education in the field of information and communication technology (ICT) to a new, internationally competitive level.
Gert Jervan, Dean of the School of Information Technologies | Photo: TalTech
The institutions behind the idea of the IT Academy (ITA) and the memorandum were the Estonian Association of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Tallinn University of Technology, University of Tartu, Tallinn University, IT College of Tallinn University of Technology, and Estonian Development Fund.
The initial ideas included both the creation of a separate university (similarly to the IT University of Copenhagen in Denmark) and all other cooperation models to revitalise IT higher education. The year 2011 saw the approval of the IT Academy programme, which focused on the development of curricula with a special focus. Six curricula were selected, three of them at TalTech (one at bachelor’s level and two at master’s level). Support for doctoral studies and various monitoring and marketing activities were also agreed upon.
The IT Academy brought about a fundamental change in the system of curriculum development and management. The institution of programme manager was created and programme boards were set up for each programme. These changes took place about five years before the reform of the curricula and teaching process at TalTech, whereby the entire university moved to a programme-based management model. One of the major substantive changes brought about by the ITA was the introduction of goal-based management. A steering committee was set up for the IT Academy programme within the Information Technology Foundation for Education (HITSA). The committee was composed of representatives of the private and public sectors and began regularly monitoring the state of play of the curricula with a special focus. The development of the curricula with a special focus had seven objectives, the achievement or non-achievement of which had an impact on the funding of the respective university. Each year, the share of core funding decreased and the share of performance funding conditional on the achievement of objectives increased, reaching 40% at the end of the measure in 2020.
Three of the curriculum development objectives were related to the quality of teaching and the correspondence of the knowledge of the graduates to the expectations of the labour market. Feedback was collected from students, graduates, and employers. The proportion of lecturers with international experience was also measured. Three additional objectives concerned increasing the number of graduates, with each graduate valued regardless of the time spent studying. In addition, the increase in the share of foreigners staying in Estonia after successful graduation was an important performance indicator, as was the contribution of universities to the financing of IT studies.
The ITA almost doubled the funding per student in the special-focus curricula, providing programme managers with significant additional resources. This has enabled the university to retain and attract new experienced lecturers and to address drop-out rates through student counselling, socialisation and community events, the involvement of assistant lecturers, etc. The scholarships awarded by the IT Academy to the most successful students also had an important impact. English-language curricula received the necessary support from the external marketing campaigns of the IT Academy. However, in view of the funding logic of the measure, which relied heavily on results-based funding, a thorough reflection and long-term planning of activities was necessary, which took the whole learning process to a whole new level in terms of quality.
Launching a research measure
In 2018, an additional ITA research measure was launched to boost the innovation capacity of the Estonian economy and society at large through a smarter use of information and communication technology, to increase the research and development capacity of information and communication technology in priority research areas, and to tie research and development with teaching at all levels of higher education. Two new research groups have been created at TalTech, a new centre of excellence has been developed, and dozens of new PhD students have been recruited (read more).
The IT Academy has been one of the best examples of how the three parties – universities, the state, and the private sector – have been able to work together towards a common goal and the ITA has now become a platform for cooperation. Although TalTech and the University of Tartu are competitors from the perspective of the programme (due to the logic of performance funding, which applies also to the research measure), it is safe to say that healthy competition is a driving force here. Both universities invested heavily in curricular renewal and substantive cooperation on joint curricula. Although the ITA programme directly affected only 20–30% of IT students at TalTech, the indirect impact of the programme was certainly much wider and affected the learning process and quality of the entire field. Most of our research groups have benefited from a boost as part of the research measure.
The ITA has also demonstrated that the strong involvement of a motivated private sector enables steering the country towards strategically important decisions. The development of higher education and research is not just an issue for universities and to achieve the best results, all actors in society must contribute.