‘Let’s get used to the idea that the quieter times will not return,’ said Rector Tiit Land in his introduction to the Annual Seminar. The seminar focused mainly on the lessons learned from past crises and the ways of making long-term plans.
Mari Öö Sarv
In his opening remarks, Rector Tiit Land listed the crises we have been through: COVID-19, which was brought to an end in February by the war that brought unprecedented energy prices and inflation, plus underfunding of higher education. The next serious challenges are already around the corner: ensuring the next generation of Estonian academicians, developing and embracing a green strategy for the university, as well as renewing its governance model, and collaboration.
Kaja Kuivjõgi, Head of the Rectorate Strategy Office, helped interpret statistical data and urged people not to rest on their laurels when there is no crisis. She explained that at first glance, some of the key indicators may seem ‘green’, or in line with the set targets, but when digging deeper, it becomes clear that serious efforts are needed to stay on the ‘green’ path. A good example are business contracts, which were mostly driven by the smart specialisation support measure of European funds, now discontinued. Another example are the defences of doctoral theses, which are on target in terms of numbers, but because of the shortage of Estonian-language PhDs, there will be a shortage of top-level lecturers and researchers in the future. ‘A statistician drowned in a river with an average depth of one metre,’ said Rector Land, summing up the danger of looking at statistical data superficially.
Chief Financial Officer Madis Margus demonstrated additional magic tricks that can be done with data. For example, the correlations you get if you put the number of staff at a department on one axis and the number of square metres in use on the other. Alternatively, the average salary of graduates by programmes on one and the graduation results on another. However, Margus said that the best way to hedge financial risks is to balance the main activities – at the university, these are teaching, research, and entrepreneurship. ‘Diversified revenue base helps hedge against the different risks of volatile expenditure on education and research,’ he said.
What do we need to make it in university?
One of the main problems of the educational aspect is the high drop-out rate. The issue is not new and it is not unique to TalTech. The adversaries to fight here are generally the wrong choice of programme, poor understanding of hard sciences, and employment. These were the topics of the panel discussion of deans on the stage of the Annual Seminar, where everyone in the audience was invited to comment and ask questions.
At the start, the students themselves proposed solutions in a video. The key words were tutoring and mentoring, finding a group, and raising awareness of what you can do in the future after a particular programme – usually more than young people can guess. Hybrid learning helps those who are working, but takes motivation away from those who need human contact, which is particularly important during the first year. In this case, a sense of belonging can be found in student organisations, which at TalTech cater for all tastes fortunately.
An idea to bring back entrance interviews in addition to the threshold was expressed, helping to assess the motivation of prospective students. That way, people who are not really interested in continuing education will not end up studying the wrong thing or find themselves enrolled at the university. This is exactly what the Estonian Maritime Academy has been doing in recent years with good results. The inability of young people to plan their time and resources also hampers their learning – in upper secondary school, they are prepared for national exams, not for studying intelligently at a university. This is where mentoring programmes created by educational psychologists would help; for example, mentoring programmes are compulsory subjects at the School of Information Technologies where they offer pretty good support to freshmen.
However, IT also needs to address the phenomenon of labour market attraction. This also concerns engineering where university graduates no longer go looking for a job; instead, companies recruit from the universities. This means that university-educated professionals do not have to compete in the job market, and in addition to acquiring education, they can make a wealth of contacts and friends for life. In order to help students fill in the gaps in their knowledge of hard sciences, lecturers can record ‘study bite videos’.
Both the students and the deans focused mostly on the importance of a sense of belonging in a group, where lecturers can contribute with group tasks. It is harder to drop out in threes than it is to drop out alone!
Energy in the future: produce more or consume less?
The second panel of the Annual Seminar looked at the future from a different perspective: specialists from the public and private sectors discussed the future challenges of energy and energy economy. On stage were Einari Kisel, Head of Partnerships and Strategy of Smart City Center of Excellence of TalTech and member of the Supervisory Board of Eesti Energia, Kristi Klaas, Government Green Policy Coordinator at the Government Office, Mihkel Härm, Chairman of the Board of Elektrilevi, Reeli Kuhi-Thalfeldt, Senior Lecturer and Programme Director at the Department of Electrical Power Engineering and Mechatronics, and Ahti Asmann, Chairman of the Board of Viru Keemia Group; the discussion was moderated by Professor Erkki Karo, Director of the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance.
By 2030, Estonia should produce as much renewable energy as it consumes. This is only seven years away, which means that this target has to be achieved with current technologies. Ahti Asmann pointed out that the objective of Estonia is no longer economic; instead, it is simply to produce enough renewable energy regardless of price. ‘The private sector expects productivity, it does not care about the goals of the state,’ he said.
Härm pointed out that both Estonia and all our southern neighbours are talking about increasing production capacity and exporting electricity. However, which country will want your exports when everyone is producing more than they need? Härm believes that we need to fortify the grids first, then store energy, but also increase consumption. According to Härm, per capita electricity consumption in Finland is four times higher than in Estonia. ‘Why shouldn’t we consume eight times more electricity than we are now?’ asked Härm. Asmann added that the state should not worry about what to do if there are electricity surpluses – that would be the concern of the investors.
Among the questions asked by the audience, the one that received the most attention was: ‘Increasing energy production is great, of course, but perhaps we should also contribute to reducing overall consumption? Unlimited growth is a dead end anyway.’ Kisel replied that if we stop all industry, energy consumption will also decrease immediately and a lot. Asmann also stressed that the Finns do not consume more energy than us in households, but they have more industry, which also grows the economy, and all industrialists are looking for ways to economise. ‘We should look at where we can save, not at the energy consumption of a country per capita,’ said Asmann. Kristi Klaas, on the other hand, argued that if you look at only domestic energy consumption per capita in Estonia, it is still very high, and so the discussion naturally came to the resource efficiency of the housing stock.
Finally, the moderator of the debate, Professor Karo, asked what the panellists expected from the university in this complex situation. Mihkel Härm started the wish list: ‘We would like to have the people, the knowledge, the wisdom to do things better and differently, also development, and all this for public funds.’ The most burning issue for all involved is the people – engineers with master’s and doctoral degrees with experience from other countries. ‘It could be implemented immediately by making attending a foreign university a compulsory part of the curriculum,’ said Härm.
Kristi Klaas added multidimensionality – when teaching new technologies, you have to see the needs, aspects of other areas of society, and connections between them. Erkki Karo stated that some disciplines have developed at universities a hundred years ago and we need to start putting THEM together, such as manufacturing, networks, sustainable behaviour at home, and teaching economy. Einari Kisel pointed out that energetics is currently divided between at least five departments in two schools at TalTech, and there are few points of contact. ‘For a better focus, it would be wise to make a joint energy curriculum.’ Ahti Asmann noted that all the steps of the Green Tiger roadmap are areas involving TalTech, so we should be discussing the roadmap of the university instead, when talking about the green transition.
Reeli Kuhi-Thalfeldt also added that she sees a hunger for specialists in the business sector and that the university can contribute to the green transition with people who put this knowledge into action in businesses, homes, and the public sector. She believes that the current curricula are too broad to generate and sustain interest. ‘A school graduate should be able to find a renewable energy curriculum,’ she said, adding that the role of TalTech is to stick to a long-term plan even when electricity prices are very cheap at the moment.