“As a centre of engineering sciences, Tallinn University of Technology is in a position to set its campus up as an example of how buildings can be renovated in a well-thought-out, innovative, and effective manner. With the current budget, however, it is an impossible endeavour – in fact, it is even difficult to maintain the status quo,” wrote Tea Trahov in ERR’s opinion section.
Author: Tea Trahov, Chancellor at Tallinn University of Technology
Imagine a future student who is just setting out to choose the right field and university for themselves. And Estonian students know how to make informed choices! They will visit the campuses of prospective universities, and the learning and research environment they see will tell them clearly what kind of education is provided there, and what the level of the university’s research activities would be.
Desire to be a role model in Estonia
We have ambitious plans for our campus, having set the goal of becoming a carbon-neutral (i.e. zero-footprint) university by 2035. It is not just talk either: we have a strong desire and the scientific capabilities to reach that goal. After all, our researchers specialise in the fields of construction, power engineering, district heating, ventilation, etc.
Based on this, one might think it would be simple to put the fruits of the labour of our researchers to use so that our facilities, which, in Mustamäe, are as much as 60 years old and which have a high historic and cultural value, could become an example for others to consider and learn from. We have already taken steps in this direction, having designed and completed the Ehituse Mäemaja and the family dormitory at Akadeemia tee 5A as nearly zero-energy buildings.
Achieving our goal, unfortunately, will take more than that. And the main obstacle – as dull as it sounds – is money, or more precisely the lack of it. The sharp rise in energy prices and heating costs makes it even more unlikely that the necessary development volumes will be reached.
Meanwhile, for historical reasons, Tallinn University of Technology holds a large amount of real estate: 83 hectares of land, 155,000 m2 of built-up area. The campus adds another 60,000 m2. Moreover, the university’s main building and the buildings of the Maritime Academy and Tartu College have historic value and are protected under heritage conservation law, which requires a completely different – and financially more costly – approach.
The need for auditoriums will not disappear
Despite the advancement of the digital age and, with it, remote learning, students still expect to be able to study in both large auditoriums that can seat hundreds of people, as well as smaller group work rooms. The use of the premises is sessional, as is typical for schools, but the outdated building services systems in the decades-old buildings are not up to the task.
Remote learning requires our classrooms to be fitted with around 20,000 euros’ worth of equipment, while digital broadcasting requires controllable lighting and acoustics solutions; in addition, students expect each learning space to be equipped with a phone and/or computer charging station. Then add ventilation to the list. This means that the facilities need renovation, not just equipment mounted on the ceiling. In the case of a small classroom that can accommodate 10 to 20 people, this will cost 60,000 euros at least; for a larger classroom, we must multiply the number by at least two... Our university, meanwhile, has a total of over 350 classrooms, auditoriums, and study labs.
This might lead you to ask if all of this is really necessary: after all, the number of students is no longer growing, and in-classroom lessons could be done away with completely now that we are in the digital age. However, for engineering students, testing, building, and working in a team to solve larger problems are vital parts of the learning process. Nevertheless, over the next three or four years, the university will indeed be abandoning 8,500 square metres of real estate in three buildings, because we do not have the capacity to develop these properties.
Future students want to see miracles
While employees might remain loyal to the university even if the working conditions we offer do not fully meet their expectations, this is not true of students. They will simply go elsewhere. And since we are the only university of technology in Estonia, they will set their sights on abroad.
Already, a good number of our best high school graduates are travelling to foreign universities. Yes, the higher education we offer here is world class and we are aiming even higher with ambitious plans. However, if we are unable to make the required investments (in real estate) soon, it will not be long until even those for whom we are currently the first choice begin changing their minds.
So what kind of sums are we talking about? The depreciation of real estate at Tallinn University of Technology amounts to over 6 million euros per year and has decreased year on year due to the low amount of new investments. Considering that, at current budget levels, we can invest 1.5–2 million euros a year in real estate development, it is evident that several times more funding is needed in this area. But even the amounts we were planning to spend on real estate are getting us less of what is needed every day, and it is currently impossible to say when prices will stop increasing.
One little problem will lead to bigger ones
It is not yet too late to take notice of the consequences that the insufficient funding of universities could have for Estonia. First, our more enterprising youth will go elsewhere and put their best creative ideas and efforts to work for another country. Second, researchers at Tallinn University of Technology will be prevented from developing their ideas in the most effective way – including as model solutions for the whole of society – and the university will never become a unique laboratory for joint scientific experimentation between researchers and students. This will, among other things, slow down and curb the spread of information about the technological background of opportunities for saving money in Estonia. And thus, our sustainable future will move further and further away to the point where it seems impossible we will ever reach it.