We are issuing this joint statement in view of the cross-cutting value of higher education and its critical role in the development of our country. Our members include entrepreneurs, cultural figures, civil servants, and promoters of research. Many of us are not involved in the higher education system on a daily basis, but with the way things currently are, as members of university councils, it is our duty to stand up together for the future of higher education.
A country without higher education in its mother tongue is not an independent country. An independent state without high-quality higher education will not last.
We commend the government and parliament for taking the first important step to halt the higher education crisis by deciding on a 15% increase in operating grants over the next four years. However, there is a lack of clarity and certainty regarding how the state plans to secure long-term funding for the sector.
Universities have done their utmost to ensure the quality of Estonian-language higher education in difficult economic conditions. Our universities stand out in international rankings and are successful. Ever fewer students are dropping out and the number of students graduating within the nominal time has increased. The number of curricula and the amount of duplication have been decreased. Universities could only be more effective in terms of regional access to or quality of education.
Greater efficiency must not, however, be the main objective of higher education policy. We see a risk that the ultimate rationalisation of curricula and the deterioration of access to Estonian-language learning will start to affect the most important goal of higher education – to develop the Estonian people and society and to create the preconditions for future generations of educated people.
Underfunding higher education threatens our democracy and security. Understanding and finding solutions to the complex problems that the state and society are facing requires critical analytical skills, which universities can offer. However, due to economic constraints, universities have been forced to cut the number of places in their curricula, resulting in fewer and fewer young people pursuing higher education in Estonian. We are facing the threat of a lack of Estonian PhDs and lecturers, and the public debate is taking an increasingly simplistic view of the real problems.
We understand that the tense international situation does leave politicians with a number of practical problems to solve. However, knowing how complex and important the issue of higher education in Estonian is, we need a straightforward higher education policy, now more than ever. Educated people have a better chance of succeeding in the labour market and understanding the processes of society; of distinguishing reliable information from information noise; of participating actively in society; and of taking care of their health. They are more creative and enterprising and keep Estonia’s will to defend high.
Investing in education also makes economic sense. Every year, the state receives between seven and eight per cent of its investment in higher education back in tax revenue. In terms of wider societal benefits, the return on investment is even higher. Of course, the return on investment is not just determined by the size of the investment, but also by how we deliver education and how we can use it to create new value as a society.
The situation is currently the most difficult for students. Study allowances, which benefit less than one in four students, have remained unchanged for ten years. At the time of establishing their amounts, the minimum wage was taken as the basis for the benefits, which was €290 in 2012. In the meantime, it has increased two and a half times. Could any of us manage today on our wages from ten years ago? Somehow, we expect this from students.
As well as students’ livelihoods, we need to ensure fair pay for our lecturers, many of whom are paid less than teachers. In 2021, nearly a quarter of academic staff received less than the average salary of a general education teacher (€1,653). Poor pay and academic career insecurity have made doctoral studies unattractive for young people in Estonia. If this trend continues, it is inevitable that the continuity and quality of Estonian-language education will be jeopardised at all levels of education.
But the problems do not stop at undervaluing people. How do we ensure flexibility in training those professionals who are most in demand in society? What are we using to develop learning in a situation where the support from the Structural Funds is decreasing significantly? Digitisation, the acquisition of modern teaching tools, and the development of learning environments, the modernisation of curricula and the promotion of interdisciplinarity, not to mention the individual counselling of students or the introduction of new learning methods, are all essential activities that support the development of universities.
The system of financing higher education that we have been building for 30 years will not lead us successfully into the future. Solving the higher education crisis requires political agreement. In the lead-up to the parliamentary elections, political parties need to propose a sustainable funding model that would help students cope economically, pay competitive salaries to lecturers, and develop learning cooperation between universities.
We propose to raise national investments in higher education to 1.5% of the GDP. Thereat, three principles must be followed:
1. Both the rates of study allowances and the number of recipients must increase. The budget for study allowances and scholarships is to be increased from €13 million today to €40 million and indexed to the rise in the cost of living. The model of study allowances and student loans needs to be implemented comprehensively to enable students to stay engaged in their studies.
2. Lecturers must be paid fairly. Valuing the work of teaching staff helps to create a new generation of academicians and thus the continuity of higher education in Estonian and the international competitiveness of our universities. To this end, operating support for higher education must continue to grow beyond 2026.
3. Opportunities for investing in higher education must be created, as well as incentives for businesses and individuals. Even now, learning is not free for all. A substantive discussion and agreement is needed on who will pay and how much for what specialties. Tax breaks must also be introduced for employers investing in education.
No country offers higher education in Estonian except Estonia. It is high time for our politicians and policymakers to take the critical situation in higher education seriously and propose a plan for the sustainable future of higher education in Estonia.
The statement was joined by 53 members of the councils of Estonian universities. The following people signed the statement on behalf of Tallinn University of Technology: