Estonian institutions of higher education do their best to attract more international students from both the EU countries and outside its borders. Estonian government and universities offer a number of scholarship programs in order to support young minds eager to study in Estonia. But as you look closer, it becomes obvious that many serious obstacles still have to be crossed before a foreign student can enroll in a local university, and unfortunately, simply wanting to study in Estonia is often not enough.
It is a fact that Estonian institutes have been working hard over the last few years to improve their teaching quality and strengthen their positions among other world institutions of higher education. According to QS World University Rankings, University of Tartu got up to position #379 last year, while Tallinn University of Technology reached the top 500 list in 2013 for the first time.
A large portion of the under- and postgraduates at the top three Estonian institutes consist of students coming from abroad: for degree studies, exchange studies, short courses or doing research in Estonia. However, unlike in many other European countries - say Finland or Germany - one still has to pay quite a high tuition fee here for the majority of programs in English.
That is especially high compared to an average salary in this country, if a foreign student is working in Estonia to cover expenses. The payment per semester usually varies from 1,500 to 4,000 euros and peaks at a hefty 5,500 euros (for a degree program in medicine), which results in an unmanageable sum, when the semester fee is multiplied by the number of terms in the whole course of studies.
What if you are a foreign student who simply doesn't have all that money, but would still like to come here and get a degree at one of the universities? Well, Estonian government and universities offer a number of scholarship opportunities for foreign students, who are eager enough to gather a bunch of documents, certificates, signatures and recommendations.
What is often left unsaid is that the nature of the scholarships is rather competitive, which means that a large number of candidates apply for those grants and scholarships at the same time, and in reality the percentage of those who are lucky enough to win some kind of financial support to study in Estonia is pretty low.
For instance, DoRa, the scholarship for master's and doctoral degree students at Tallinn University, is awarded only to one student per program with the best entry exam score and for the first year of studies only. So, you either have to demonstrate that you are an outstanding student with the highest grades - or search for other ways to cover your expenses. Besides, all scholarship programs clearly state that "additional costs such as tuition fee, health insurance and other costs will not be compensated", which basically means that 200-350 euros per month, which you might get in the end if you win the scholarship, will not be sufficient to meet all your expenses on living and studying in this country.
The very process of applying to and getting enrolled in an Estonian university is quite an easy one. Plus, during the admission procedure the admission specialists at Estonian universities help potential new students, providing consultation to them on all sorts of questions, starting from visa to a place to live.
Institutes of higher education welcome foreign students with open arms and the numbers of incoming students from abroad are soaring year after year. For instance, Tallinn University had 348 foreign degree and exchange students in 2010/2011 academic year; by now the number has almost doubled, with 760 students from 54 countries studying at Tallinn University this academic year.
As for the origins of incoming foreign students from within the European Union, figures show that education in Estonia is most popular with Finns, followed by Latvians, Lithuanians, and Italians. The fact that about 40 percent of all foreign students come to Estonia from Finland is a flattering one, considering the acknowledged high quality of education in Finland.
Unfortunately, when it comes to people living in non-EU countries, time-consuming residence permit procedures stop many of them from realizing their intention to move to Estonia to study. Once all the necessary documents are in place and satisfy the demands of the consulate, the student is kept waiting for the official response for two months, or even longer if it turns out that some details have to be rewritten or some documents are missing.
The biggest problem for many potential students, though, is that Estonian consular services are simply not available in some countries. This makes the most determined non-EU students travel to other countries, where there is an Estonian embassy - a trip which on its own costs them hundreds of euros. As the Estonian website of Archimedes Foundation has pointed out, there has been a lot of enquiries, for instance, from Indian students interested in our master’s or doctoral programs in IT, but in the end they give up because of the bureaucratic difficulties.
Here is an example of what a current degree student from Cameroon had to go through to obtain the required temporary permit to study in Tallinn: "We don't have an Estonian embassy in my country, Cameroon, and I was supposed to travel to Egypt, Georgia or Turkey," she says. "I tried to obtain a visa from Turkey but failed, so it was really tough for me. I finally got to Georgia without a visa, I paid 1,200 euros for the return flight alone, and it took me three weeks to get the permit. All that time I had to stay in Georgia. One of my friends from Cameroon also got admitted to a university here but she couldn't afford all the travelling".
Another student, Tajik Ifrad, who moved to Estonia all the way from Bangladesh, says he also had to go abroad first, in order to access the nearest Estonian Consulate. "I came here as a full-time student, and the permit is not that hard to get, but the embassy was not there in Bangladesh so I had to go to India," he said.
But even for those young people who are lucky enough to be born in a country where there is an Estonian Consulate, it is often not that easy to obtain the permit to move here. Nilla Meri, a Tallinn University student from Turkey, admits that there were some bumps on the road for her as well. "The tricky part was that I had to go to Ankara from Istanbul to apply for it. I applied in Turkey but I got it here, in Estonia. So I had to additionally apply for a tourist visa, which means I had to spend some extra money."
Some countries, like Japan, have their own rules and agreements in issuing visas for studies in Estonia. "It was hard to get the permit," agrees an Open University student in Estonia, Fumiko Endo. "I only have a long-stay visa. Because I am a Japanese citizen, I can stay here for three months with a 'free visa' (as a tourist), then six months with an extended-stay visa, and three more months with a 'free visa' again."
Students who have already enrolled into an Estonian university must thus look for some alternative route to be allowed to stay here.
On top of that, young people from outside the European Union have to purchase local insurance coverage, which is a 400-euro document from one of the few Estonian insurance companies, approved by the consulate, with no cheaper alternatives available.
"It took me approximately two months to get a residence permit, but it was quite an exhausting process," says Rovshan Ugur, a degree student from Azerbaijan. "My insurance costs me even more, because I have a health issue." And it is not a happy ending yet, when the already-enrolled student has finally received the long-awaited Estonian residence permit. This document is only valid for a year and shall be applied for again next year, before the new academic period starts, which means more paperwork, another consulate fee and another couple of months to wait for the renewal of the permit.
The good thing is, once the student has successfully resolved all the document issues, Estonian universities support their foreign students in various ways. "For example, Tallinn University has tutors who help them in different matters," explains Doris Altin, the international marketing specialist at Tallinn University. "Additionally, foreign students can get advice and help from Tallinn University's Career and Counseling Centre, International Club that is part of Tallinn University's Student Union and from Erasmus Student Network Tallinn that unites all the exchange students from all the universities in Tallinn. Foreign students in Estonia also can work during their studies, so they can build their careers and develop their professional skills."
It goes without saying that as for the lack of Estonian consular services in certain countries and cities, it is too much to ask for, but what can at least be worked on in this respect, is making it easier, faster and less costly a routine for foreign students to get the necessary permit, and make its renewal for the following years of studies simple and devoid of extended paperwork.
On the part of the universities, it would make sense to lower the tuition fees in programs taught in English, considering the costly permit-related procedures potential students have to go through before arriving here. After all, attracting eager young minds from abroad helps maintain and raise the quality of the higher education in the country, and strengthens the positions of Estonia on the world educational arena.