The Ministry of the Interior wants to prohibit foreign students from third countries from working more than 16 hours per week, disqualify students on temporary residence permits from qualifying for need-based financial student aid, as well as restrict opportunities for foreigners studying in Estonia and short-term labor to bring their children along to Estonia.
More than 2,2200 third country nationals study in Estonia, some half of whom work on the side. The Ministry of the Interior believes that students from outside of the EU shouldn't be permitted to work more than 16 hours per week. The ministry fears that a residence permit granted for the purpose of studies in Estonia may otherwise be used as a cover for labor migration.
According to University of Tartu (TÜ) Vice Rector for Academic Affairs Aune Valk, working is important to university students. Of TÜ students, approximately 80 percent of local students and 40 percent of foreign students work on the side of their studies.
"Third country students definitely need this opportunity to work in order to make a living; I think it would be a very foolish decision to restrict this," Valk said, even as she acknowledged that there have been isolated incidents of misuse. "But it's not possible to attend university by just being on the roster but actually working instead. I certainly don't see what problem we'd be solving by limiting working hours to 16, which is actually very few per week."
Following a legislative amendment, the ministry wants only foreign students with enough money to study to come to Estonia. The bill's second point would help ensure this, according to which foreigners in Estonia on a temporary residence permit would not qualify for need-based student financial aid.
Valk said that she isn't necessarily against doing away with this need-based financial aid for foreigners, but that does not mean that students don't need any support, and added that it is the format of this support that perhaps could be changed. Need-based financial student aid is distributed based on Tax and Customs Board (MTA) data.
"Clearly we can't ensure parent information and the certainty thereof from all tax boards worldwide," she said. "On the other hand, we can see that if we don't support foreign students, then we will only see those capable of paying, but may not always be the smartest. I believe we should turn need-based financial student aid into merit-based scholarships."
Helme: Third world students bring relatives here
In addition to finances, the ministry's planned changes would affect their families as well. Currently, university students studying in Estonia on temporary residence permits are permitted to bring their children with them, but according to the letter of explanation accompanying the ministry's bill, the ministry would curtail such family migration, and only permit children to visit them in Estonia on regular visas, but not move to Estonia with them for the duration of their studies.
"I think in the case of university students, we're not talking about some kind of huge families," Minister of the Interior Mart Helme (EKRE) said. "What we do see, however, is that quite a few university students from third world countries want to bring all of their relatives here. Look at what communities are growing the fastest in Estonia — Nigerians, Bangladeshi. And they certainly aren't all highly educated IT specialists or university students, but rather it is precisely the case that they come here, taking advantage of the fact that they are so-called legalized university students. Relatives are brought here, but after that they don't attend school anymore."
According to Valk, however, this change wouldn't affect most TÜ students.
"This would affect those in doctorate programs first and foremost, but if I understand correctly, then doctoral students are exempt in the bill," the vice rector said. "This will certainly be a problem for a few individual students, but I don't date say right now how great of a concern this is."
The bill's letter of explanation also cites the concern that children residing in Estonia temporarily need places at local schools, a burden that ends up being local governments' to bear. For the same reason, the ministry wants to restrict those working in Estonia on a temporary residence permit for a period of up to one year from bringing their children to Estonia with them.
No more grace period for graduates
Another planned change will affect those foreign students interested in remaining in Estonia for longer.
Under current policy, when a foreigner earns an academic or vocational degree in Estonia, they are also permitted to remain in the country to work. Such people have already grown accustomed to Estonia, and the country needs educated people. As a recent graduate may not always find work in their field right away, they are given the chance to apply for a temporary residence permit for employment purposes. Unlike other foreigners, however, they do not need to be paid Estonia's average wage.
The ministry, however, wants to abolish this intermediate job-hunting stage, which means that foreign students who have graduated in Estonia must immediately begin earning average wages if they want to remain in the country. An exception would be made for those who have earned doctoral degrees in Estonia, as academic workers often earn below the national average wage.
With its amendments, the ministry is seeking to avoid radicalization. The bill's letter of explanation states that less qualified work than expected may lead to internal umbrage, which could in turn escalate to become a threat to law and order and national security.
Helme, however, had little to say regarding the bill for now. "Until we've gotten approval on it from everywhere and things are locked in, I don't think I want to comment any further," he said.
Editor: Aili Vahtla