Opinion: Interior ministry bill restricts foreign students' rights

Many foreign students in the IT field stay on to work in Estonia after their studies have finished (picture is illustrative).
Many foreign students in the IT field stay on to work in Estonia after their studies have finished (picture is illustrative). Source: SCANPIX/AP

A draft amendment to the Aliens Act tabled by the Ministry of the Interior makes it incomprehensibly complicated for foreign students to study in Estonia, restricts their opportunities to work and earn a living, and obstructs them from staying on and working in Estonia, argue Joanna Kurvits of the Federation of Estonian Student Unions (EÜL) and Allan Aksiim, chair of the University of Tartu Student Council (Tartu Ülikooli Üliõpilaskond).

At the end of 2019, the Ministry of the Interior published a bill to coordinate the amendment of the Aliens Act. The target group connected with the changes was foreign students from third countries, i.e., the vast majority of students from outside the EU. 

The bill intends to restrict the working hours third country foreign students to 16 hours per week, to eliminate the possibility of receiving state subsidies, to set provisions preventing graduate students from working and settling in Estonia, as well as limiting the opportunities for a student's family to come to Estonia with them.

The bill's explanatory memorandum says that the changes arise from the current government's coalition agreement, which "follows a strict immigration policy that is beneficial to the Estonian economy and society", the authors of the piece say, as well as an internal security development plan.

Reading these two aims leads to the simple conclusion that there is useful immigration that should be encouraged, and ineffective immigration that should not. 

While this can be accepted from the point of view of national, economic and social development, it is not clear that the measures proposed are consistent with these two objectives.

One of the measures of the competitiveness and viability of the Estonian higher education system is its attractiveness to foreign students. However, this bill sends a clear message to said foreign students that they are not welcome in Estonia and that they are not considered priorities at the Ministry of Higher Education, responsible for the higher education sector which the students naturally pass through.

Positive effects were muted

Foreign students bring a clear added value to our society. The tuition fees for foreign students at universities also partly finance curricula in Estonian, which should be funded by the state. 

In addition, foreign students help to cover labor shortages in the sectors where it is most critical. The areas where most foreign students work in Estonia are IT and engineering and manufacturing (link in Estonian).

More than half of the foreign students graduating in IT in higher education in Estonia will continue to work here. One-fifth of the foreign students who graduated in 2017 remained, within the field of education; 70 percent of these were involved in university activities. 

These positive effects have not been mentioned by the Ministry of the Interior in its draft (link in Estonian).

The entire draft is also undermined by the fact that arguments which highlight the security threat to foreign students are based on assumptions and prejudices rather than factual analysis.

It is argued that inadequate integration of foreign students into Estonian society after graduation may lead to them taking unskilled work, with the resulting insult due to a lack of professional position following. 

As a result of this frustration, foreign nationals could then become a threat to public order and/or national security.

However, the evidence is based on blurred international experiences, which do not take into account the Estonian context or the profile of foreign students coming to Estonia.

For example, the explanatory memorandum reads: "It is difficult for foreigners who have completed their studies to integrate into Estonian society and to cope here. This is due to both poor knowledge of the Estonian language and the fact that Estonian higher education institutions do not train foreign specialists in international curricula."

In making such allegations (i.e. the difficulty of integration, low level of Estonian language learning, education based on labor market needs), the Ministry of the Interior does not refer to any study, analysis or other evidence. Although the problems highlighted in the explanatory memorandum may be present in international education as offered in Estonia, the solution is to address these problems rather than hinder the internationalization of this higher education.

Best practices were not followed

The draft also considers working foreign students a security threat. The aim is to limit the workload of foreign students to a maximum of 16 working hours per week. The reason given for this change is that it is not possible to study and work full time simultaneously, which may result in the use of a study visa for work purposes. 

The only reference is the Internal Security Service (ISS) 2018 Yearbook, which mentions the subject but in vaguely worded terms and without proof.

Sixty-five percent of Estonian students also work while studying, 80 percent of them work more than 20 hours a week. While nearly half (49 per cent) of Estonian students who also work estimate that they would not be able to afford to study without a job, the situation is even more complicated for foreign students who, in addition to living costs, usually have to pay tuition fees.

Looking beyond the content of the draft, it should be noted that it has been submitted without regard to best practice. The draft was sent to the universities for approval via the Board of Rectors, but neither the Estonian Rectors Conference of Universities of Applied Sciences (Rakenduskõrgkoolide Rektorite Nõukogu) nor the EÜL, representing the interests and rights of all students studying in Estonia, were asked for their opinion. 

Prior to the draft, no intention for its development was presented and not all relevant stakeholders have been consulted.

The interior ministry's proposals are not in the best interests of the students. The position of the EÜL is that all motivated and academically capable people should have equal access to higher education. Society must facilitate the entry of foreign students into the Estonian labor market during their studies or after acquiring higher education. A wise migration policy would see the highly educated workforce as an important added value to Estonian higher education and society as a whole, and create opportunities for those who wish to study in Estonia to integrate linguistically, culturally, and socially.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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