Ministry: Universities should consider immigration policy ahead of finances

University of Tartu main building.
University of Tartu main building. Source: ERR

The interior ministry says that higher education institutions in Estonia which take on overseas students from what it calls countries with a migration risk should also take into account immigration policy, and not just any immediate economic benefits such students may bring with them.

Ruth Annus, Head of the Citizenship and Migration Policy Department at the Ministry of the Interior, said this week that the current regulations relating to those coming to study in Estonia do not take into account public order and national security considerations, adding that Estonia has become a destination for citizens from several "risk states", numerically most highly represented by Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran.

Citizens resident in Estonia from those five states, who like most third country nationals would require a temporary residence permit to stay in the country, combined totaled a little under 3,000 people at the start of the year, according to the ministry.

The ministry reasons that this figure is set to grow, and so higher education institutions – including the University of Tartu, the University of Tallinn, Tallinn Technical University (Taltech) and private university the Entrepreneurship University of Applied Sciences (Eesti ettevõtluskool Mainor) – should pay more heed to national immigration policy and consider their role in admitting students from "risk" countries. The risks entailed include, the ministry says, the abuse of study migration – for instance using a study visa to gain entry to the Estonia, the Schengen Area, and the EU, for ultimate purposes other than study.

Annus was responding to a University of Tartu student organization's concerns on the matter, and said that a recent law change which would restrict those coming to study in Estonia from working and bringing dependents, via an amend to the Aliens Act, was aimed at admitting only those who bring significant added value to the country, as well as to head off study visa abuse noted above.

Ministry's rationale for restrictions on third country students

Annus backed up the claims by saying the amends were based on (non-public) analyses and impact assessments prepared by the ministry itself.

The law change would not affect the ability of non-EU, third country foreigners to live and work in Estonia, Annus said, also asserting Estonian sovereignty in imposing its own controls on entry, stay and departure of non-citizens.

Annus also said that this could not infringe on the rights of aliens, in a circular reasoning which stated that since Estonia had the right to impose immigration controls, third country nationals have no subjective right to settle or study in Estonia, and : "Therefore, imposing different conditions on the issue of visas, residence permits or residence for different groups of aliens cannot in any way infringe on the rights of said aliens."

The ministry submitted its draft amend to the Aliens Act, which would curtail the options for third country nationals studying in Estonia to bring their children to Estonia would prohibit foreign students from working more than 16 hours a week.

Opposition to the amends

The University of Tartu student council sent a series of questions to the ministry in response, asking, among other things, why the ministry feared a temporary residence permit issued for study would be used as a cover for labor migration or to bring dependents to the country.

The Tartu University students' council also said the interior ministry had a hierarchy of foreign students' desirability in its mind, based on nationality, ethnicity, faith, gender, sexual orientation etc.

Other organizations to have hit out at the draft amend include employers' associations, who say the restriction will undermine Estonian competitiveness.

Coalition ministers who also opposed the bill included Kaimar Karu, the minister of foreign trade and IT who has plenty of skin in the game due to his role. Karu, who said the amends were too restrictive, was appointed to the post by EKRE late last year, but is not an EKRE member. Economic affairs minister Taavi Aas and social affairs minister Tanel Kiik, both of the Center Party, also opposed the bill on competitiveness grounds, as well as a belief it would increase tensions within the labor market.

Ministry: We want to avoid wage exploitation

A lack of pre-analysis of the draft was also cited as an issue by the ministers.

The interior ministry itself says it also deals with the acclimation of foreigners when arriving in Estonia, with a study and research module developed for foreign students and lecturers alike, covering the Estonian education system, work opportunities and other need-to-know information.

The wage criteria aspect of the draft was justifiable in order to ensure a lack of exploitation in replacing domestic specialists with cheaper labor. Annus noted that salaries of academic staff in several institutions of higher education were lower than the Estonian average.

The interior minister is Mart Helme (EKRE). Minister of Population Affairs Riina Solman (Isamaa) also falls under the interior ministry's remit.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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