Joonatan Nõgisto: The need for vision in Estonian higher education policy ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Joonatan Nõgisto
Joonatan Nõgisto Source: Private collection

This spring will mark the passing of one year from the government's decision to back out of the R&D funding agreement from 2018. In addition to continued underfinancing of research and development, the problem of subpar funding of higher education has become increasingly acute over the past year, Joonatan Nõgisto writes.

Both are serious bottlenecks for competitive and sustainable development of knowledge-based Estonia. For this reason, the Federation of Estonian Student Unions, the Academic Unions Council, Estonian Chamber of Research and several other educational and research partners have launched a petition campaign for improved conditions in higher education and R&D funding.

The petition prescribes:

1. determining national higher education and R&D funding as part of GDP;

2. introducing the obligation of three-way salary talks between academic staff, employers and the Ministry of Education and Research.

The demand for higher education funding to make up 1.5 percent of GDP is hardly revolutionary or even radical, with the same ratio recently proposed to the Riigikogu Cultural Affairs Committee by both the coalition Conservative People's Party and the opposition Social Democratic Party. But why this particular figure?

Funding contrary to Estonia's image

Estonia sticks out in Europe with slow growth of higher education investments, falling well behind economic growth pace.

Estonia is one of seven countries in Europe where investments into higher education are growing 20 percent slower than the economy. Taking inflation into account, this has meant that resources made available to higher education have actually fallen, by 23.3 percent compared to 2008.

Contrast in comparison can be found nearby. Sweden has seen higher education funding grow by 25.4 percent in real terms during the same period of time.

While Estonia has seen fewer new students since then, higher education funding as a share of GDP has still fallen faster. If public sector higher education expenses came to almost 1.5 percent of GDP in 2012, the level had fallen below 1 percent by 2017.

An international comparison clearly shows that higher education has been low on politicians' priority list in recent years that seems to be in deep conflict with Estonia's international image as a smart, innovative country that believes in education. This in turn suggests our higher education policy lacks a thoroughly analyzed vision.

Higher education funding policy revolves around three main problems:

1.       how much does it cost;

2.       who foots the bill;

3.       who is paid for?

A policy shaper aiming to answer these questions must face the so-called Ansell trilemma, or a two out of three choice between low public cost, low private cost (solidarity-based funding using tax revenue) and broad access.

Which goal to sacrifice depends on one's fundamental ideological principles. The inevitable conclusion is that there is no higher education funding solution to satisfy all sides – the problem is political, not administrative. Any choice needs to be justified, while just sticking with the status quo is still a choice that will have consequences.

The course of Estonian higher education

According to Ansell, we find three types of higher education systems in Europe – continental, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian – based on which goals of the trilemma are being prioritized or sacrificed.

The Estonian Council of Rectors has said that without additional funding, universities will be forced to dial back regional activities, cut study volumes and send staff on unpaid leave that would deliver a sharp decline in terms of higher education availability.

This would constitute moving toward an elitist, continental higher education, placing in jeopardy social coherence and sustainable regional development in the long run – that is just where Estonian higher education policy is headed today, largely without realizing it.

One proposed alternative is getting the money from students and their families by introducing a universal tuition fee, in other words, switching to paid higher education. This would see Estonia move toward an Anglo-Saxon system.

What needs to be kept in mind here is that without wide-ranging social guarantees and a reform of the study loans system, doors of universities would remain closed for a lot of capable but less fortunate potential students.

Where will people find the money to pay for education in a situation where the average monthly net income of a full-time bachelor's or vocational higher education student is just €477 today?

Study loans are no magic wand – even if the state is not willing to invest directly in higher education providers, public spending to retain access to higher education would have to be boosted, whereas means-tested support systems would bring with them an unmapped hike of administrative expenses.

Study loans would also create a dangerous stimulus where, facing constrained fiscal choices, the state could easily shift the burden onto universities by telling them to simply hike tuition.

This would lead to the gradual withdrawal of the public sector from higher education and a growing study loan burden. That is precisely what is happening in the United Kingdom where the £1,000 tuition from 1998 has grown nearly ten times since then, while public funding for universities has fallen to a measly 0.5 percent of GDP.

USA is an extreme example, facing a public crisis of study loans totaling a whopping $1.4 trillion. An entire generation of young people saddled with dangerous levels of debt that an increasing number cannot hope to repay and that hits hardest middle and lower-class students who cannot pay for studies any other way, contributing to already considerable financial inequality.

Countries sporting the Anglo-Saxon model are a cautionary example, telling us that even if access to paid higher education can be created through study loans, it comes with considerable economic and social cost.

Quality higher education for as many as possible

There is a third option. The Federation of Estonian Student Unions and its partners perceives Scandinavian higher education systems to be the best fit for Estonia, offering high-quality, decommercialized higher education to as many people as possible, treating higher education as an important pillar of welfare.

It is likely not a coincidence that Scandinavian countries' attention to higher education is reflected in their top results in the global innovation index – higher education is a central part of long-term competitiveness and sustainability strategies for the Scandinavian countries.

The 2013 higher education reform was an important step toward the Scandinavian model, while more dedication is in order when following this path. Let us proceed based on the underlying principle that society's collective knowledge should be freely available to everyone and that higher education plays an instrumental role in shaping a democratic society made up of a coherent and empowered citizenry.

Higher education should support the realization of a person's potential and broaden their opportunities, instead of limiting them. Just like elementary, basic and secondary education, higher education is a public benefit and responsibility to which we need to ensure universal access and strong public support.

Based on the Ansell trilemma, our choice is simple: high-quality and socially just higher education requires sufficient public funding. This explains the demand for higher education funding of 1.5 percent of GDP that is typical of Scandinavian countries.

Everyone who shares a vision of higher education that is dedicated to quality, wide access and equality, setting its sights on catching up to our trailblazing Scandinavian neighbors, can sign the petition "Kõrghariduse ja teadus-arendustegevuse rahastamise korrastamine" until April 12.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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