Students from third countries may not be able to study in Estonia next academic year even if they have the necessary visa or residence permit, due to fears of a resurgence of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The Ministry of the Interior says it is preparing a bill which will, among other things, limit issuing residents' permits to the spouses and families of third country students. There are around 5,500 foreign students studying in Estonia, two-thirds of these from outside the European Union.
Many higher education institutions in Estonia have large numbers of foreign students, including those from third countries – on some courses making up around a half of the student body.
In a letter to the Ministry of Education and Research, Ruth Annus, head of the interior ministry's citizenship and migration policy department, stated that higher education institutions in Estonia could not count on third-country citizens, meaning chiefly those from non-EU, non-EEA nations, being able to come to study in Estonia in the fall, due to the risk of a coronavirus second wave.
Annus told ERR on Thursday afternoon experts predict a COVID-19 second wave in the autumn, adding protection of the domestic populace trumped other considerations and risks could not be taken.
"In any case, the state's obligation to protect the Estonian people must be taken into account," Annus told ERR.
"If there is no reliable data on the situation in a third country, then, in any event, the situation has simply changed - the world has changed. We can no longer take into account rules that were in place three months ago," she said.
Annus said the countries of origin of around half the students with residence permits coming to Estonia included India, Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which she said were of a high immigration risk.
Annus added it is key there is a relative equalization of coronavirus infection rate on both sides of the border, in other words the rate and risk of students' country of origin should be around the same as that of Estonia.
She also said since study mobility is by its nature temporary, it is logical international students would return home after their studies.
"Looking at what a high value-added foreigner constitutes, according to the current Aliens Act (recently amended-ed.), and at who is welcome in Estonia, we intend to impose a similar requirement on foreign students who want to stay here. An employer must pay them at least the last year's average salary, which is €1,407."
Hendrik Voll, Vice-Rector of Studies at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), which hosts large numbers of international students, told ERR the Interior Ministry's plans could harm the university, if students are not able to enter the country to study under the new regime.
"The employment rate from [those graduating from] TalTech to [work in] Estonia is definitely the highest; in IT it is between 60-70 percent, and in the field of engineering it stands at 50 percent," said Voll.
Number of international students growing every year
The number of foreign students studying in Estonia has been growing year-on-year, statistics show.
According to the education information system (Hariduse infosüsteem), 12 percent of students in Estonia are currently international students, or approximately 5,500 out of 45,000.
Breakdown by nationality
Of foreign students, 3,400, or 62 percent, are from outside the EU.
The largest group of students by nationality are Finnish, who number almost 1,300, followed by students from the Russian Federation at 400.
Students from Nigeria and Ukraine make up the next largest groups.
Breakdown by study subject
Around 2,000 international students study business, administration and/or law, ERR reports.
Close to 800 study social sciences, and 700 foreign students are studying ICT.
Breakdown by fees
Of the 5,500 overseas students, 67 percent - 3,700 students - pay tuition fees, which vary from institution to institution, as well as from subject to subject.
ERR quoted a figure of €1,700-€5,500 per semester as an average; among the highest fees come with studying medicine at the University of Tartu, which costs around €12,000 per semester, it is reported.
Higher education institutions not surprised by proposed restriction
Margus Pärtlas, Vice-Rector of Studies and Research at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater (EAMT) in Tallinn, told ERR Thursday that the proposed restrictions in student admission would hardly come as a surprise to universities.
"There is a lot of worry in the air, which also leads to a lot of technical problems - for example, if a student is admitted, but they can't come to Estonia around September 1 (i.e. the start of the academic year-ed.), do they then leave or be deleted from the student list, matriculate, or postpone the start of their studies," Pärtlas.
Pärtlas put the figure of EAMT students likely to be affected by the restriction at 70, adding that it may also affect the EU's Erasmus student exchange program.
Of possible solutions, Pärtlas said that remote learning in his institution's field would not be satisfactory.
"Distance learning in the field of music and theater is possible to some extent, in certain subjects, but certainly not as the main teaching method," said Pärtlas.
Hendrik Voll at TalTech said the institution's current plans envisaged a large proportion of studies recommencing in the fall, adding that the pandemic to date had prolonged visa application processes.
"Due to the emergency [situation], the visa application period is definitely taking longer. It usually took a month and a half, but now it is estimated that it could take three months," he said, adding that some students will need to commence their studies remotely, but that TalTech has taken this into account, with this running till at least the end of October. If students cannot arrive in the country after that, plans would need to be changed, he said.
"We need to look at each curriculum separately, and at which programs have enough Estonians and EU students. If we can see where a critical mass cannot be met, then maybe we need to make the break," Voll said.
Voll said that for about 600 students, two thirds of whom are from third countries, the language of study for their bachelor's and master's courses is English.
Moreover, half of doctoral studies students come from other countries, he said.
The interior ministry plans to continue working on the draft bill which will regulate the study mobility conditions.
The bill plans to change the basis on which residence permits are issued, the ceiling on working hours while studying, and the basis of wages for any such work.
Long-term visas for family members of third country nationals either studying or working in Estonia is to be terminated, it is reported, and the spouse of a third-country national who has been granted a residence permit would need to wait at least two years for a residents' permit, should the bill pass.
Editor: Andrew Whyte