Eleri Pilliroog: Equal treatment of foreign students a la interior ministry

Eleri Pilliroog.
Eleri Pilliroog.

The Ministry of the Interior has been looking to make it more difficult for foreign students to study in Estonia for months, with plans for a bill opposed by almost all important stakeholders under the guise of combating COVID-19, Eleri Pilliroog writes.

The Ministry of the Interior is looking to indefinitely maintain restrictions on entry for students from third countries (from outside the European Union) that were first introduced in the emergency situation under the guise of warding off COVID-19.

On May 22, the Ministry of Education and Research received a letter according to which foreign students will find it harder to come to Estonia for the next academic year. The interior ministry has no plans for lifting restrictions even after the European Commission's call for EU external borders to be closed expires on June 15, 2020.

Protection of public health is given as the main reason for limiting the access of foreign students from third countries to higher education. It is clear that this pandemic requires extraordinary measures for stopping the spread of the virus, while we should remain vigilant regarding potential attempts to take advantage of the crisis to achieve hidden political goals.

Positive effects overlooked

The main character of this story is the bill to amend the Aliens Act and the Study Allowances and Study Loans Act highlighted in the interior ministry's letter that aims to limit working of third country foreign students to 16 hours a week.

In late 2019, the interior ministry sent out for coordination a bill to amend the Aliens Act that drew criticism from the education world, entrepreneurs, students, startups, universities and other ministries.

The beginning of March this year saw a roundtable meeting where, despite serious opposition from various organizations, the ministry decided to move forward with the plan. This suggests the ministry has been looking to make it more difficult for foreign students to study in Estonia for some months, with plans to push through a bill opposed by almost all stakeholders under the guise of combating COVID-19.

The most conspicuous examples from the bill concern foreign students' rights. The ministry is bothered by student immigration from countries such as Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran having grown and that communities of representatives of these nations tend to be (according to the ministry) very closed. It is also said that students from these countries brought the most family members with them.

Student representatives have said in the past that the bill conveniently fails to mention positive aspects of having foreign students in terms of the internationalization of Estonian higher education and the labor market – for example, the ministry overlooks the fact that a fifth of foreign students who graduated in 2017 and stayed in Estonia went to work in education, 70 percent of them associated with the activities of universities.

Additionally, working foreign students and the previous year's graduates brought the state over €10 million in tax revenue in the 2018/2019 academic year.

The interior ministry has decided to limit the possibilities of all students from third countries to study in Estonia based on prejudiced speculation that concerns students from just a few countries. It is not a sustainable solution.

Instead of systematic efforts to solve factual and established pain spots or risks tied to student migration from various countries, the ministry is looking to eliminate problems by cutting the rights of all foreign students from third countries.

Students coming to Estonia from third countries are not all the same or from the same culture and measures meant to support their adaptation in Estonia need to keep those differences in mind.

The bill also hits students from third countries who study in Estonian. The ministry treats them as undesirable and problematic aliens just in case, even though foreign students studying in Estonian share the same conditions of all Estonian students.

For example, the University of Tartu currently has 70 Russian students who study in Estonian. While foreign students' poor Estonian proficiency is highlighted as a problem by the ministry, according to the bill, it is still not enough when a foreign student decides to obtain higher education in Estonian.

Simplified black-and-white approach

Even though the ministry's citizenship and migration policy department did not wish to point to the positive side of having foreign students, we can find ministry documents to highlight it.

Documents by the interior ministry aimed at introducing third country grad students to the Estonian labor market read: "When aiming to solve the problem of shortage of qualified labor, hiring foreign students and their implementation on the labor market is more effective than hiring foreign labor as the former develop social practices or preliminary adaptation in the course of studies."

In addition to these guidelines, the bill also opposes Estonian education policy documents and goals. It is important to make sure people Estonia needs, who are clearly capable and want to contribute to the Estonian society can come here.

Temporary restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of the virus are understandable for as long as their true purpose is combating the disease, not realizing narrow interests.

The bill approaches a complicated and multifaceted set of problems in a simplified black-and-white manner, while what is needed is individual approach, with generalizations proving largely impossible.

Every student's decision to study abroad and come to Estonia follows different motivators that cannot be explained universally, which is why authors of the bill in question would do well to try and see the big picture and consider feedback from target groups, especially universities.

In summary, foreign students usually stay connected to their alma mater in Estonia – a bond that should not be underestimated.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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