Opinion: Estonia can have Estonian university professors in the future

Karsten Staehr
Karsten Staehr Source: Tallinn University of Technology

Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) macroeconomics professor Karsten Staehr comments on the potential lack of Estonian professors in the future, saying that in order to make doctoral studies more attractive, students must be given conditions equal or better than those offered by private business or the public sector.

Jaak Aaviksoo, the well-known academic and rector of Tallinn University of Technology until the end of August, has recently started a much overdue debate on the recruitment to academic positions in Estonia and the possibility that there may be no Estonian university professors in 20-30 years.

His argument is simply that it is exceedingly difficult to recruit Estonians to doctoral studies at universities in Estonia and that foreigners increasingly take up the available places. In the longer term there will only be few Estonians with a doctoral degree and therefore very few qualified Estonians who can work as professors at the universities in the country.

The lack of Estonian and Estonian-speaking doctoral students is in some sense not new. It has been difficult to recruit Estonian doctoral students for a long time. What is new is that the globalisation of science and the opening of borders have meant that foreigners are taking up the available places for doctoral students. This may overall be a good thing, but it creates a gap between the universities and society at large and it jeopardises university teaching in Estonian. Aaviksoo has touched upon an important point.

There are of course many excellent Estonian-speaking students in the doctoral programmes at the universities in Tartu and Tallinn. However, more students and a broader base of recruitment are needed. If Estonia is to close the income gap to its Nordic neighbours, it must become a leader in science, innovation and management. This requires education of researchers that can carry out research and development at the very highest level. In other words, to continue its development Estonia needs world-class doctoral programmes with smart and hard-working students, including many students from Estonia.

The recruitment of Estonian doctoral students is difficult. Advertisements of positions for doctoral studies often receive very few or no applications, and recruitment to the doctoral programmes is therefore sometimes not a question of selecting the best students but rather of convincing students to apply. Moreover, many students drop out or spend unreasonably long time completing their doctoral studies. 

I have talked to many Estonian and Estonian-speaking students whom I have encouraged to pursue doctoral studies, and they all tell more or less the same story. They prefer jobs outside university as salaries and working conditions in private businesses or the public sector are much better than those offered in the doctoral programmes in Estonia. They also argue that a doctoral degree is not considered to be prestigious in Estonia where the focus is often on high salaries and generous perks.

We have excellent and committed doctoral students in Estonia but we need to give them better conditions if we are to extend the pool of Estonian applicants. This is recognised by the universities in Estonia, and they all try to divert research money and various grants into the education of doctoral students. These efforts are laudable but doctoral researchers in Estonia still have much lower salaries and less secure working conditions that what is offered by private companies.

To make doctoral studies more attractive the doctoral students must be given conditions that are as good as or better than those offered by private business or the public sector. This is exactly what the Nordic countries do. Doctoral students in the Nordic countries are typically employed and they are paid salaries commensurable to those in other parts of the public sector. Moreover, they are most often given freedom to pursue their own research interests.

Estonia must follow the lead of the Nordic countries. Doctoral students need to be considered an integral and acclaimed part of academic staff, and they must be paid salaries comparable to those in private businesses or the public sector. This will stimulate recruitment and improve the reputation of academic work.

One may ask where the money to finance such a policy of employing doctoral students may come from. I would argue that the funding of well-paid Estonian doctoral students is an investment in the longer-term development of the Estonian economy and society at large. Estonia has excellent primary schools and high schools. Investing in young Estonians be trained as researchers should be seen in the same light as investment in a wider road between Tallinn and Tartu or a new electricity transmission line. There is a cost in the short term but a gain in the longer term.

It may also be possible to redirect resources to salaries for doctoral students from the numerous funding schemes for research projects in specific topics. Estonia has over time developed complex systems of research funding, which are often bureaucratic and tie up a lot of resources at universities and various funding agencies. It might be preferable to reduce the funding for specific research projects and using instead the means to pay Estonian doctoral students to develop their own research. It is time to drop micro-management of research and bet on the creativity, dedication and hard work of Estonian doctoral students.


Professor Karsten Staehr works at TalTech's Department of Economics and Finance. A native of Denmark, he supervises the writing of bachelor and master's theses within the macroeconomics, fiscal policy, international economics and public economics spheres, and has appeared in many international publications, including the Journal of Economic Studies, International Tax and Public Finance, and French national daily Le Monde.

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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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