In order to ensure students' enthusiasm and make doctoral studies more attractive, the state is planning to replace grants for doctoral students with a wage equal to the average wage in Estonia. For many scientists, this is a long-awaited step but critics worry it might bring forth a reduction in study freedom.
Raiko Jäärats is a war veteran and a doctoral student at Tallinn University, who works as an editor in a newspaper in addition to studying and teaching the public during the "era of silence". Stories such as Jäärats' are plenty as many young scientists need to work on many fronts to make ends meet.
"Most students must work full-time, those who do not, many of them live as very poor people," Jäärats noted. Hoping on just grants allocated for students also do not count for students' pensions and leave parental benefits close to the minimum.
Doctoral studies are often not finished
Only those who already hold a master's degree are allowed to enter doctoral studies. For many, those studies are a promised land where discoveries and creativity shines. Often times however, science funding puts an end to these dreams.
Katrin Niglas, Vice-Rector for Research at Tallinn University, said the reform to pay students an average wage was brought up because current conditions often extend the time needed to finish a doctorate.
"The support was around €400 for many years, now it has been €660 for some time. It is expected that universities would not even want to admit those doctoral students who are satisfied with an income of €660," Niglas said.
Doctoral studies traditionally take four years to finish, but can take up to three times as long if the student is studying while also working or tending to family. Often times, studies are not finished at all. The schools' reputations also come to play.
"In the end, the quality of universities is assessed based on how well they can take the students to their final thesis defense," Niglas noted.
This is where the base of the reform lies. According to Ministry of Education and Research Undersecretary Indrek Reimand, the reform's main idea is that the majority of doctoral students would turn into junior researchers, meaning paid employees.
The goal is for them to be paid at least an average Estonian wage. There are many ways to reach that mark. "One is that doctoral students would turn into researchers in the university or in evaluated research institutions. Another option is if the student works in a company or in another unevaluated institution, like the government. Then the topics of their research come from the institutions," Reimand says.
Raiko Jäärats said his career would have gone differently if he had those options. "If at the time when I stepped into doctoral studies, I would have been paid an average wage, I would have left my job then and committed myself 100 percent to my doctoral studies. I would have a hard time imagining that I could not have done it in four years," Jäärats said.
Critics: State's apparent generosity cynical
Yet there are critics for the planned reform. Some consider the state's apparent generosity cynical, as half of the researchers' incomes would go back into state coffers, meaning the state basically lifts money from one pocket to another.
The freedom of students is also a topic of worry and there are fears that universities could use researches to cover up their labor problems. There are cases already where academic personnel relies too heavily on their students while being submerged in grant applications themselves.
While endangering relationships, it is simpler for a student to leave their position as teacher than a doctoral student with an employment contract. There is also a solution for the latter situation.
"A third option is relatively similar to the current situation, where doctoral students are just students. It is meant for the cases where a student is carrying out their studies alongside work that is not related to their research," Reimand said.
It sounds promising but students who choose this path would not qualify for any state aid at all. Currently, a doctorate is only necessary for those who wish to stay in the academic world. The reform also aims to change that. There have long been talks of a doctorate requirement benefiting many public sector positions. Yet the standard is a master's degree.
Katrin Niglas noted that it is a vicious circle in some ways. "If there are not enough doctorates coming in, then society does not develop the knowledge and feel that they could manage their things better," she said.
The reform hopes for steps forward on that front as well. Among other things, it also includes the creation of measures that would allow for state or European Union funding to be directed to the private sector.
The reform package has been worked on four some ten years now and is partly in force in some universities already. This year, the education ministry is planning to allocate funding for schools to pilot the reformed scheme. The ministry is hoping to put the reform into full force in fall of 2022.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste