Jaak Aaviksoo: On more than legal education

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Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Top jurists' "deep concern for the status quo and moreover the future of legal education in Estonia" expressed in a recent public address definitely deserves a debate that goes beyond narrow professional circles, Jaak Aaviksoo writes.

Such deep concerns are very likely shared by representatives of all disciplines and not just in Estonia – higher education morphing into mass education in the conditions of shrinking public budgets has been stretching the gap between expectations and reality for years. And there are no good solutions on the horizon.

The main reason for the much-lamented slump in quality (even though it remains unclear what exactly is meant by it) is trivially simple – when the authors of the address went to university, they were one in five young people, while the corresponding ratio is now closer to two out of three.

However, academic aptitude is distributed rather unevenly. It is a justified question whether "higher education for everyone" is sensible, while it would probably be unrealistic to try and limit access to higher education. Not even as concerns admissions criteria, not to mention quotas.

The EU has made it a goal to provide higher education to 40 percent of youths, while Estonia has long since moved past that mark and is nearing 50 percent. Our salary statistics serves as proof that we do not have enough work to offer people with higher education: the higher education salary bonus is one of the lowest among developed countries in Estonia.

The practicality of higher education is also reflected in the fact that most Estonian students are already professionally employed and the diploma is little more than a "sign of social status" for many.

What is more, nowhere has extra higher education volume come with equal growth in funding, which fact has impacted universities' ability to hire a sufficient number of good teachers. The situation is ever sadder in Estonia as higher education funding in GDP that climbed to 1.5 percent in the wake of the "free higher education" reform has fallen back to 1 percent by now. It would be naive to think this has no bearing on quality.

It is little wonder then that various guilds, not least lawyers, have embarked on a quest to try and find "solutions."

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications started funding IT disciplines, the Ministry of Culture supports national sciences, the Ministry of Rural Affairs agriculture and the Ministry of Social Affairs medical studies. Even the Ministry of Justice has its own higher education budget coordinated by the Estonian Academy of Sciences. Because the Ministry of Education and Research cannot even afford to pay teachers' salaries!

It is no wonder people who see a return to the post-Soviet model where the state only pays for graduates it needs, while everyone else is expected to pay their own way, are becoming more vocal. Especially jurists should be able to see in the proposal a conflict with the constitutional right to education, state tasks and broader educational goals.

Principles of quality insurance proposed in the address are also questionable.

Standardized state curricula, state final examinations, national limitations for entrants and other state-centered instruments were successful in the preparation of closed legal organs of Prussian Germany and later the Soviet Union, while things work very differently in countries that have open and autonomous universities, with the suitability of graduates for top legal professions measured at appropriate exams by the corresponding instances themselves.

It also seems that the address' focal point – that only every other graduate passes the corresponding professional exam – would be considered a good result for most other disciplines. Every other university graduate will also not become a professor, top surgeon or bishop (thinking about the traditional academic structure of universities).

The idea of classifying law as a national science also deserves broader public debate.

Without underestimating the strong link between (rule of) law and statehood and every jurist's duty to know Estonian legislation both on the level of norms and their execution, we should also consider the more general values of an open legal culture and methods and the need to continually populate them with new meaning. Especially in a situation where we can hear calls to concentrate studies in a single university.

The latter proposal also deserves fundamental analysis – while it would not yield saving, a more sensible division of tasks would indeed be a bonus. However, law graduates of foreign universities should be welcome with open arms both in practical office and teaching capacity. We know plenty of examples of top lawyers whose international education background has allowed them to expand and promote our local legal life.

Finally, I would place the contents of the address into broader legal and political cultural context.

Many, including the address' undersigned, have expressed concern over the now widespread practice of immediately amending legislation and regulations as soon as discrepancies manifest. Our faith in the law and court (and the Kaiser) has deep roots in history and the norm-centered legal mentality that follows from it has many upsides, while we could take a time-out every now and then to think about why things are what they are before we open legislation.

People first and foremost act on their interests and existing conditions and even the best law cannot make water flow up the mountain from the valley. Perhaps this can be of use in overcoming concerns in legal education.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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