Gunnar Okk: Estonian universities, money and future

Gunnar Okk.
Gunnar Okk. Source: Marjo Koivumäki / Studio Apris

Estonia could carry out a wide-ranging higher education and scientific research reform by bringing the activities of Estonian universities and research and development institutions together in two centers in Tallinn and one in Tartu, Gunnar Okk writes.

A thought that stayed with me from a parliamentary discussion on the role, quality and funding of higher education in Estonia from this December was that Estonian higher education and research does not need interesting ideas, witty and deep treatments of how to finance higher education and R&D – it just needs funding.

However, would simply giving the current system more money ensure its competitiveness and sustainability in the future? I'm afraid the answer is no.

Estonia has six public-law universities, one private university, nine state vocational higher education schools and one private-law institution of higher education teaching a total of 45,000 students, as well as seven state-owned and two public-law research and development institutions. Public sector higher education and R&D institutions employ some 9,000 people in all.

Several international experts have suggested that there should be one internationally competitive and successful university per one million residents of the country it is in. The calculation is that this should ensure sufficient funding from the state, enterprise, industry, sponsors and the university's own economic activity.

Almost eight years ago, in February 2014, the government's Research and Development Council commissioned a report on the network and fields of activity of universities and other Estonian research institutions, including vocational higher education providers. The report concentrated mainly on the international competitiveness and economic sustainability of institutions and resulted in 21 recommendations that included some rather radical proposals.

Perhaps the time has come to dust off that report and give it another look, while leaving emotions out of it.

One of the core recommendations was a wide-ranging reform of higher education and research to bring the activities of Estonian universities and research and development institutions together in two centers in Tallinn and one in Tartu.

This would result in greater centralization of management, optimal use of existing resources, abandoning certain activities or functions and concentrating more on existing strengths or areas with a lot of potential, as well as a change of the inner culture of recent institutions.

The report highlighted the need to considerably boost the level of professional management, simplify decision-making processes and render them more transparent, in addition to concretizing responsibility among top executives.

The proposal envisioned a common teacher training and lecturer continuation training center, developing a common IT base for universities and more optimal use of existing real estate. The report urged betting on fields where Estonia has the potential to reach at least the global average level or to exceed it.

Described as crucial in the report is understanding the actual quality of current Estonian higher education. For this purpose, the report recommended carrying out a survey of how many people who have gotten bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees in Estonia (and have not continued their studies) have managed to find professional work either in Estonia or abroad inside one year of graduating. Another recommendation was to look at their salary level three years after graduation.

The results could be used to consider admitting considerably fewer students in areas actual labor market demand for which is modest or nonexistent.

Concerning the state-funded higher education model, the report recommended replacing free higher education with a system of education contracts that would see the state finance people's studies using a loan they will not be expected to repay if they finish their studies inside a sensible time period and work in Estonia for a time after graduation. The tuition fee of foreign students who stay and work in Estonia after graduation would be deducted from their taxable income.

The report also included the proposal for the creation of a national fund for individual grants for bringing the world's top lecturers and professors to Estonian universities. The same fund would be used to finance regular Estonia visits by leading scientists, opinion leaders in economics, politics and other walks of life.

The world's top universities differ from others of their kind in three main ways. Firstly, concentration of talented teachers, scientists and students. The second key aspect compared to mediocre universities is considerably bigger budgets and multitude of sources of funding. These include state grants for everyday expenses and research, R&D contracts with both public organizations and private companies, patent and licensing income, donations and finally tuition.

The better a university's financial situation, the easier it is to bring on board the world's top lecturers and scientists that allow a university to boost its status and in turn generate more funding.

The third factor of success for top universities is a combination of their freedom, autonomy and professional management. World-class universities have succeeded in creating atmospheres that value competitive ability, critical thinking, innovation and creativity. Executive-level management of universities is characterized by transparent and relatively simple decision-making processes, clear strategic choices and professional risk management.

The experience of successful countries suggests that radical change for the better based on goals of development both in shaping a network of higher education and R&D institutions and as concerns choice of fields of activity requires political decisions and purposeful execution of said decisions over a relatively short period of time. This is what should be done in Estonia.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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