Starting in 2013, full-time students were no longer subject to tuition fees on Estonian programs. The higher education reform sought to meet labor market demands, facilitate nominal length graduations and improve access to higher education for young people with worse socio-economic backgrounds. A recent study shows that the reform did not fulfill several of these goals, however.
"It was one of the boldest and largest higher education reforms in the last few decades. Unfortunately, it has not brought along the expected results, but nothing has actually gotten worse in terms of access, either," Estonian Business School (EBS) professor Kaire Põder, one of the authors of the study, told ERR's science portal Novaator.
The study, named "The Paradox of State-Funded Higher Education: Does the Winner Still Take It All?" was published in Education Sciences and concentrated on high school graduates of the last decade and revealed that access to higher education has not changed for young people from rural areas. "What has decreased, however, is their access to the 20 most popular programs," Põder noted.
The researchers measured the popularity of the university programs by the average grade of the final enrollees. The higher it was, the more popular the program was considered.
While the rate of nominal length graduation (usually three years) has remained at around the same level as the pre-reform period, the nominal graduation rate for students from rural areas has improved. This might mean that the study reform has improved motivation for students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, as they do not necessarily have to work while living in a university city, such as Tallinn or Tartu.
Additionally, there was still a trend of students from higher socio-economic backgrounds continuing their studies in universities, but students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds tend to go toward applied sciences.
One of the ideas behind the reform was that students would have less need to work aside their studies, which would also improve study quality. "Other studies have shown that working has not decreased," Tallinn University public policy associate professor Triin Lauri noted.
Children of wealthier families get better grades
One of the main focuses of the study was to find out how easily young people living in rural areas can access higher education. For this purpose, the researchers analyzed the likelihood of high school graduates going for higher education by region.
"Since there is no data on family background in Estonia's education registries, we had to add socio-economic data to the students' data. For example, in addition to distance and the territorial distribution, we also took the region's real estate prices into consideration, which gave us an opportunity to better assess the socio-economic situation," Lauri said.
Students who had gone abroad to study or continued their studies a year or more after graduating high school were not included in the study.
Earlier studies have shown that there is a clear connection between the family's socio-economic background and the child's grades. "If you put average grades and university admissions side-by-side, you can see that students with better results are more successful in getting into university. This seems fair. But if you add socio-economic backgrounds, we cannot be as happy for the positive correlation," Põder said.
Study benefits have not changed in time
While interpreting the study's results, the researchers noted that benefits and the student loan system did not see much change during the abolition of tuition fees. These measures play a significant role for students of lower socio-economic backgrounds, however. "The support system was largely the same while the tuition system changed radically," Põder said.
Then there were need-based scholarships, which are based on the student's economic situation. There are also result-based scholarships, which have seen minimal changes. The researchers noted that the need-based scholarships could see a considerable bump. "If benefits are mostly result-based, they only increase inequality, because they end up going to students with stronger backgrounds and better results," Põder noted.
"We cannot say whether or not free higher education was a step in the wrong direction. Maybe it was in the right direction, but there just was not enough of it. In addition to higher education funding, benefits play a significant role, which can often affect if young people can afford their studies, especially if full-time studies are a prerequisite for 'free' education," Lauri said.
Lauri said that "free" higher education opportunities will likely not improve access to higher education, unless the benefits system is revamped. It is also important to consider that the choices in reinstating tuition fees are not black and white.
"Tuition fees that you must pay out immediately are not the only alternative. There is also the option of tuition fees being timed and it can be dependent on future income, which can help in creating balance between programs which are more profitable and those which are not as profitable.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste