Estonian universities will not sign administrative contracts with the state if the government fails to make additional funding available for this year and three consecutive years that would help reduce the cumulative higher education financing deficit of €100 million, University of Tartu Rector Toomas Asser told the Vikerraadio "Uudis+" program.
Asser described underfunding of higher education as an acute problem for all public-law universities in Estonia. All are currently in talks over new administrative contracts that cover the state's expectations and universities' possibilities.
"We know the state's expectations in terms of growth, while we have no certainty of guarantees. The previous agreements saw us assume obligations for which resources were not allocated, which fact has left us cautious. Right now, all public-law universities agree that we are not prepared to sign administrative agreements on recent conditions," the UT rector said.
Asser said that the problem was caused after Estonia switched to free higher education and universities were deprived of opportunities to involve private capital in recent volume. Government funding of universities has since then dropped from 1.5 percent of GDP to 1.1 percent of GDP.
"It is impossible to retain the same working conditions in this kind of a decline, and it is about to reflect in the quality of higher education," Asser said.
He pointed out that state funding for universities pays professors' salaries that have become the most critical factor by today. A recent UT work satisfaction survey found that a third of professors were not satisfied with their salary level.
Funding should grow by 15 percent a year
Asser said that the cabinet is set to discuss higher education funding later this week and that his information suggests proposals that could resolve the situation for a few years will be tabled.
"The sides, including the Ministry of Education and Research and the Riigikogu, agree that higher education is short on funds. The emphasis is on how to compensate universities for the subpar funding of recent years."
Asser put the cumulative deficit at €100 million, which universities are not expecting the state to come up with all at once.
"The debate will concentrate on an increase of 15 percent over the next three years. /…/ However, additional resources should also be found for 2022," Asser found.
The rector added that decisions are needed before state budget deliberations start in fall as universities will simply refuse to sign new administrative contracts should the process be dragged out.
The latter eventuality would not see universities close doors as roughly 80 percent of higher education money is allocated in the form of base funding.
Student cost-sharing one option
The rector said that universities are prepared to propose their own solutions.
"We can switch to part-time study or offer micro degrees. Or dial down the number of free repeat courses etc. However, these are just parts of what needs to be a full solution to the problem."
Asser added that if the state solves the cumulative deficit created over past years, it is still necessary to reach an understanding on what manner of higher education Estonia wants and how to finance it.
Asser was reluctant to say whether higher education should be dropped, suggesting that would need to be a political choice.
"Whether we will continue with so-called free higher education or some other scheme is a matter of political decisions."
"For example, we do not know the public's reaction if partial student contribution in the volume of €1,000 or more was restored. Cost-sharing options would also take time to implement as we would need to go over student benefits that are completely outdated today," Toomas Asser found.
Editor: Marcus Turovski