Marju Himma: Estonia is not wealthy enough to afford cheap higher education

The University of Tartu.
The University of Tartu. Source: Vladislava Snurnikova/ERR

The higher education funding topic is more complicated than a simple comparison with teachers' salaries, Marju Himma finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment, concluding that Estonia is not wealthy enough to be able to afford cheap higher education.

People who lump higher education in with research might be confused today, as not long ago, scientists demanded 1 percent of GDP and got it. Now, you're demanding more for higher education. What is it that you want?

An acquaintance recently asked me how I see things from the inside, as a university lecturer. It is true that higher education funding is most often discussed by officials and members of rectorates. Allow me to share my insights as a University of Tartu research fellow and lecturer.

We should stop comparing lecturers to schoolteachers

Every time I hear people say that university lecturers are paid less than schoolteachers, it irritates me. Why couldn't a teacher make a decent salary and more than a lecturer in some cases?

Statistics from the Estonian Council of Rectors suggests that the median salary of lecturers with doctoral degrees was €1,828 in 2021. Lecturers without a doctoral degree – who compare more closely with schoolteachers – made €1,708 on average (median salary €1,595). The average salary of a general education school teacher in 2021 was €1,412. Therefore, the salaries of university lecturers and teachers are quite similar.

The workload of general education school teachers, such as class or subject teachers, can be many times that of lecturers. What is more, lecturers are usually relatively free in shaping the methodology and volume of their courses, which luxury class teachers, biology, mathematics or Estonian teachers most definitely do not have.

Honestly, the entire "teacher making more than a lecturer" dimension is just unnecessary. Rather, we should concentrate on the things we are not getting as a nation when our higher education has low-paid and poorly motivated employees.

One way to finance teaching in universities is tuition.

Shortage of funding results in micro degrees

From students, I have mostly heard opposition to the idea of tuition. Since I attended university in the early 2000s when Estonia still had paid higher education, I tend to agree. And not because having to pay a tuition somehow forced students to work more.

Rather, I am against tuition because it created a clear rift in attitudes between free and paid students. There were always some who felt they should have it easier because they were charged a tuition or that the lecturer should somehow offer them "extra service." I disliked the distinction as a student, and I dislike it now as a lecturer.

What we have today are lifelong learners, people who want to complement their know-how and skills in other areas to be more professional in their working life. And universities have found a way to facilitate and charge a tuition at the same time.

The suggestion that curricula could be completed in isolated bites so to speak appeared around a decade ago, before Estonia's free higher education reform. Tackling two or three courses one year and another pair the next that would eventually add up to a degree. But the idea never took off.

Now, in the conditions of acute shortage of funding, it is just where Estonian universities have arrived. This form of extra education has manifested in paid micro degrees that all universities currently offer. The funding crisis has reanimated an old idea and is offering the labor market something for which there is great demand.

Student should talk about diversity instead

One topic that students could be considerably louder on concerns quality of studies and diversity. Universities should offer as many different topics that help one expand their horizons both professionally and in general as possible. That is what interdisciplinarity really aims for.

A few decades ago, students could enlist for courses ranging from physiotherapy to folk faith, from data analysis to microbiology. That was the charm of the University of Tartu as a true universitas. Only the medical faculty was off-limits to people simply looking to broaden their horizons.

What is the situation today? Because institutes keep close tabs on which students bring in money, chances of grabbing courses from other curricula or a secondary specialty are becoming scarce. What is more, choices have also been limited inside curricula in many universities. After all, it is highly efficient to teach a narrow set of subjects and put pressure on students to graduate quickly.

The communicating vessels of research and higher education

It is true that the salaries of academic workers are usually a mix of education and research funding. In other words, those who engage in research in addition to teaching also get paid for both.

Because it matters little for the employee which financial source ends up contributing to their salary, a decent salary often ends up coming from the research and development pot and a university is a system of communicating vessels.

Therefore, subpar funding of higher education also means teaching is often done using R&D resources that ends up impacting research. As an added effect, capable people often choose R&D in place of teaching because the field is better funded and leave teaching to those who do not currently have research projects or lack the necessary ability. In the end, students and society suffer.

Cheap or downright free things have a certain quality. Is low quality of knowledge what can maintain Estonia's competitive ability and position in the world?

Estonia has public-law universities instead of national ones. This means that the government and university will agree what the former will buy and from which universities. Contracts require the sides to agree on funding. This kind of an agreement is called a contract under public law and recent developments have seen universities tell the government that current prices are not enough for quality higher education and refuse to sign the agreements.

What is to be done? Because universities are painting a rather gloomy picture today.

Cheap or downright free things have a certain quality, and refusing to pay or not paying enough robs one of the right to demand better. Estonian higher education is short some €100 million annually. In other words, if the government wants universities to contribute certain volumes, content and quality, this is the minimum amount that needs to be found. The time to apply pressure for the extra funding to be included in the state budget strategy is now.

Or we could compromise and have fewer people with higher education who will have increasingly poor know-how and narrow horizons taught by an even smaller number of people still willing to work for the money. Cheap is possible, while it will render Estonia poorer as a result.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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