Jaak Juske: Free higher education must not come at the expense of quality

Jaak Juske.
Jaak Juske. Source: Krõõt Tarkmeel

The Reform Party government is gradually taking Estonia back to paid or partially paid higher education. It is a sad fact that smooth talk can no longer hide, Jaak Juske writes.

A recent University of Tartu analysis of higher education funding models reveals that maintaining quality of higher education requires finding the necessary resources.

The analysis found that a higher education system aiming for three goals – lots of students, no tuition and low cost – can only achieve two. Going after all three will inevitably impact the quality of education on offer. This is precisely what is happening in Estonia today.

Estonians will never be great in number or strength, while we can be great in spirit. However, this spirit relies on stellar education one of the cornerstones of which is Estonian-language higher education. The latter needs to be of high quality and universally available to everyone who values learning and strives for new knowledge.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that university funding is deep in crisis today. Rectors, looking at ballooning costs, have not signed public-law contracts that ensure government funding. What this means is that Estonia is currently not paying universities for a single student place (a part of last year's funding is retained in a situation where new contracts are not signed - ed.), which scandalous situation has persisted since early February.

The result is universities dialing back or closing Estonian study modules. Universities have already announced such cuts. The Reform Party government is gradually taking Estonia back to paid or partially paid higher education. It is a sad fact that smooth talk can no longer hide.

The leading government party simply lacks the political will to retain free higher education. The incoming supplementary budget offers nothing in this regard. We are still treated to the broken record of there possibly being enough in the next state budget. What this means is that no solution to the problem will be found before the year's end.

University rectors are demanding a 15-percent base funding hike over four years to keep the current level of financing at least. Yes, universities have received more money than in previous years in absolute terms.

However, higher education funding has dropped from 1.5 percent of GDP to 1.1 percent of GDP. This has happened in the conditions of rapid price advance, which is why universities need more funds just to cover administrative costs. It is not possible to postpone lecturers' salary advance any longer either.

The University of Tartu study reveals that the experience of other countries suggests two paths – either to boost state funding, as Finland has done, or charge a moderate tuition, following the example of the Netherlands.

The Social Democratic Party Estonia can follow in Finland's tracks here. If we want to remain an educated nation, we need to ensure all talented youths have a shot at free and high-quality higher education. This requires returning funding to the 1.5 percent of GDP level.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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