The Ministry of Education and Research (HTM) is after an amendment that would create more student places by making life more difficult and expensive for students who want to continue their studies after a break or go after a second higher education.
Among Estonia's over 40,000 university students, around a hundred find the time to pursue two simultaneous programs. For most of them, Estonia is currently paying for both educations. Kristi Raudmäe, head of higher education for the ministry, told ERR that a proposed amendment would put an end to this.
"This currently comes at the cost of admission of other students who would like to join the program," Raudmäe said.
Should the amendment be passed and enter into force next fall, students would only be eligible for one free higher education. For example, a master's student of forestry could not pursue a bachelor's degree in mathematics at the same time for free.
"The change is aimed at improving access to higher education for people who have so far lacked it," Raudmäe reiterated.
The change comes as part of a wider package that will not solve higher education funding problems but should demonstrate that universities and the ministry are making efforts to cut costs, she suggested.
"We are motivating students to better weigh their choices, be more responsible in choice of field in an effort to increase student responsibility," Raudmäe said, adding that it would result in more effective use of higher education resources.
Dropouts should pay for work done
For example, the ministry is worried when students register for a plethora of courses only to drop out before the semester ends. Teachers have spent their time and study aids on them, while society does not benefit.
The bill suggests students who discontinue studies should have to pay for outstanding credit points. A single credit point costs €50, with 30 points racked up by the end of an average semester.
Students are left a lifeline in not having to pay if they leave a course before half the semester is up.
"That is the period during which the student can get to know the course and decide whether they have the time or the academic aptitude to participate," Raudmäe remarked, adding that simply finishing the course anyway is always an option.
"Even if the person wants to drop out after that, the result will be there and available for them later in life," she said.
No freebies on third try
Between six and ten percent of students drop out during the first semester. Half of them give up after just 70 days. Some students drop out because they discover they want to study something else entirely.
Right now, going for attempt number two is free if the student dropped out before their half-way so-called equator party. Three semesters for a bachelor's degree, two for a master's.
"We are shortening the period," Raudmäe said. "Instead of half the nominal study period, we are limiting it to one academic year in bachelor's studies and one semester in master's studies."
We are also restraining those who keep trying new programs. "We are limiting it to two programs, whereas the third would require payment."
Those who drop out after the nominal study period already find it harder to try again. The rules are the same for them as for alumni, having to wait years before they can enroll again on the same academic level.
Trainings in place of a second higher education
For example, going after a new bachelor's degree has a six-year waiting period for a free place. The period is four years for a master's program. These intervals will now be made longer.
A new free study place would be available to those who count five nominal study periods since their first day of university. This means that a second free bachelor's degree becomes available 12 years after the first.
Kristi Raudmäe said that going after a second higher education is a growing trend. "But new knowledge does not necessarily require a full study program," she suggested.
She added that the amendment directs people who already have a degree to more flexible forms of study. "They could obtain additional and new knowledge in the form of microdegrees or trainings. It is another method for freeing up study places for those who apply for that particular academic level for the first time," Raudmäe said.
People choosing to pay for their second higher education would bring universities €3 million. Raudmäe described it as unlikely, suggesting that having to pay would cause most to opt out.
She added that lifelong learning is still a priority for the ministry.
"However, it is also our goal to boost the relative importance of people with higher education in society," Raudmäe said.
The draft legislation's explanatory memo suggests 45 percent of Estonians should have higher education by 2035. "The government should not need to finance every possible choice a student has if we can concentrate on making sure as many people as possible get at least one higher education," the memo reads.
Editor: Marcus Turovski