Karl Lembit Laane: Higher education needs more money instead of fine-tuning

Karl Lembit Laane.
Karl Lembit Laane. Source: Private collection

The Ministry of Education and Research's solution for underfunding of higher education is to penalize the capable, the less fortunate and those looking to retrain. Higher education needs more funding, not fine-tuning, Karl Lembit Laane writes.

Universities and student bodies have been pointing to chronic underfunding of higher education for years. And practically every year, the government has reacted by putting together all manner of half-baked solutions that do nothing to solve the actual problem and rather tend to pave the way for paid university studies.

Nothing seems to have changed this year, with Minister of Education and Research Liina Kersna's proposed Higher Education Act amendments offering mainly incomplete solutions and replacement activity.

What is the supposed lifeline this time? In short, the minister seems to have decided to go with punishments and discipline.

The target? Those who interrupt studies, pursue several simultaneous higher educations or switch programs half-way in.

Why? Supposedly, because they are the bottleneck of university access and removing them should give more people the chance to obtain higher education – as well as giving universities more ways to charge a tuition.

This is not just senselessly anti-student activity but constitutes the minister admitting failure in managing the higher education system and the field of education in general.

To start, several of the proposals are simply pointless in that they only concern a trifling part of students. The ban on pursuing several simultaneous degrees concerns high-aptitude students who currently make up 0.3 percent of the student body and whose number would have started falling anyway as major universities banned the practice years ago.

While there are far more those looking to retrain, a fifth of all students enrolled, taxing them would likely not yield anything (as they would simply opt out were they charged a tuition).

Rather, the government is shooting itself in the foot here both in terms of the strategic goal to foster lifelong learning and general level of education. Instead of allowing people with no prior higher education access, it could result in curricula underperforming as there is simply no competition for some subjects.

The situation is especially grotesque concerning those who interrupt studies. There are quite a few – a fifth of all bachelor's students – and the problem is a serious one. Not once does the minister reflect, in the bill's explanatory memorandum, why so many students who have just graduated from three years of high school (as preparation for higher education) fail at choosing the right specialty.

That the problem could be remedied by making fundamental changes there – on the high school level – seems unthinkable.

Therefore, the only solution for mistakes seems to be punishing people for making them. Those who discover they've made a mistake in choice of specialty would find themselves at an impasse and have to either chew their way through a program they take no interest in or pay an average fine of €1,500.

What is more, the ministry has the data to make educated guesses as to why people really interrupt studies. It is partly down to high school leavers' uncertainty and skill at picking the right specialty.

A recent National Audit Office report tells us that students' unstable income makes for a more important factor. The ministry has always known that Estonian students are on top in Europe when it comes to working during studies, while it has pretended their motive for doing so is free will and ability to come up with tuition.

The ministry seems wholly incapable of understanding that students do not work because their courses are too simple and they have nothing better to do, but because the government has left them virtually no alternative: benefits and study loans are neither sufficient nor available enough to ensure coping in the conditions of free higher education, not to mention the paid variety.

Therefore, the bill is aimed against the talented, the less fortunate and those looking to retrain. They are apparently the reason higher education is underfunded.

The most ironic aspect is that even the most optimistic scenario would limit the additional funds these changes would yield to a few million euros between all universities (in a situation where the field is short €100 million). What is worse, even the ministry admits in the explanatory memo that the amendment could have the opposite effect: "The changes could result in fewer university students and more dropouts." /…/

In summary, the bill is yet another example of the government shifting blame for things it hasn't done or has done sloppily onto students. It would not solve a single problem, serve no strategic goal and, what is worse, could lead many young people who are only starting out independently into debt, while keeping their parents from seeking retraining.

While free higher education is retained on the face of things, the changes would constitute another step toward its paid alternative. If this is the way the minister solves problems in higher education, it would be preferable to do nothing. Higher education needs additional funding instead of fine-tuning.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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