A series of unresolved or at the very least undebated problems have piled up in higher education the weight of which is keeping Estonia from making necessary funding decisions. We don't know what we want, Jaak Aaviksoo writes.
Dissatisfaction with higher education funding has been mounting in recent years, with the alleged deficit now at €100 million. The problem looks simple on the face of it: university funding has basically been frozen on the 2016 level, while the Estonian GDP and state budget have basically added 50 percent since then.
It is nice to be able to say that all stakeholders, including a number of education ministers, have admitted the problem. They are actively attending various meetings and roundtables, commissioning studies and drawing up models but… nothing changes. Why is that?
Experience suggests money or lack thereof is not really the problem in such situations. The problem is deeper and more multifaceted. There is clearly no political will, while lack of broader public support or demand that would force decision-makers to take action can also be felt. I suppose we can say that what is happening at universities is not sufficiently in line with various stakeholders' expectations, or to put it more modernly: universities' value offers are not in accordance with customers' expectations.
A few examples. Employers lament the theoretical nature of graduates' skills and curricula on offer ignoring the labor market situation and proceed to open the Cleveron Academy and Jõhvi Programming School. Students expect more flexible forms of study, modern methodology and support systems. Lecturers and researchers worry about sprawling bureaucracy and institutions becoming increasingly vocational, with universities holding additional admissions to fill student places.
Some politicians fail to understand why Estonia should pay for the training of foreign students, while others measure the quality of universities based on their number and international rankings. It is true that a lot of lecturers make under the national average wage, while it is equally true that the best foreign professors are hired for six average salaries.
In such a situation, it is not clear what additional funding would achieve. Yet other politicians suggest that the recent decision to take Estonia's R&D funding to 1 percent of GDP just gave the sector €50 million and ask whether it could be enough. If only for some gratitude.
In summary: higher education has developed a series of problems in need of solutions or at least debate the weight of which is holding necessary funding decisions back. We don't know what we want!
The omission is that of politicians and other players in charge of higher education. Whereas we cannot say there hasn't been debate on development. A striking inclusion campaign recently accompanied the 2021-2035 education development plan that could provide answers to the aforementioned questions. What it provides instead is an entirely modern and progressive presentation of what education should be and assurances that it is in accordance with all important international documents. Good that we have that much. But what about our problems?
A sensible higher education policy should prioritize Estonia's interests and requires purposeful action over at least a decade in order to produce results. Unfortunately, the previous reform ran out of steam immediately after the decision to increase funding by 40 percent had been made, barely three years after it was launched. Whereas the problem was not freezing of funding but the education ministry and ruling coalitions' inability to phrase the necessary long-term political input for universities' public-law contracts.
Lack of necessary political vision left officials at the mercy of universities' interests and ambitions, and everything eventually turned out as it always does following necessary mutual compromises in details. The current funding crisis is a regrettable side-effect of this "agreement."
All of it is bad, very bad in fact! Estonia needs a clear and comprehensible higher education policy that is in line with broader public interests, which is something we will have to phrase.
That is why the passionate debate over whether to continue with free higher education (and find the necessary €100 million [this time]) or switch to paid higher education is approaching the problem from the wrong end. Money is means, not the end, and the funding model merely a technology for achieving something as opposed to the road to happiness.
It is clear that universities are no longer able to perform their tasks in the current situation, not even on the recent level. First, we need a solution for this and the next few fiscal years. After that, more clarity is needed in terms of what we expect from out universities as a society. And only then could we arrive at the debate over tuition vs state funding, loan schemes etc.
All of it is the task of the education minister, in cooperation with the ministry and partners. We could start by clearly phrasing problems in relation to Estonia's interests. We can get there with the help of a clear vision and expert opinions instead of brainstorming eclectic summaries of narrow interests.
Once this kind of a starting point has been phrased, we could hope to find potential solutions and the next government put together a practical higher education policy with sufficient funding.
Real desire to buy something usually culminates in finding the money, while it hardly ever works the other way around.
Editor: Marcus Turovski