University rectors on Monday said the underfunding of Estonia's higher education sector is a security risk, calling for millions of euros worth of additional funding, as political parties continue coalition negotiations.
Rectors from six public universities said an additional €25 million is needed to maintain higher education at its current level, during a joint press conference.
They said funding needs to rise to 1.5percent of GDP, salaries need to be high enough to attract and retain staff and the loan system for students needs to be rethought.
Underfunding the sector also creates a national security threat, they agreed.
Tallinn University Rector Tõnu Viik said underfunding puts Estonia's democracy and security at risk.
"If the science-based approach withdraws from the public debate, it will also withdraw from society. Without universities, we will not be able to protect the basic foundations of Estonian statehood," Viik said.
Mait Klaassen, University of Life Sciences rector, said if higher education is not properly funded it becomes an issue for national security as every sector, including security, needs highly educated specialists.
Higher education is the framework, or skeleton of society, upon which everything is built, it was said.
Mart Kalm, rector of the Estonian Academy of Arts, said higher education must be a guarantor of strategic security.
University of Tartu Rector Toomas Asser said they have met with negotiating parties Reform, Isamaa and the Social Democrats and politicians have a clear picture of the situation universities find themselves in.
"The parties understand the current state of funding for higher education and what the risks are," he said. "We are waiting for sensible decisions."
Rectors said they believed higher education in Estonian should remain free.
Student loans need reforms
Estonia's current system of grants and loans need an overhaul, it was agreed.
"The support system for students is inadequate. The loan system is predatory. University students who work are under more stress," Asser said.
"Bachelor's degree studies in Estonia should be attractive in Estonia. This will create a strong social network for students," he added.
Asser said long-term funding for higher education requires a 1.5 percent share of Estonia's GDP. The current level is 1 percent.
"There is no alternative to these problems other than increasing funding," the rector said.
It was also said that grant funding for operations should increase 15 percent over the next four years.
Salaries not high enough to attract staff
Generating academic success and retaining staff has also become a big problem.
"Salaries are not high enough. It is not possible to offer a competitive salary," Asser said.
The University of Tartu is currently spending money on academic support grants to try and solve the problem but this money could be better spent on research.
Estonian Academy of Music and Theater Rector Ivari Ilja said facilities also need to be maintained and money cannot only be spent on teachers' salaries.
"If we can no longer find teachers due to low salaries, then we already may be on the verge of collapse. A lecturer's salary will reach the level of a teacher's salary by 2024 if funding is received," he said.
Financing higher education should be one of the main topics of discussion at the Riigikogu elections in March 2023, the rectors said.
Asser said the "the higher education house is burning" and the fire must be put out before the renovations can begin.
Editor: Helen Wright