University rector: Ball in parties' court over higher education funding

Toomas Asser, rector of the University of Tartu
Toomas Asser, rector of the University of Tartu Source: University of Tartu

In three to five years' time, choices made now about higher education funding will affect those children and young people currently in secondary education. Their parents, who are an important target group in the upcoming elections, will also certainly be affected, writes Toomas Asser, rector of the University of Tartu.

The culmination of this summer's change of government with the signing of the new coalition agreement, brought recognition to universities, with the first point of the agreement concerning education and the funding of higher education. Those involved in the future of higher education breathed a sigh of relief and asked whether this had solved the university funding crisis.

Ten million extra euros for higher education already this year and a pledge to increase future funding by 15 percent per year (in future years) is a statesmanlike agreement by the new coalition. This is what university rectors have asked the government to do, and we hope to see the result of this agreement reflected in the state budget strategy(RES), so that we can sign university management contracts with the state. An extra 15 percent a year will help to halt the decline in university funding until we find a sustainable solution to cover higher education costs.

However, as Tea Danilov, head of the Foresight Center wrote, surely, "the question of paid higher education is (still) not off the table for the time being." In the coming months, the debate on the future of higher education must go beyond rectors and politicians. After all, the question of what kind of higher education Estonia needs and what kind of higher education Estonian society can afford remains unanswered.

Rectors have met with all the parliamentary parties over the past year and have been reassured that there is now a fairly good understanding of the higher education funding crisis at a political level, as well as a willingness to find a solution.

In order to bring (levels of) higher education funding back to 1.5 percent of GDP, society now needs to debate at whose, or what expense (that will be). To ensure that these discussions are not simply emotionally driven debates about free and fee-based higher education, the University of Tartu, the Foresight Center and the Ministry of Education and Research have gathered a wealth of evidence-based material.

Now the ball is in the parties' court.

While they are currently fine-tuning their election manifestos for the parliamentary elections, proposals on the future of higher education should also be at the top of their agenda. Which path to follow will be decided by the highest authority in March 2023. When drawing up election manifestos, it is of course necessary to strike a balance between issues that are important for society and those that appeal to voters. So, what kind of voter is interested in a bright and educated nation?

At first glance, you might think that when it comes to issues related to higher education, the main voter group concerned are students. Questions have been asked about why students do not protest. However, they are already in university and benefit from the high-quality free higher education in Estonia.

So, there is nothing for current students to protest about that they themselves would be perceivably deprived of. If there is a protest to be made, it should be for the sake of the next generation, because the truth is, the decline in quality universities are warning about is one that will occur in the future, and will not be felt so acutely by current students.

At the same time, I can assure you that there are students who, after graduation, see themselves as part of the Estonian intellectual community and are ready to stand up for their future. In recent months, the voices of students who cannot afford (to buy) lunch at current prices have also begun to be heard.

But this is also a reflection of the underfunding in higher education. When we talk about the 1.5 percent of GDP needed for higher education, we not only mean to pay lecturers, but also to reform the system of student grants and loans, so that students can concentrate on their studies and do not have to work while studying in order to cover the high living costs.

In three to five years' time, choices made now about higher education funding will affect those children and young people currently in secondary education. It will also certainly affect their parents, who are an important target group in the elections. Some of these parents are probably concerned about the workload, pay and next generation of teachers. Perhaps they are also concerned about family allowances.

However, for the parents of today's schoolchildren, the next generation of university lecturers , as well as student loans, grants, and even tuition fees, appear to be very far in the future. Does the parent of a bright child realize that the expectations he or she currently has for their child's education may not be possible in Estonia if the funding crisis in higher education continues, or what the financial burden will be for the family if the child goes to university? After all, current scholarships and grants are ridiculously low when compared to the cost of living for a student, and few people benefit from them.

Even a high school graduate, who will be able to vote in the national parliamentary election for the first time in their life in spring 2023, is unlikely to consider that the specialization he or she has worked hard at school to achieve may no longer be available due to the closure of the study program.

It is not only future students, who benefit from higher education. Employers, general schools, consumers of medical services, the whole of the private and public sectors, the  functioning and sustainability of which inevitably depend on highly educated professionals in their field. The whole electorate benefits from higher education.

Perhaps all these stakeholders have been lulled to sleep by the knowledge that Estonian universities are doing well, that we are world class and therefore there is no cause for concern? University rectors have been advised that to appeal to society, there needs to be a threat. However, the very real possibility, that a smart and educated nation is under threat, sounds unrealistic. All seems well for the moment.

To raise awareness of the higher education funding crisis, we have been publicly debating it with (the other) rectors for a year now. The next step will be to convene a meeting of university councils on August 25 to encourage them to have their say on possible solutions. After all, the council is the highest decision-making body responsible for the long-term development and financial decisions of a university - the link between the university and society - and consists mainly of employers and professional associations, as well as colleagues from foreign universities.

Over the next six months, we look forward to intelligent and meaningful input from all stakeholders concerned with the future of higher education. Above all, we look forward to seeing clear proposals on the future of higher education in Estonia from the political parties aspiring to reach parliament.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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