Tõnis Lukas: Significance of universities in the Estonian agenda

Tõnis Lukas.
Tõnis Lukas. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Our young people are still welcome to study for free in our universities because we are competing for young people with other countries' universities, and because free higher education is quite common in Europe, it would be difficult to convince our youths to remain in Estonia if we charged a tuition, Tõnis Lukas writes.

When the blue, black and white was first brought out in public again at the Tartu Heritage Conservation Days in 1988, Ain Kaalep declared Estonian university and its students as the main condition of Estonia's independence.

As Estonian statehood and social renewal has traditionally been associated with universities, the key to our continued development lies in competitive higher education. The national intelligentsia has always taken the reins of social life during pivotal moments in history. That is why Estonia must do its utmost to make sure universities fare well.

The aim is for our higher education to be worthy of pulling social development and for the Estonian-speaking intelligentsia to be regularly replenished. The government is expected to ensure steady and safe development, daily dialogue with universities.

It would be fitting here to recall the tasks of universities: in the long term, we are talking about finding and keeping high-level lecturers, organization of studies, ensuring the country has enough vital specialists, answering scientific questions.

Every university also has a role in its field. The University of Tartu as the national university has the broadest scope as it hosts state-backed national professorships. Both the University of Tartu and Tallinn University will assume the obligation of training more teachers.

Universities' in-house operation, academic freedoms and reacting to the common and unique needs of students and staff are autonomous tasks. State vocational higher education institutions, created for more specific tasks, maintain more frequent contact with the government. The government has mutual tasks agreements or public-law contracts with universities.

Teaching in Estonian and scientific information

The contracts under public law treat with rights and obligations. This fall's contracts prioritize forward-facing activities for ensuring the future of Estonian-language higher education that in a few areas deserves more attention than it has received so far.

The contracts emphasize that universities are tasked with developing Estonian terminology, ensuring comprehensive Estonian summaries of doctoral theses not in Estonian and prioritizing the availability of theses in Estonian.

I can say, based on experience in international evaluation panels, that Estonian summaries can be incredibly short annexes of poor quality the content and language of which interest neither the student, thesis supervisor nor opponent. In cases like these, nothing is added to cumulative Estonian knowledge, neither in terms of terminology nor scientific information.

At the same time, aiming for a strong result here would also be a natural part of our fastidiousness, considering that public funds pay for much of the work. The usually high scientific level of dissertations would have a positive effect for Estonian culture.

The heads of Estonian universities and the ministry consider as completely natural people's right to Estonian higher education. Pursuant, among other things, to the Constitution and the Estonian language development plan. It has been provided that universities have to ensure Estonian tuition in the fields they are responsible for on the first two levels of higher education. In case of English studies, an Estonian alternative sporting similar subject matter needs to be made available.

The state operating subsidy is available for English studies on the first higher education level only in cases where the English study language is necessitated by labor market needs or for international joint curricula. Such exceptions will be agreed in contract annexes. For example, "Tallinn University of Technology agreement annex – cybersecurity technologies; integrated technologies."

The goal is not to exceed the optimal number of foreign students in bachelor and master's programs that has been designated for each university. The level of foreign students is evaluated using international methods to make sure they are at least on par with local students and enrich our academic life.

Studying Estonian necessary for staying here

We want foreign students to learn Estonian and be able to contribute to Estonia's development that way as inviting foreign students to Estonia and opening English curricula is often explained through labor market needs.

In that case, conditions need to be created for involving foreign students and lecturers in Estonian society. Going forward, universities will be obligated to offer foreign students Estonian and Estonian culture studies worth at least 6 EAPs (ECTS points). Teachers will have to sign contracts obligating them to obtain B1 or B2 level Estonian inside three years of working in Estonia so they could in the future participate in social life and study work if necessary.

There are many examples in Estonia, foreign lecturers actively teaching on the C1 proficiency level. We hope that universities consider it natural to use Estonian as their main communication language, in accordance with the spirit of the law.

New teachers come from doctoral programs. They are the ones we need to maintain Estonian-language higher education.

How to do that? Firstly, by motivating Estonian students to become university lecturers. Second, by sending a message to foreign students: you can stay and teach here if you learn and are willing to teach in Estonian.

Therefore, organizing postgraduate studies and creating junior research fellow positions, universities will prioritize making sure there is enough academic staff capable of teaching in Estonian, making sure at least 50 percent of doctoral graduates in all fields of study have at minimum B2 proficiency. The target is 50 percent with B1 proficiency in the field of information technology.

Estonian youth welcome in Estonian universities

We have decided to move forward with free higher education, introducing incremental changes to funding models; for example, by allowing universities to charge a tuition if a student wants another higher education on the same study level.

Our young people are still welcome to study for free in our universities because we are competing for young people with other countries' universities, and because free higher education is quite common in Europe, it would be difficult to convince our youths to remain in Estonia if we charged a tuition.

To ensure free Estonian higher education, the government, in dialogue with rectors, has decided to considerably hike funding for universities and vocational higher education providers, adding to this year's €170 million (of which an additional €10 million toward the year's end) €31.5 million, €60.5 million, €92.5 million and €130.5 million over the next four years respectively. This will take higher education funding to over 1 percent of GDP. So that universities could perform their tasks as developers of society.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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