Aune Valk: Estonian professionals do not cooperate enough

Aune Valk.
Aune Valk. Source: Mari-Liis Pintson

According to the most recent PIAAC survey, Estonian professionals do not collaborate enough, which often impedes the creation of synergies.
Aune Valk, vice-rector of academic affairs at the University of Tartu and national project manager for the last PIAAC survey, writes that either a lack of teamwork skills or an unduly individualistic work environment in Estonia is to blame.

Alongside nature and song festivals, digital infrastructure and, in the last five years, start-ups, education is an important part of Estonia's identity, international reputation and self-image. However, our pride in an outstanding education does not date back that far.

While we have always valued Estonians' traditionally high literacy rates, at the turn of the millennium our satisfaction with education levels was below the European average.

According to the European Social Survey, the state of education in Estonia was rated 5.4 out of 10 in 2006, with the average score across the 21 countries being 5.6.

Since then, Estonia has seen the fastest increase in educational satisfaction among all countries. In 2018, we had a satisfaction score of 6.7 on the same scale, with the average score among participating countries being 5.8, which had remained relatively stable over the previous 12 years. 

There is a clear correlation between satisfaction with education and the results of the PISA survey among 15-year-olds. People in higher-performing countries are more satisfied with their own educational system, and vice versa. The Balkans and Cyprus have low satisfaction and low scores. In the Nordic countries, with the exception of Sweden, Switzerland and Estonia, satisfaction with education is high and results are fairly good.

PISA could be discussed in depth, especially given the recent publication of "Lessons from Estonia's Education Success Story" by Peeter Mehisto and Maie Kitsing. However, along with the success story come pitfalls, just as there is the need to tackle pollution of our beaches and woods while admiring the beauty of nature.

Are children the only smart ones?

With the PISA-style PIAAC survey of adult skills presently underway, it will be interesting to discuss whether Estonia's educational achievement is based only on great basic education or whether we can also be proud of secondary and tertiary education. Again, it is worthwhile to look into the satisfaction data first.

The question about satisfaction with the state of education in Estonia was posed rather broadly and did not differentiate between educational levels. It is worth noting, however, that when Estonians were asked the question for the first time in the European Social Survey in 2004, those with higher education were the most unsatisfied, while those with basic education were the most satisfied. Today, these differences no longer exist, and people who have the highest levels of education are the most satisfied with their schooling.

In addition to worldwide university rankings, where the University of Tartu has just been ranked historically highest (200-250) among world universities, only PIAAC currently provides comparable data on the quality of higher education in Estonia.

The PIAAC survey offers data on the use of real skills (i.e. functional reading, mathematical literacy, problem-solving,) educational success, employment and many other factors.

While this is the survey's second round of data collection, the first round, which occurred in 2011-2012, gave us first scientific understanding in a number of areas. One of the most striking findings of the previous PIAAC survey was that our present day higher education is of excellent quality and provides Estonians with average or above-average skills in comparison to other OECD nations.

This contributed to the consolidation of our education's success story and encouraged the growth of general satisfaction with higher education in Estonia. Same applies to secondary schooling.

Nonetheless, PIAAC revealed something that PISA did not. In other words, not only 15-year-olds but also 50- to 60-year-olds with a basic education have above average skills compared to their counterparts in other OECD countries. /.../

It is also possible that the jobs of many people with a tertiary degree, particularly Russian-speakers and/or women with a higher-secondary degree, hindered the development of their talents, causing their skills to deteriorate.

The results of the PIAAC survey reflect the functional reading and math literacy levels of the total adult population. This is much above the OECD average in Estonia. The PIAAC also revealed that adult Estonians have a strong motivation and willingness to continue studying or enhance their skills.

The flip side of this finding is that people who want and are motivated to learn more often do not succeed. According to the PIAAC findings, this group included small business owners. They had the potential to benefit from the opportunities offered by the digital world, but they couldn't afford to attend classes.

Critical reflections

The most difficult pill to swallow from the entire survey was the realization that in our digitally savvy country, people's problem-solving skills in a technologically sophisticated environment are extremely low.

Many found this information difficult to accept, and as a result, the survey's methodology, among other things, came under fire. Unfortunately, this is a common tactic, when one does not like the results.

Nevertheless, it was necessary to accept this outcome, to recognize that, while the younger generation frequently, if not excessively, uses digital technologies, this use is typically unidirectional, i.e. the majority of material is consumed rather than created. /.../

The biggest disparity, however, was among middle-aged and older people, who make little use of technology at work compared to most other OECD countries. IIt was also linked to poorer problem-solving skills in a technology-rich environment and clearly highlighted the problems in our labor market.

By looking at the labor market and all the skills measured in the PIAAC survey together, it was also possible to see in which sectors Estonia has the most room for improvement. Comparatively speaking, there is room for improvement in both employee skills and the content of skilled work performed, particularly in the industrial sector, but also in agriculture, construction and education.

Transport and storage equipment and machinery operators have more skills or do more complex tasks than their counterparts in other countries. This was especially visible among service and sales employees in accommodation and food service industries, as well as among administration and defense personnel.

A common issue identified by the survey is that Estonian professionals do not collaborate enough, which often impedes the development of synergies. Either a lack of collaboration skills is to blame, or the work environment in Estonia is overly individualized.

It may have been surprising, shocking, and striking to find from the results of the most recent PIAAC that there are two areas of our generally strong higher education that trail behind worldwide and nationally. In other words, our instructors and engineering graduates are not as qualified as those in other countries. Furthermore, the labor market is struggling to find people with the necessary complex work abilities in these fields.

The state has noted this as well. It is no coincidence that initiatives for higher education are planned in these two areas for the new EU structural funding period. The Estonian Teacher Academy and the Engineering Academy, both of which are scheduled to open next year, are expected to boost teaching quality and increase the number of high achievers.

Evaluation of plans and actions during the past decade

As PIAAC covers a very broad area and is the only survey that objectively measures skills, there are dozens of topics covered.

As said before, based on the previous survey results, many of the areas covered gave us good news. There were also many instances where we had to reflect and try to figure out why things were the way they were.

Changes are taking place gradually: curriculum development or improvements in the quality of education will, at best, take three to five years to be reflected in skills and only after that will they reach the labor market, assuming also that employers are ready to absorb these new skills.

International surveys of this type, which examine large interconnected areas like education, skills and their application, are critical for the country as a whole. As with any feedback, it is important to progress in these areas. /.../

The PIAAC findings can add to our self-image as a country with educated and skilled citizens. However, like with the Finnish PISA results, they can lead to a worsening of this image, as Finland has witnessed the biggest decline in satisfaction with the quality of education among all OECD countries. The survey will undoubtedly help us to assess the efficacy of our current strategies and policies and design new ones.

The current study, along with new data on adult skills and their application, will provide us with much-needed insight into the evolution of our education and labor markets over the past decade. It will help to articulate what new achievements we can be proud of, as well as what we should do to mitigate the less so pleasant results

The PIAAC poll was launched in 33 countries at the same time in September.
Estonia expects to receive feedback on their skills from over 7,000 adults by the end of April. The survey is being conducted by Statistics Estonia in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Research.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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