Second 'Valimisstuudio' election debate on education, science and culture

Second "Valimisstuudio" debate 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

In the second televised election debate of the "Valimisstuudio" series, the candidates for the Riigikogu mostly addressed the transition to teaching only in Estonian language in all educational institutions. Judges gave the highest marks to Piret Hartman (SDE), Liina Kersna (Reform) and Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200).

Although the decision to transition to all-Estonian language education with definite dates gave the coalition parties a narrow points victory, the necessity for custom-tailored solutions became the general trend in the discussion, as well as teacher pay and the education network in general. The debate, nevertheless, did not generate any substantial disagreements.

Jaak Aab (Center Party), Jaak Valge (EKRE), Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200), Liina Kersna (Reform Party), Piret Hartman (SDE) and Tauno Õunapuu (Parempoolsed) were the participants in the debate.

Fast transitioning to all-Estonian language schooling

The transition to all-Estonian language education in institutions where the primary language of instruction is Russian was the most debated issue. Jaak Aab, representing the Center Party, which has long held the office of education minister, emphasized that the transition plan of the current coalition is largely based on action plans developed during the Center's period in power.

He said, however, that moving at the current pace might not be that sensible. "Teachers are leaving Russian schools because they cannot meet the language requirements. Where will we find replacement teachers? Pupils from both Estonian and Russian schools are currently moving to Estonian schools," Aab said, adding that there now is a deficit of about 600 teachers. Representatives of all major political parties disagreed.

Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa). Autor/allikas: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) emphasized that the current coalition has enabled the transition to all-Estonian language education to be finally realized. "For the first time, a coalition came together where we could decide on this. /.../ The level of teaching in Russian schools have declined and we have a serious quality of teaching problem; cosmetic improvements are not sufficient," Lukas said.

Jaak Valge (EKRE) said that they differ from Isamaa on the account of the number of Russian-speaking pupils in the class. If the proportion exceeds one-fifth, the class should have a assistant teacher. Concerning the transition's delay, Valge said, "There was initially a lack of courage, national spirit, and national pride.
Let's face it: we're in transition right now due to a change in circumstances."

Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) agreed that concerns about a decline in educational quality are justified. "People become accustomed to change gradually. We only solve half of the problem by making schools all-Estonian language and allowing students to stay in their current institutions. The war in Ukraine showed that even when communication is not a problem, sharing a same language is not enough," Kallas said. Children with Russian and Estonian mother tongues should be exposed to each other on a daily basis in order to effect a change.

Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Liina Kersna (Reform) said that the integration process began independently of the state, when more Russian-speaking parents enrolled their children in Estonian schools. "This is an excellent example of how society begins to reform when politicians become discouraged. The state did not fund schools with a higher proportion of Russian or non-Russian students," Kersna said. She said that the current level of general education in Russian language discourages Russian youth from enrolling in higher education.

Piret Hartman (SDE) said that the teacher shortage in Ida-Viru County is not only alleviated by higher salaries, but also by improving the school and living environment. Tauno Õunapuu (Parempoolsed) said that they also support a quick transition; however, more attention should be paid to children with special needs who have grown up in Russian-speaking families.

Puzzle solutions

Compromising on the transition's pace, Kallas said, is pointless. "We are dealing with about 50 schools that require an individual transition plan over the next few years, not 500. We can devise a customized plan for each of them. There are most likely many Russian schools in smaller municipalities that could be closed and merged with a larger Estonian school [i.e. all-Estonian language of instruction]," Kallas said.

Aab supported this idea. "Estonia has practically completed this transition. There used to be Russian schools in regional centers but they have long since disappeared. In the remaining schools, depending on the region and the school, we must find a tailor-made solution, we must go there and draw this road map with the assistance of experts," Aab said.

All major parties agreed that the teacher pay system should be made more flexible. This would enable some teachers to receive a higher salary based on needs, thereby fostering the development of a career model. The differentiation fund now accounts for 17.1 percent of teacher compensation; this is where Kersna and Aab disagreed.

"Mailis Reps (Center) decreased the differentiating fund from 20 percent to 17.1 percent to enhance the minimum wage. It is very important that this differentiation fund is now boosted to at least 25 percent, so that we can really start implementing the career model for teachers," Kersna said. This way, she added, students who have only just finished a bachelor's degree are not going to be paid the same as a teacher with 10 years of experience and a master's degree.

Liina Kersna (Reform) Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

"This has been agreed between the Estonian Educational Personnel Union (EEPU) and the Association of Estonian Cities and Municipalities (AECM). It was belived more important to increase the minimum wage than to differentiate it; there was not so much money to share out of the budget than this 2.5 billion," Aab explained.

The idea of a close-to-home school was brought up once more. "Regional policy requires customized solutions. Each municipality has its own particular interests and conditions that must be addressed. /.../ Nothing is quite arithmetically predictable," Lukas said.

"It is not worthwhile to absolutize public schools and expect them to produce positive results. Quite a lot has gone wrong with them too. /.../ I agree that smaller regional schools cannot be evaluated using an Excel spreadsheet," Valge said.

Õunapuu said that teacher salaries could be increased to 70 percent of the total cost of general education. "This will probably mean the closure of some smaller schools, but there is certainly a lot of space per pupil in Estonia," Õunapuu said.

Some thoughts on education funding

The Reform Party wants to pay a fifth more than the national average.
Isamaa and the Social Democrats would set the minimum rate at 125 and 130 percent, respectively, and Eestonia 200 would pay a good teacher €3,000.
The Center party wants to raise the average teacher's salary to €3,000, while the EKRE party wants to index a teacher's salary to 1,2 times the Estonian average.

Kersna said that €106.6 million of the €230 million earmarked for pay rises went to teachers' salaries. This, she said, fulfilled a promise made four years ago to raise teachers' salaries to more than €2,000.

Hartmann, however, emphasized that the wage raise came at the expense of the loan and that the Reform would have only given additional funding to the defense sector. To finance the wage increase in a sustainable way, the tax system must be modified.

Piret Hartman (SDE). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Lukas emphasized that under the current administration, education funding climbed to 6.28 percent of GDP. Such jumps are possible, he argued, when society demands them. Aab said that there is no money in the budget strategy for salary increases in the coming years and Parempoolsed will not allow for explicit wage increases, as inflation and economic growth will have do the job.

Kindergarten places

SDE favors free kindgergarten places and a solid pre-school education as the foundation of the education system. Hartman said that the funding of local governments must be increased as a prerequisite for this to happen. Aab said that providing free preschool meals should be a first step and Valge added that it is the responsibility of legislators to foster favorable conditions for families to have children.

Kersna said that free kindergarten education should begin with the last group before starting elementary school. Kallas said that free kindergarten places would increase the deficit, remove funds from the system and degrade the quality of the service; a minimum threshold should be considered. Lukas said that free kindergarten places are not the primary concern and parents are willing to contribute. Õunapuu said that the field of preschool education could benefit from greater cooperation with the private sector.

Tauno Õunapuu (Parempoolsed) Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Financing higher education

Aab said that the additional funds were drowned in price increases and the input should be bigger to achieve a qualitative change. In addition, the allocation of funds should be reviewed giving priority to the development of research-intensive businesses.

Lukas emphasized the importance of a pay increase for PhD degree holders and junior researchers. Additionally, he said that patron tax reductions will help alleviate the shortage of funds in higher education. Õunapuu said that higher education should be reformed to give businesses a greater chance to support higher education.

At the same time, students could be asked to contribute up to 20 percent of the cost of their studies, and the system of student grants and loans could be reformed. According to the Reform Party, the first higher education degree should be free, and students should then pay tuition fees. Exceptions could be made in critical for the state disciplines.

In a small country, Kallas said, it is indeed costly to provide higher education in the native language; it is unreasonable to reduce the number of universities.

Jaak Aab (Center) Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Challenges in the culture sector

No political party questioned the significance and necessity of culture funding. The recent boost in theater financing was also understandable, even though the move to a more transparent system may have occurred too soon.

Several political parties view the sector as a greater prospect for revenue generation. Kersna said that the size of the cultural and creative industries sector is comparable to that of the construction industry and that each euro invested yields a five-euro return.

Cooperation with state and municipal authorities, Aab said, will boost private sector investment. Õunapuu would urge that people in the cultural field be taught more about entrepreneurship and that support mechanisms should be created under the KredEx-EAS umbrella.

Kallas pointed out that it is not up to the state to create an ideal state support system and that we should look more towards cultural exports.

Valge proposed separating the funding system from excise duties and the gambling tax. In addition, only higher and traditional culture should be funded.

Ideally, Lukas would like to see education and culture funded at the same pace. However, Hartman stressed that although the cultural sector received an extra €50 million last year, there are no extra resources for next year. In sum, the last few years have seen a decline in the share of the culture ministry's budget in the overall national budget.

ERR judges: Kristina Kallas won the debate

Siim Ruul, Estonian Debating Society (Eesti Väitlusselts)

Two debaters stood out in the discussion on the transition to all-Estonian language education: Liina Kersna and Kristina Kallas, who both used their allotted minutes to argue about how the process should work.

Kallas' point, that simply changing the language of instruction will not produce the desired results if young people with Russian and Estonian mother tongues continue to study separately, struck a chord with the most people.

Other debaters largely reaffirmed their support for the already unanimous decision to transition to all-Estonian langiuage of instruction, but they fell short of offering concrete solutions. So, how will the proposed reform be implemented? Tõnis Lukas' chant, 'Let's do it!' best captures the idea.

Jaak Aab, who emerged visibly irritated at having to defend what both Mailis Reps and Mihhail Kõlvart had said, was somewhat upset.

Unfortunately, the issue of teacher salaries, appreciation and career development became entangled in the muck of school network reorganization, which cannot be addressed in the complexity and diversity of such a debate.

Everyone agreed that teachers' salaries should rise in some way, whether through indexation, an increase in the average salary or a career ladder, but Piret Hartman was the only one to specify how this could be achieved.

It was unclear how Tauno Õunapuu's idea of attracting private capital, which he had mentioned several times, could be implemented in general education.

Kallas deserves credit for daring to remind opponents, in the midst of a rush to offer free kindergarden places, that if you want to increase the number of places at the same time, you must find money for both.

Õunapuu, too, proposed a solution for how private childcare can benefit the state.

Jaak Valge was clearly active in the debate on higher education concerns, but the EKRE representative remained rather vague, and the focus was brought into the debate by Tõnis Lukas, who pointed out how to make higher education more applied to involve the private sector. Hartman's emphasis on the role of university colleges in regional policy was another developing aspect of the debate.

On this occasion, however, cultural policy was clearly cast as the orphan and there was no debate, with participants simply repeating talking points already formulated by the parties.

Kristina Kallas "Valimisstuudios". Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

So, who came out on top? Hartman, Kersna and Kallas. Why? They supported their arguments with explanations and evidence; they were argumentative throughout the debate. Kristina Kallas was especially brilliant because, in addition to a strong debate, she provided the most comprehensive overview of the 200's program positions.

Lukas was not bad, but the focus was frequently lost: switching from specific questions to Isamaa's talking points broke up the debate rather than developed it.

It was difficult to see why anyone would vote for the EKRE or the Center Party based on their educational and cultural programs, given that Aab and Valge rarely contributed ideas.

Õunapuu spoke less than his counterparts, and even if he made a significant point, he did not deliver it in a way that changed the direction of the discussion.

Kristiina Alliksaar, general manager at the Vanemuine Theater

My scores reflect the cultural part of the debate. It's a shame that culture didn't get its own election debate given how much there is to debate. Why should others respect our language, culture or country if we do not?

Tõnis Lukas emphasized the importance of Estonian-language culture as the foundation of our being and thought it was critical to link the rhythm of cultural funding with education, which is difficult to argue against.

Liina Kersna put forward arguments that have been increasingly highlighted by the cultural community itself: culture is an investment, a solution and an engine for many areas (eg tourism, health); in the field of literature, very little support is already enough to improve the situation significantly.

Liina Kersna (Reform). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Piret Hartman was unable to focus on the future, but the following points were made: the entire sector is under-resourced; all areas received an increase this year, but it is clearly insufficient; culture is treated as secondary, which should never be the case. Concerns of the public should be heard, and the ministry of culture should work out social guarantees.

Kristina Kallas said that it is critical that the state-supported cultural sector cover Estonia more evenly, including Ida-Viru County, and that creators be paid so that they can survive on a salary - no one creates culture to receive benefits. Cultural export support was also mentioned. Kallas was clearly the most adamant and direct on education, but less so on culture.

In terms of the regional approach, Jaak Aab discussed the model of "1/3 state - 1/3 local government - 1/3 private enterprise," but throughout the debate he tended to focus on the good things the Centre Party has done, rather than what to focus on in the new election period.

Jaak Valge focused on decoupling cultural capital from dirty money, but I didn't hear a vision for the future of culture.

Tarmo Õunapuu promised to expand entrepreneurship education in the cultural sector and emphasized the importance of social guarantees for freelancers, including those who are not only active in the cultural sector. It was clear throughout his speeches that the fledgling party is less experienced and the topics are unfamiliar, but I appreciate the effort and the bold initiatives.

 Meelis Oidsalu, Praxis Center for Policy Studies

Instead of discussing education, Jaak Valge would sometimes remind the audience of the main theme of the EKRE election program, which is to stop mass immigration. Tõnis Lukas also preferred to talk about his party's main election promises rather than education and culture, saying that "stopping the population decline is also an issue for culture," while Piret Hartman dwelled on topics such as tax reform or national defense. Although these politicians were well prepared, a reminder of mass immigration or childbirth does not come naturally in the middle of a discussion about education or culture. Moreover, it could appear as an evasion or even undervaluing of the issues at hand.

I would criticize the current Minister of Education and Research Tõnis Lukas, not only for his flotation around topics but also for his lethargy, which may be due to the debate's late start. Jaak Valge was able to articulate two important dilemmas (pouring cultural money into concrete with the example of the outrageous €90 million building in Tartu vs. channeling more funds into creative support, as well as decoupling culture from unstable funding sources such as the gambling tax), but was overshadowed by Liina Kersna, Piret Hartman and Kristina Kallas.

Jaak Valge (EKRE). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Kersna was unexpectedly the most animated on the subject of cultural funding, shining when she had the opportunity to give an enthusiastic elevator speech on creative industries, lasting a couple of minutes, as well as a sympathetic poke at pre-school teachers on the subject of early childhood education. Cheering and praising in the middle of an election debate is invigorating and refreshing.

Kallas was the clear influencer and trend-setter, who was the most convincing in the field of education simply because of her professional background, and who is one of Estonia's best speakers. She quickly came up with the "tailor-made" solutions of the Estonia 200, which were inticipated by Lukas, Aab and Hartman, or, in other words, by all the more regionally minded parties, when discussing the transition to all-Estonian language of schooling.

Jaak Aab was the most out of character, sounding like a sleepy football commentator forced to analyze a game after two extra-time football games.

The most disappointed viewers were likely those interested in the debate over higher education and research funding; there was a little too much focus on what had been done in the previous four years, and not enough foresight.

Hartman (who was combative and occasionally overbearing, taking over from the presenter when Aab's statements contradicted those of Kõlvart) and Kallas, who was the most articulate in explaining the changes that the future should bring to education, science, and culture, dominated the show.

Jaan-Juhan Oidermaa and Kaupo Meiel, ERR

Of course, if you have been a member of a party in power long enough, you run the risk of having to explain the actions and inactions of your fellow party members, as Aab did. This does not mean that occasionally, when the floor is open, new and fresh ideas cannot be put forward.

Valge illustrated well how, despite even the more general strength of the party's programme, there is a danger of falling victim to a mere description of the situation in the field of education-science-culture. Here, not even throwing party slogans into the narrative will save the day.

Hartman was also able to present the party's programmatic positions during the debate. However, as her bread and butter is an area that only received attention in the last few minutes of the debate, a more persuasive ending was lacking.

During the debate, Kallas was a pleasant surprise, as she was able to both reaffirm her views to the audience and present an argumentative rationale for abandoning the trend of giving out money to everyone.

Due to their recent government experience, both Kersna and Lukas were likely to deliver a stronger performance. While Kersna succeeded in giving the impression of expertise by drowning the audience in numbers, Lukas took advantage of the opportunity to remind them of what his party stands for as a whole.

Second "Valimisstuudio" debate 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

On the culture front, the discussion focused on theatre funding, social guarantees for freelance artists, the funding of culture as a whole. Nobody blamed the minister of culture for the decisions she made to change the funding of theaters; rather, opponents felt it was the right way to go, albeit in a somewhat convoluted way. In the same atmosphere of mutual understanding, other issues were quickly dealt with. There was no doubt that more funding for culture was needed; Hartman mentioned several times that the Ministry of Culture's budget had not been increased in years. Culture is the backbone of our being; it must be managed cooperatively, and all of these other nice things were said and it does not even matter who actually said them.

Valge emphasized that funding for tangible assets and intellectual work should be considered separately; for example, instead of building a single cultural center, individual artist subsidies could have been given out for ten years.

Kallas argued that the government's role should not be to create a flawless system of subsidies, but rather to help all artists sell themselves more effectively. Only Kallas emphasized the importance of official support for Estonian cultural export. The specifics of how to accomplish this will probably be the subject of another debate.

Tauno Õunapuu did not leave out the link between culture and entrepreneurship, saying that entrepreneurship education could be introduced in cultural fields. Interestingly, he did not mention the possibility of incorporating cultural education into entrepreneurship fields, but this is then irrelevant.

Representatives from all parties were at least rhetorically prepared to support the idea that more money should be invested in culture and that freelancers should not be allowed to go extinct.

The answers to the questions of where the money comes from and where the dust goes, and vice versa, will likely be settled in the next coalition agreement, the cultural component of which will be cobbled together between the most critical points, somewhere around the coffee maker.

This debate felt more like a camaraderie meeting of the education working group, giving the impression that, while there are financial concerns, and also other concerns, they are being addressed by all parties in a unanimity, and who, among other things, might very well find a little more money for culture if creative people start squawking too loudly.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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