Parties pledge a continuation of free higher education in Estonia

The main building of the University of Tartu
The main building of the University of Tartu Source: University of Tartu

Almost all of Estonia's political parties have pledged free initial higher education in the Estonian language, to all, with only Parempoolsed, contesting its first ever election, calling for part tuition fees. Most of the parties also presented plans for reforming the system of student grants and loans.

Aune Valk, vice-rector of the University of Tartu, told ETV news show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) that Reform and Center's manifestos contain the most on the funding of higher education, with both pledging university rectors' desired 1.5 percent of GDP on higher education spend. 

Valk said. "The stress here is placed on initial higher education," referring to a first bachelor's degree that a student may read.

"There is also this idea that employers or students themselves would have to pay for lifelong learning, in various places [in the party programs]," she went on.

Krista Aru, former director of the Estonian National Museum, located in Tartu, and who is running at the top of the Social Democratic Party (SDE) list in Tartu city, told AK that higher education teaching salaries were the main focus.

Aru, who sat in the XIII Riigikogu with the now-defunct Free Party, said: "A lecturer who holds a doctorate should get at least double the average Estonian salaries, while new doctoral students, whose work status is now formalized, should not be getting a wage lower than the national average."

SDE also pledge to boost needs-based study allowance to students, to €500.

Eesti 200 meanwhile sees student loan reform as the most important policy in this area.

Party deputy leader Kristina Kallas told AK that: "Student loans must be boosted, while interest rates must be monitored, to ensure they are not too high, while repayment periods must be extended. Tt is also crucial for us to support the internationalization of universities and education."

Isamaa says that Estonian students, studying in Estonia, should only do so in the Estonian language rather than, for instance, English.

Tõnis Lukas, the party's education minister, says wage rises in academia are also important.

"Our goal is that a professor to receive four times the average salary, an associate professor three times, and a lecturer holding a doctorate, double the average wage," he went on.

The Center Party has pledged to bring the cost to the state of higher education to 2 percent of GDP, using the help of the private sector. and to create special conditions for the student loan system.

The Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) meanwhile wants to facilitate the annulment of outstanding student loans once the payee has started a family, AK reported. The party also pledges to increase the number of study places in the healthcare and social fields.

The Reform Party also promises to reform the system of study grants and loans, as well as encourage the involvement of private money in higher education, so that the funding increases to 1.5 percent of GDP.

Parempoolsed is the only party which states that it plans to replace free higher education with part tuition fees. The party would also boost the proportion of graduates in the real world, and reform the student loan system.

The Greens say they would welcome the increase in funding for higher education to the 15 percent per year level agreed in the coalition deal signed between Reform, Isamaa and SDE last July.

The party pledges a basic salary for teachers. To some extent, all political parties have thought about changing the study allowance system.

In summation of the party platforms, Aune Valk told AK that: "I would point out the Center Party, the Reform Party, and others who emphasize that the support system must facilitate commitment. There are also some interesting ideas out there. The Center Party, EKRE and Isamaa have this concept that the system and repayment of loans and student loans should somehow be linked to the number of children the borrower may end up having. While it might just be that family-based policies are currently a hot topic, it was a surprise that this cropped up in so many manifestos."

Polling day at the Riigikogu elections is Sunday, March 5, preceded by an advance voting period from next Monday, February 27.

Since the XIV Riigikogu's last working day is Thursday and Friday is a national holiday, marking Independence Day in Estonia – while parties may indulge in canvassing the public on that day too – this means pre-election campaigning only has a couple of days to run.

On the other hand, changes to the rules mean parties can advertise outdoors, in addition to online and via TV and radio spots, right up to polling day.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

Source: 'Aktuaalne kaamera'

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