Analysis: Election programs ignore problems of education inequality

Empty classroom.
Empty classroom. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The peculiarity of these elections is the lack of clear ideological conflicts. The core topics of the education debate rather treat with identity as opposed to social concerns, Triin Lauri and Ellu Saar write after analyzing party programs.

The education chapters of parties' campaign platforms do a good job of reflecting Estonians' faith in education. Education topics are thoroughly represented at elections, also compared to neighboring countries. While several education reforms in Estonia have had "Isamaa" written all over them, the Reform Party has managed to take the lead in election platforms, especially in 2015 when education clicked well with their "New Nordic" narrative. The Conservative People's Party (EKRE) continues to ignore education topics.

The peculiarity of the education programs this time around is the lack of clear ideological conflicts, both on the left-right and liberal-conservative axes. There are some recurring topics – Estonian language schools, higher education funding and student grants system, the need for more teachers – where progress is needed and which require additional resources.

All in all, Eesti 200 are attempting to take ownership of education topics away from Reform. The Greens' education plan is also long and comprehensive. Liberals trying to control education topics is commonplace elsewhere in Europe, while national conservatives [Isamaa] taking a keen interest tends to be an Estonian peculiarity.

War in Ukraine creates window of opportunity

There is a hint of ideological approach in some parties (SDE, for example) feeling that education, in addition to offering solutions, is also a problem and rather works to manufacture distinctions in an unequal environment.

The ambition to dictate curricula (EKRE, Isamaa), efforts to protect the use of Estonian in higher education (EKRE, Isamaa) but also differences of vision in terms of universal Estonian education suggest that the core topics of the education debate are still ideological rather than social (education access, elite and private schools, left versus right-wing approach).

It is clear that the war in Ukraine created a window of opportunity for switching to teaching in Estonian in all schools. Parties' election programs persistently make mention of the switch to an Estonian school. Most concentrate on when this switch should take place rather than how it should be achieved. Eesti 200 and the Social Democrats stand out here, for example, by talking about a united school (where Estonian and Russian students learn together – ed.). The Center Party remains the vaguest here, and is seemingly largely content with the current situation.

Most in favor of a united school approach

Looking at a Tallinn University study from 2018, we see that most Estonians, irrespective of their level of education and nationality, tend to support a united school and oppose parallel school systems.

While Estonians are somewhat more supportive of a universal school system in general, the only group that would like to see the parallel system continue by a narrow margin is Estonians without higher education. This suggests (in reference to Russian-speaking residents) that Center's hesitancy is largely needless, while it is likely that Isamaa and Reform have attempted to consider certain groups' fears of a united school.

Should Estonia end up with a coalition including SDE and Eesti 200, the universal school model will most likely be implemented with custom regional solutions. A coalition made up of Isamaa, EKRE and Center would more likely see continued segregation in the field of education.

Better to be Portugal than Norway

Teachers can pretty much count on pay rises in light of party programs, which expectation is justified. Teachers' salaries tend to be bigger than the national average in wealthy countries. The exceptions to this rule are Portugal, where the pay of teachers is well above average, and Norway, where it is well below it.

Estonia and Czechia are both relatively poor and do not value teachers on the level of salaries, at least compared to the general standard of living. Our teachers earn a modest income compared to the national average (or the standard of living), with kindergarten teachers the worse off therein.

Election promises dealing with teachers' salaries are quite clear (usually tied to the average salary) and differ only in terms of parties trying to outdo one another and on which levels the salary advance concerns all teachers (kindergartens, hobby schools, support specialists, lecturers).

The fabled "reorganization of the network of schools" has, after decades, failed to yield enough additional resources, with energy prices adding to the education sector's operating expenses. In other words, efforts to save money to facilitate teachers' pay rises inside the education sector have failed. Parties will find it difficult to pay for promises. We still seem to believe that we can have both a generous welfare system and low taxes.

Almost no one mentions, in addition to pay concerns, the fact that a lot of teachers, especially new teachers, leave the profession soon after they start.

One problem is school culture and quality of management (as mentioned by SDE, Reform and the Greens). While an improved school culture could remedy the problem of young teachers leaving, there are increasing reports of "cooperation with parents" rather standing for the latter demanding special rights and better grades for their offspring, with the school providing little or no professional mediation. While this problem is largely tied to society's transitional pains and cannot be solved as part of an elections campaign, it nevertheless pays to be aware.

"Free" higher education a stopgap solution

When it comes to higher education funding and the access versus quality dilemma it entails, the subject matter of tuition often comes up. There are several studies to suggest that tuition might not be the main barrier standing in the way of higher education access. We know based on Estonia's experience that "free" higher education has not improved access, largely due to shortcomings of the education allowance system. In other words, "free" higher education has been either the wrong or stopgap solution, with allowance systems still making it impossible for students to study full-time without support from parents.

In the current system, state support goes mainly towards performance allowance as opposed to necessity-based benefits. Study loan systems and fairness have been overlooked completely in policymaking. The system of funding universities and students needs to be revisited, in which light education allowance and loans making it to election programs of parties is a welcome development. Eesti 200 and SDE offer more concrete proposals.

Vocational education still not prestigious

While all education programs reserve a place for vocational education, none treat with underlying problems. For example, how to achieve cooperation between labor market participants and educational institutions. How to improve vocational education's low prestige, so it would be seen as more than an "option" for students having trouble with their subjects.

Facts tell us that 13 percent of basic school graduates whose average grade is 3.3 or lower do not continue their studies, while 70 percent continue in vocational education. These figures drop to 1 percent and 2 percent respectively when the grade average is 4.6. Around 20 percent of vocational school students drop out during their first year. No election platform makes mention of the need to reduce this dropout rate in vocational education.

Reducing path dependance (proposed by SDE and Greens) and vocational education that can be integrated with general education is sensible for avoiding dead-ends and simplifying educational choices, to give young people in Estonia a perspective of equal opportunities. That said, no program reveals whether and how to remove social dead-ends from the education system.

Lifelong learning and equal opportunities

Despite emphasis on lifelong learning in several education policy documents, most election platforms have treated with the subject matter in a limited and one-sided way, only really emphasizing vocational retraining. Only the Greens mention the need to make adult education a natural part of the system.

Most platforms steer clear of the need to create equal opportunities in the education system, in other words, avoiding the fact that expecting education to alleviate social problems requires coordination of so-called compensatory and investing welfare policies. Especially in an education system where multitude of choice is considered a good thing.

The ability to make choices is highly dependent on family background. It is a social sciences fact ignoring which manufactures inequality patterns. In terms of flexible or school-to-work transitions, attention has been paid to one-off transitions (for example, from a vocational school to the higher education system) but not rendering all transitions more flexible. Even SDE's program only mentions equal opportunities insofar as they concern availability of high-quality education in the regional dimension.

In summary, while programs pay education a lot of attention (with the exception of EKRE), it is spent mostly on individual issues. There is an acute shortage of a systematic and integral approach in the education policy debate.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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