Ministry plan to bill refugees who drop out of language courses criticized

Estonian dictionary.
Estonian dictionary. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Ministry of Culture has proposed fining beneficiaries of international protection who drop out of Estonian language courses without good reason. The Estonian Refugee Council is critical of the idea.

"Half-baked and ill-considered," Estonian Refugee Council director Eero Janson said, commenting on the conditions the ministry wants to impose on language instruction for beneficiaries of international protection.

The biggest change the ministry's draft regulation includes would be the introduction of a financial penalty on those who leave a language course prior to its completion. In simplified terms, such a student would be required to pay for the lessons they had already completed.

According to Olga Sõtnik, director of the ministry's Cultural Diversity Department, the state's resources are limited.

"There have been cases where people start [a language course], but then for some reason they drop out, and as a result, that spot goes unfilled, despite the fact that someone else from the same target group may have been more motivated and completed the course," Sõtnik explained. "Such an instrument is needed in order for these resources to be spent as intended."

Tens of thousands of war refugees from Ukraine as well as all other beneficiaries of international protection are obligated to achieve at least A1-level, or breakthrough, proficiency in Estonian under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), but the state is currently incapable of providing enough language courses to ensure this.

Dmitri Moskovtsev, director of the Integration Foundation, which organizes Estonian language courses, said that reforms currently underway in education are drawing attention away from language schools as well.

"In that regard, some of our public procurements are failing," he highlighted.

Nonetheless, Moskovtsev said that punishing refugees should only be a last resort, and that positive nudging, so to speak, should be attempted first.

"One example would be compensating additional study leave for language learners," he suggested. "One such example exists, where someone is learning Estonian under the Citizenship Act, where they are eligible for compensation of up to 20 calendar days a year of unpaid study leave per language proficiency level."

The Integration Foundation believes the Ministry of Culture should consider its proposed plan more carefully.

Not all courses good fit for everyone

The head of the Estonian Refugee Council likewise believes that in lieu of sanctions, the ministry should look into why people discontinue their studies.

According to Janson, some of the refugees that have spoken with the organization have been unsatisfied with the language courses they have been offered.

"People learn differently, and diversity in methodologies would certainly also help," he said. "More intensive programs are a better fit for some, more interactive programs for others; evening classes work better for some, weekend classes for others. An abundance of methods and options would ensure that people would have a successful experience and could progress with their studies at an appropriate pace."

Speaking on behalf of the ministry, however, Sõtnik confirmed that the state is already offering various opportunities. "I think we can and certainly will start using these positive nudging measures without a regulation as well," she added.

The department director stressed that the law allows for them to ask war refugees who drop out of their language courses for money. She added, however, that this wouldn't be the case with everyone, adding that the regulation is addressing those who drop out unjustified.

"If someone is able to explain why they dropped out, then that wouldn't entail a penalty," Sõtnik promised.

"The organizer of language training may, as an exception, exempt a beneficiary of international protection from the obligation to reimburse language course costs or reduce the sum to be recovered in instances where it was not possible on compelling grounds for the beneficiary of international protection to fulfill the obligation to participate in language studies," states the letter of explanation accompanying the draft regulation.

Under what circumstances one would be required to pay and what circumstances they wouldn't is left by the draft regulation up to the Integration Foundation to decide.

Sõtnik believes that those who drop out in order to return to their homeland or are forced to drop out by a job change, for example, are among those who shouldn't be fined.

"We'll surely take another look at this item and consider whether it will remain as is or whether we'll change it," the ministry official added.

The longer you hang in there, the bigger the fine

The draft regulation includes other loose ends as well. Janson said that it puts learners on unequal footing.

"The [size of the] reimbursement claim depends on the public procurement carried out and the fee set by the language instructor," he explained.

As a result, under the draft regulation, those who happened to end up in a language course that cost the state more money would have to reimburse a bigger sum. Janson also highlighted the fact that those who have lasted longer in their language studies would have to pay more as well.

"If this regulation is adopted, then every single person starting a course will certainly be warned that if they drop out without reason, then they may face a fine of such and such amount," Sõtnik promised on the ministry's behalf.

According to Moskovtsev, the Integration Foundation is currently in the process of procuring A1-level Estonian language courses at an average cost of €4.30 per class. Under the system proposed by the Culture Ministry, this would mean that someone who drops out of their Estonian language course after just one class would face a fee of less than €5, while those who drop out halfway through could owe more than €200.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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