Although Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) says that by giving teachers €10 million in additional pay for this year (divided across the entire teaching workforce), this can obscure the need for educational reforms to the extent that these do not go ahead, the chief of the main teachers' union in Estonia says that teachers in any case do not believe that the long-term reform plan will ultimately be realized.
Appearing on Tuesday's edition of ETV panel show "Impulss" were Kallas and Reemo Voltri, head of the Estonian Education Personnel Union (EHL), along with Jaak Aaviksoo, a former education minister and former university rector, and Martin Villig, co-founder of Bolt and of the Heateo Haridusfond educational fund.
The broadcast went out at the end of day two of a nationwide teachers' strike.
Voltri said he cannot give the government, to use a school-related analogy, a "plus" mark, as teachers have now been on strike longer than anyone else in independent Estonia's history (albeit only for two days at the point in time when Voltri was speaking – ed.), instead giving the government a double minus score. "The rationale behind this strike was not to cause inconvenience to parents, but to highlight concerns about teachers [not] getting a [wage] increase, which has been insufficient so far, so the root cause here relates to salary," he said.
Martin Villig called for a dose of realism on this. "Entrepreneurs also have to count their money. I would like to be able to pay good salaries all the time, but we have to see what our options are. Teachers don't merely have a salary problem, but this boils down to workload and pay scales. Wages are one component, but next to that is a management culture which needs to be modernized," he said. A school director's wage should be in the €3,600-3,800 range since currently these are too similar to teacher wages. Villig also suggested that today's teacher wage system, which is based on credit hours, (ainetunnid) needs instead to be based on seniority.
Kallas said that before the show, she had met with teachers' representatives, whom she said told her that their concerns are indeed workload and also a lack of perspective, and problems of inclusive education.
"We're not just talking about a wage issue here," the prime minister said.
"In a situation where we adopted the budget 45 days ago, where we put all the things together, we have time to put together a state budget strategy, but we have to look at possible reforms, plus find money within the system," the prime minister went on.
Jaak Aaviksoo, who is currently conducting an audit at the Ministry of Education, called the strike an unfortunate development. "The root causes of this strike did not arise with the current coalition, but earlier than that," he said.
"When I was education minister (2011-2014 – ed.) we were sweeping the problems under the carpet," he went on, rather candidly.
"And now, all parties [to the labor dispute] are right, though I would like to take issue with the minister of finance. Unfortunately, I have not been hearing the voice of local governments, plus the voices of school leaders have also been too few in number. I would regret it if we paid out €10, €20 or €30 million and then swept the root cause under the rug. Our hope is that the political parties will come together to talk about where the core of the problem lies," Aavikso continued.
Kaja Kallas noted that Estonia spends a larger proportion of its GDP per year on education than do European countries on average.
However, this does not translate into wage rises or even costs.
"We spend 40 percent on wage costs, not 60 percent as is the case elsewhere. We need four years now to deal with reforms, rather than quickly applying a €10-million band aid right now," she continued, referring to the cost of hiking teacher wages to meet the baseline demands just for this year.
"We need to deal with substantive matters and the education minister is already dealing with these. This is a serious ailment, one which needs to be treated. But if we just provide funds, no one will try to fix the underlying problem any more – that would be illusory, because a complex problem cannot be resolved overnight. Reforms represent a much trickier path than spending over the short term, but the results of a long-term plan will give teachers more confidence," he head of government continued.
Reemo Voltri said that reforms cannot be influenced by teachers. "The state budget strategy does not account for wage increases for teachers in the coming years; there are zeros on the budget lines there.
"While we started negotiations to agree on longer processes, if there is a cut, a band aid must first be applied, and immediately. In order for teachers to maintain their faith that the government participates in negotiations in good faith, teachers should get this year also an additional 5 percent salary increase," the union boss went on.
Aaviksoo agreed that the situation is a crisis of trust, and said that if neither of the sides take a step closer to one another, this crisis cannot be substantively resolved either.
Voltri concurred with Villig's point that there is currently an economic recession in Estonia, yet added that if Estonia does not resolve the teachers' wage problem now, there will be no teachers in Estonia in the future and the economy will still fail to grow. He also said that teachers have been constantly climbing down in their demands.
"In the beginning, we asked for a minimum wage of €1,950, but now we agree to a 5 percent increase on the minimum wage only, which comes to €1,836. This does not mean that we are not willing to discuss a longer-term plan, but right now it is necessary to create confidence in teachers," Voltri added.
Prime Minister Kallas also noted that many teachers who do not meet the qualification requirements still obtain the same salary as those who hold a master's degree, a situation she described as unfair. "When we hiked teachers' salaries last year, no one dealt with the root causes. The government office cannot undertake these reforms; they must derive from the education ministry. Within the government, we have doled out the areas of responsibility, and Kristina Kallas (the education minister – ed.) has experts at her ministry, whereas I don't."
"As prime minister I cannot take everything on to my own shoulders, but at the end of the day I have to bear responsibility and make decisions that are not popular, though we have made these decisions together," Kaja Kalls went on.
Voltri added that when it comes to teacher over-burdening, which, according to the premier, is as central an issue for teachers as are wages, this overload originates from the same fact, that there are many unqualified teachers working in Estonia. "Given the uncompetitive salary, qualified teachers will not come to work in schools, and for this reason, our education level as a whole will decline. If teacher wages do not rise over the next three years, this will then send a clear signal to young people not to enter this profession," Voltri said.
According to Aaviksoo, €100,000 will be needed to create one study place in the new state high schools and in Tallinn School of Music and Ballet (MUBA). "This is more than can be seen in other parts of the world. If reorganization does come, then teachers' wages should be addressed first, and only then should the beautiful things be built. Talking about €10 million is answering the wrong question; if there is a solution over the long term, then this money can also be found for the short term. This is the state of Estonia's educational, organizational problem," Aaviksoo said.
He added that local governments are currently lying low, too. "The rights of the principals and directors should be enhanced. If we don't nationalize schools (at state level, most schools in Estonia are run by local governments – ed), then we have to trust in local governments and hand over this resource to them," Aaviksoo concluded.
Voltri's response to this was to state that if local governments are not able to come to the negotiation table and they do not prove to be a partner for the teachers, then the wage money cannot be released. Voltri also added that if Kristina Kallas does not prove up to the task of education minister, she should be replaced (Kristina Kallas did not take part in this edition of "Impulss" – ed.).
Finally Kaja Kallas, no relation to the education minister, noted that she had never said that the latter was not performing her role adequately.
Editor: Andrew Whyte