Rectors react as state budget abandons promise to increase research funding

Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps shaking hands with President Kersti Kaljulaid at the signing of the research funding agreement in December 2018.
Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps shaking hands with President Kersti Kaljulaid at the signing of the research funding agreement in December 2018. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

According to the state budget strategy for 2020-2023, the current ruling government coalition refused to increase funding for research and development to 1 percent of the GDP as promised in April. Rectors of Estonian universities fear that the government's decision could lead to the reinstatement of paid higher education in Estonia.

Following Monday's announcement of the government's decision, Tallinn University (TLÜ) Rector Tiit Land voiced two possible outcomes: a reduction in the volume of activity at universities, or a return to paid higher education, reports daily Postimees.

Estonian University of Life Sciences (EMÜ) Rector Mait Klaassen likewise noted that there is a high chance that Estonia will go back to paid higher education, adding that he felt deceived by the government's decision.

Rectors Mart Kalm (Estonian Academy of Arts, EKA), Toomas Asser (University of Tartu, TÜ) and Jaak Aaviksoo (Tallin University of Technology, Taltech) also said that, in their opinion, the government's decision threatens the future of Estonian education. Tarmo Soomere, president of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, told Postimees that the government's decision was extremely depressing.

"There is no alternative to ambitions of increasing research funding to 1 percent of the GDP," Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Centre) said in a ministry press release. "In order to maintain funding at the current level, an additional €143 million was allocated to research."

According to the minister, the government would hopefully be able to take a big step toward the 1 percent goal in a few months, when the state budget forecast has been finalized and the state's financials means for increasing research funding have been ascertained. Whether or not research funding should amount to 1 percent of the GDP should not even be up for debate, she added; it ought to be the default position.

"In a situation where the government has been forced to discuss cuts as part of budget strategy negotiations, it is of some consolation that research was allocated a supplementary €143 million in order to maintain its funding at a stable level," Reps said, adding that expectations were and still are nevertheless higher than that.

"I would like to thank and commend all researchers for their efforts in standing up for the funding of our field, and encourage you to keep it up — this is the only way we can reach the intended goal together. As Minister of Research, I, too, am worried about the underfunding of research, and in no way do I intend to give up the goal to see it increased."

Funding concerns well established

This April, members of the ruling Centre-EKRE-Isamaa coalition agreed to increase public spending on research and development to at least 1 percent of the GDP. The 2020-2023 state budget strategy introduced on Monday, however, only provides for maintaining current funding levels.

According to the coalition agreement, the coalition considered it important to increase the proportion of private-sector investments in research and development activity.

"We will allocate part of the funding directed toward research and development activity as co-financing for entrepreneurs who commission services from research institutions or themselves are involved in research and development activity," the agreement states. "We will motivate researchers and research institutions to contribute to close-to-market product and technology development."

The coalition had promised to involve representatives of the Estonian Academy of Sciences in the decision-making process for all matters of major significance to the state, as well as ensure Estonia's full participation in research centers worldwide in cooperation with Estonia's research and education fields and its private sector.

The coalition had also promised to analyze the possibility of introducing a state-backed student loan system in fields of significant importance to Estonia, in which graduates would be forgiven their student loan debt if they work in Estonia for at least five years.

In April 2018, Estonian researchers organized a protest outside of the Riigikogu to draw attention to the problem of funding in the academic sector. Earlier this month, Estonian academic trade unions petitioned for better work conditions and an at least 30 percent increase in wages.

"We are far behind in the public funding of research," said Triin Roosalu, chairwoman of the Academic Trade Union Council and a member of the trade union Universitas. "There is an agreement in the government strategy pegging it to 1 percent of the GDP, while in reality, it is now at the 0.5 percent level."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla, Ksenia Fadina

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