Students union body criticizes research funding freeze, alcohol duty cuts

Federation of Estonian Student Unions chair Britt Järvet.
Federation of Estonian Student Unions chair Britt Järvet. Source: EÜL

The Federation of Estonian Students' Unions (EÜL) is the latest group to weigh in on the coalition government's going back on its promise to boost spend on research and development (R&D), Baltic News Service reports.

The move, which would see R&D spending of 0.71 percent of GDP, rather than the 1 percent agreed on in late 2018, came to light early on in the week. The figure would be set to remain below 1 percent through to 2023 as things stand, though education minister Mailis Reps (Centre) earlier said efforts would be made to reach the target 1 percent as much as was possible.

The EÜL echoed claims that the net result might be a return to paid higher education, which university leaders had said earlier in the day.

"Yesterday [on Monday] it became clear that the government parties do not intend to keep their word in relation to the recently-concluded agreement by which financing in research was to be increased to 1 percent of GDP," a federation statement reads, according to BNS.

"Instead of investing in research, the government intends to lower the excise duty on alcohol, thereby reducing the retail price of alcohol by around 20 cents at best," the statement continued.

A bill is currently at the Riigikogu which, if passed, would see a 25 percent slash in alcohol excise duties, ostensibly to kickstart a sector which has seen much of its business move south to Latvian border towns.

Hikes in excise duties had met with much criticism and were seen as the pet project of the Social Democratic Party (SDE), which is no longer in office. The new bill to slash duties is sponsored by the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa.

The EÜL drew the dots between the two developments, stating that a long-term investment (in science, education and research) was having to suffer in order for short term gains in the consumer sector to be made.

"Frankly, this decision saddens me," the chair of the EÜL, Britt Järvet, said, adding that the government's choice is indicative of its values and attitudes.

"The vice rector for academic affairs at the University of Tartu, Aune Valk, wrote in [daily] Postimees on May 16 that the system of free higher education requires reorganization, and pointed out that even a €1,000 tuition fee per year would help mitigate universities' lack of funds," Järvet said, adding that such costs would pose an additional challenge to less privileged students.

"The government would thus create a situation where acquiring higher education would be the privilege of the wealthier social class alone," she added, noting that tuition fees may force young people to seek more affordable alternatives, such as online courses, or studying in Denmark or Sweden. 

The position of the EÜL is that state funding in higher education and research must be significantly increased, to ensure high-quality instruction and competitive salaries for lecturers, BNS reports.

President Kersti Kaljulaid stated on Tuesday that she sympathized with those in the higher education, science and related spheres, adding that without sufficient support, such talent might move elsewhere. She did not reference the alcohol excise duty cuts.

Rectors from some of Estonia's prominent higher education institutions are due to make a statement on the R&D freeze at 6.15 p.m. local time Tuesday.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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