What the papers say: Education, funding, national crises and Ikea's prices

Estonian newspapers (picture is illustrative).
Estonian newspapers (picture is illustrative). Source: Andrew Whyte/ERR

Estonia's major national dailies and weeklies on Tuesday, Sept. 17 have surveyed education, both at secondary and tertiary levels, with the question of funding cropping up. Other areas where the state coffers could be tapped include preparations for national crises, while more day-to-day recalibration will likely sooner or later be needed in the national postal service.

The funding lag in education

In investigative weekly Eesti Ekspress (all links in Estonian) Priit Hõbemägi put the recent Taltech EU funds controversy into perspective, noting a scandal which recently broke at leading U.S. (Ivy League) college (Massachusetts Technology Institute (MIT) which demonstrates further than when it comes to academic funding, anything can or should go.

Naturally the MIT funds in question were not of EU origin, however, plus the story does not revolve around alleged misuse of funds similar to the Taltech whistleblower revelations in August, where individuals had reportedly been paid for working on projects at the Ragnar Nurkse Institute that they had nothing to do with, but the point is, academic realities mean that there is a case for saying that when it comes to funding, sometimes there are no alternatives but to take what you can.

In this case, the issue is more with the source of the funds than any abuse or misuse – millionaire convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who both contributed to MIT's noted Media Lab research institute, and to the head of the lab itself, Joi Ito, revelations which caused the latter to resign when they became public.

Epstein famously had close relationships with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, as well as the U.K.'s Prince Andrew, and previously with current president Donald Trump.

Ito resigned over the issue earlier this month, though another global IT guru, Nicholas Negroponte, a co-founder of media lab, said that even knowing what we know now, he would still advise on taking the money; indeed it is thanks to support from the wealthy that MIT can still function without charging tuition fees to students, as well as in paying staff salaries, retaining intellectual property for researchers and so on, it was claimed.

The clandestine donations were made while Epstein, who committed suicide in prison last month, was remanded in custody, under investigation of sex abuse claims and the trafficking of minors, but Hõbemägi concludes that ethical issues in the world of science are still very much in their infancy.

Consolidation the answer?

Education was also in the spotlight in two articles on daily Eesti Päevaleht.

A question posed was, would Estonia be better with just two universities – the University of Tartu (TÜ) and Tallinn University (TLÜ), for instance.

Orientalist Peeter Espak said that this would be better, achievable by merging TLÜ with Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech – see above), as this would make for a better apportioning of disciplines between the two, cutting out the current situation of duplicating departments at the expense of the taxpayer, and creating competition between the two, rationalized higher education institutions.

Arguing against such a move, astrophysicist Andi Hektor said that while a certain amount of rejigging of departments may be desirable, the current setup works fine, and also avoids monopolies on research, particularly where young people researchers etc. want to set up their own departments at a competing institution.

"I can bring up a whole bunch of real-life cases where a top scientist stayed in Estonia because he or she had the opportunity to move from one Estonian institution to another, and conversely, where an academic moved abroad precisely because of a lack of such opportunities," Hektor said.

Pay teachers now or pay later

An EPL editorial on Tuesday said that without increasing teacher's salaries within the next four years, relative to other salaries they will fall back to the level they were in 2012, at 92 percent of the national average, in 2022.

The piece noted with irony that the current coalition could bring back the austerity of the Ansip government from 2009 onward, but without needing an economic crisis to do so.

However, teaching is a key job for Estonia's future, and it is essential to attract new blood to what at the moment is an aging sector – at the time of the last economic crisis, the 40-49 age group had the largest share of teachers, whereas now that has moved on to the 50-59 age group (perhaps the same people?) and, ultimately, the 60-69 age group would be the most dominant if the current wage freeze continued, the article stated.

The situation in 2018, when teacher's salaries averaged 113 percent of the national average, has slipped back, making the profession less attractive again.

Thus the matter should be a priority for education ministry Mailis Reps (Centre) and the government as a whole – since it takes three years to become a qualified teacher and not three years, with the "legendary" figure of 120 percent of national average a target worth aiming for.

Estonia should be better prepared for crises

An opinion piece in daily Postimees identified another potential use for hard-pressed state funds, namely preparedness for major crises.

Viola Murd, Deputy Secretary General for Rescue, Crisis Management and Population Operations, noted not only well-known emergencies like the 1994 Estonia ferry tragedy, in which 852 people perished, and the 2007 Bronze Solider night riots (which involved about 1,500 people), but also the 2010 Storm Monika, which left 600 people cut off by snowfall, as well as international examples such as the "gilets jaunes'' rioting in France this year.

Perhaps bearing in mind the external forces at play in the Bronze Soldier night, Murd opined that the 2014 occupation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation highlighted the inadequacy of conventional forces – in Estonia the regular Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) as well as the volunteer Defence League (Kaitseliit) – and she favors instead a broad-based approach covering all state agencies, service provider and the public as a whole.

The better people are prepared to deal with a crisis on their own, the more authorities can focus on crisis resolution, Murd said, adding that the national defense development plan (which 2020-2023 will cost close to €20 million) also needs to develop the capabilities of special units and rapid response forces, strengthen and upgrade equipment, strengthen counter-intelligence and border protection, improve the capability of internal security agencies to prevent and counter threats, and increase overall resilience to crises. 

Creating an internal defense reserve is one answer to the problem, boosting the close to 2,000 volunteer rescuers, over 1,000 auxiliary police officers, and 500 marine rescuers to ensure internal security by bringing in those currently "idle" who have the skills and experience necessary to deal with crises, Murd thought.

Get what you pay for at Ikea

More quotidian concerns were raised in an article on Geenius news portal, which compared prices at Swedish furniture giant Ikea, which recently entered the Estonian market, with other established stores, notably Jysk, Sotka and Isku.

Ikea prices are indeed lower than many of its competitors: compare a €19.99 beside table from the Swedish firm with Jysk's offering at €99, Sotka's at €75, webshop ON24's at just under €55, according to the piece, with Isku's product topping the, well, table at just under €200. However, the article notes that at least at Sotka and Isku, items are made from superior materials and, presumably, don't require self-assembly.

Eesti Post may go down Finnish route, but not totally

Finally, Patrik Hytönen at Postimees notes cuts in Finland's state postal service Post may reach Estonia in due course, at least in part.

Across the Gulf of Finland, postal workers are facing pay cuts, with even the head of the organization declining his salary for two months (which comes to €160,000) in solidarity.

The Finnish service plans to stop home delivery soon, and newspapers within the next 10 years, as people increasingly choose email, other electronic documents, online news and other tech-based solutions over good old paper, in addition to ongoing environmental concerns.

At the same time, the rise in online shopping both with Chinese (e.g. Ali Baba) and western (e.g. Amazon) firms means that parcel delivery bucks the trend, with many private sector companies entering the market, including DHL, Deutchse Post and UPS.

Estonia going down the same route is qualified by two important factors however, Hytönen says: the lack of scope for further wage cuts, given that postal workers in Estonia are already on the minimum wage (of a little over €3 per hour), and the political nature of keeping unprofitable rural services in operation; certainly both the prime minister, and the editors-in-chief of the two private media giants in Estonia, favor maintaining delivery services, he says.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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