Jaak Aaviksoo: Perplexity in higher education policy | Opinion

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Dissatisfaction with funding for higher education has grown in recent years, with the alleged deficit now amounting to €100 million. The problem seems simple at first sight: funding for universities has essentially been frozen at 2016 levels, while Estonia’s GDP and state budget have increased by almost 50% since then.

It is good to say that all stakeholders, including a number of education ministers, have recognized the problem. They actively participate in various meetings and round tables, commission studies and develop models but… nothing changes. Why is that?

Experience shows that money or lack thereof is not really the issue in such situations. The problem is deeper and multifaceted. There is clearly no political will, while a lack of broader public support or demand that would compel decision-makers to act may also be felt. I suppose you could say that what is happening in universities is not sufficiently in line with the expectations of the different actors, or to put it more modernly: the value offers of universities are not in line with the expectations client.

Some examples. Employers lament the theoretical nature of the skills and programs offered to graduates, ignoring the labor market situation and proceed to open the Cleveron Academy and the Jõhvi Programming School. Students expect more flexible study forms, modern methodology and support systems. Lecturers and researchers worry about sprawling bureaucracy and institutions that are becoming increasingly professional, with universities holding extra admissions to fill student places.

Some politicians do not understand why Estonia should pay for training foreign students, while others measure the quality of universities by their numbers and international rankings. It is true that many teachers earn less than the national average salary, while it is also true that the best foreign teachers are hired for six average salaries.

In such a situation, it is unclear what additional funding would be used for. Yet other politicians are suggesting that the recent decision to increase Estonia’s R&D funding to 1% of GDP has just given the sector €50m and wonder if that might be enough. If only for a little gratitude.

In summary: higher education has developed a series of problems requiring solutions or at least debates whose weight hinders the necessary funding decisions. We don’t know what we want!

The omission is that of politicians and other actors in charge of higher education. While we cannot say that there has not been a debate on development. A hard-hitting inclusion campaign recently accompanied the Education Development Plan 2021-2035 which could provide answers to the above questions. Instead, it provides an entirely modern and progressive presentation of what education should be and assurances that it complies with all important international documents. It’s good that we have so many. But what about our problems?

A sensible higher education policy should prioritize the interests of Estonia and requires targeted action over at least a decade to produce results. Unfortunately, the previous reform fizzled out immediately after the decision to increase funding by 40% was taken, barely three years after its launch. While the problem was not the funding freeze but the inability of the Ministry of Education and the ruling coalitions to formulate the necessary long-term political input for the universities’ public law contracts.

The lack of necessary political vision left those in charge at the mercy of the interests and ambitions of the universities, and everything finally went as usual after necessary mutual compromises on the details. The current financial crisis is an unfortunate side effect of this “deal”.

This is all bad, very bad indeed! Estonia needs a clear and understandable higher education policy that is in line with broader public interests, which we will need to formulate.

This is why the heated debate on whether to keep higher education free (and to find the necessary 100 million euros [this time]) or moving on to fee-paying higher education is tackling the problem from the wrong end. Money is a means, not an end, and the funding model is just a technology for achieving something as opposed to the road to happiness.

It is clear that universities are no longer able to perform their tasks in the current situation, not even at the recent level. First, we need a solution for this exercise and the next exercises. After that, there needs to be more clarity on what we expect from our universities as a society. And only then can we get to the tuition vs. state funding debate, loan programs, etc.

All this is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education, in collaboration with the Ministry and partners. We could start by formulating the problems clearly in relation to the interests of Estonia. We can do this with the help of a clear vision and expert opinion instead of thinking about eclectic summaries of narrow interests.

Once this kind of starting point is formulated, one can hope to find potential solutions and the next government will develop a practical higher education policy with sufficient funding.

The genuine desire to buy something usually culminates in the search for the money, while it almost never works the other way around.

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