University underfunding ‘an existential threat’ to Estonia

Increasingly international universities want to push native-language brain drain up the political agenda, despite their rescue from ‘freefall’ by a recent funding top-up

十一月 13, 2022
Source: iStock
Post on the Estonian-Russian border

The chronic underfunding of Estonian universities is putting the very existence of the tiny Baltic country at risk, sector leaders have claimed, with a modest budget boost set to be swallowed by inflation.

Six public universities serve Estonia’s population of roughly 1.3 million. In October, they finally signed 2022-25 funding agreements, having spent most of the year refusing to do so without the bigger budgets some say are needed to protect the country from Russia.

Tarmo Soomere, president of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, said highly skilled Estonian-speaking graduates were needed to maintain utilities, banking and digital government services that were “under multiple stressors”. “It is perhaps our curse that we have built such an advanced and fragile e-governance,” he said, adding that “many” of the 30 per cent non-Estonian population, most of whom are Russian speaking, “are not necessarily loyal to Estonia”. “We have to be able to run the country under these conditions,” he said.

The coalition government led by Kaja Kallas adopted a 2023 budget that includes €‎41.1 million (£35.9 million) extra for universities, which will increase by 15 per cent over each of the coming four years. But budgets remain tight, with increased electricity and heating costs alone eating up €10 million extra set aside for 2022, and inflation estimated at an eye-watering 22 per cent.

While the increase is “the maximum possible that the government may provide”, said Toomas Asser, rector of the University of Tartu and chair of the national rectors’ conference, Universities Estonia, “it does not allow significant improvements in our activities”.

He said finding the funding was “an existential issue” for Estonia, which was “probably the smallest nation in the world to sustain a higher education and research system in its own language”. That has proved increasingly difficult in the past decade, he said, because of “significant” growth in the number of international students and staff, who tend to use English.

About 60 per cent of students on internationally popular doctoral programmes such as IT and life sciences are from abroad, he said. While some undergraduate subjects, such as philosophy, must be taught in English because of low demand, universities have agreed with the government to keep international students at about 15 per cent of the total overall.

“We should be able to educate enough university teachers and professors, who in turn can teach in Estonian, at least [in] these curricula that are needed to effectively run the country,” said Professor Soomere, citing cybersecurity as an example. “This ability is already questionable in several IT fields, where up to 90 per cent of teachers and students are international.”

At the same time, low funding means that the best young Estonian speakers are lured abroad for undergraduate study and might not return, which in the long run could contribute to security risks, Professor Asser said. “There are so many fields we have to cover.”

Estonia scrapped tuition fees in 2015, but in the years since, replacement public funding has slackened, falling from about 1.5 per cent to 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product. The only free-tuition sectors that spend less are Cyprus and Greece, according to an analysis by Universities Estonia.

“It seems that the most probable option to proceed is [the] introduction of some kind of tuition fees, even if the number of students will remain the same,” said Professor Soomere, adding that the issue was “politically sensitive” because some of those who helped to abolish fees remained in power.

Professor Asser said getting the 1.5 per cent from the government was currently “unrealistic” and that a “painful” debate over fees should be part of the 2023 elections. Even a nominal fee of €200 a month could hasten brain drain, driving students towards free education in nearby countries such as Finland, he said. “There is no answer at the moment.”



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