Author:
Andres Tennus

University councils: underfunding of higher education threatens our democracy and security

On 24 January, members of the councils of Estonian public universities made a joint statement, saying that it is high time for politicians and policymakers to start taking the critical situation in higher education seriously. The undersigned expect decision-makers to present a long-term plan to ensure the sustainability of Estonian-language higher education. 

The statement has been signed by 53 council members from six universities in Estonia. They aim to draw attention to the need to find a long-term solution to the continuing problem of underfunding in higher education. The statement underlines the outdated system of student loans and study allowances, the issue of the competitiveness of the salaries of teaching staff and the need for more private funding in higher education. 

The undersigned propose increasing public investment in higher education to 1.5% of GDP to increase both the rate of study allowances and the number of students receiving the allowances, ensure fair pay for teaching staff and create opportunities and incentives for businesses and individuals to invest in higher education. 

"A state without higher education in the mother tongue is not an independent state. An independent state without quality education will not last," state the undersigned. 

The statement has been compiled by members of the councils of six public universities: the Estonian Academy of Arts, the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Tallinn University, Tallinn University of Technology and the University of Tartu. The council is the university's highest decision-making body, is responsible for the university's development and budget, makes decisions regarding the development priorities based on the university's long-term interests and ensures the achievement of the university's objectives. Council members include representatives of universities as well as representatives of the public and private sectors and foreign universities appointed by the Estonian Academy of Sciences and the Ministry of Education and Research.  

Full text of the joint statement 

We are making this joint statement in view of the cross-cutting value of higher education and its critical role in the development of our country. There are entrepreneurs, cultural figures, civil servants and science promoters among us. Many of us do not work in the higher education system on a daily basis, but as members of a university council, it is our duty to stand up together for the future of higher education in the current situation.   

A state without higher education in the mother tongue is not an independent state. An independent state without quality education will not last. 

We acknowledge the government and the Riigikogu for taking the first important step to halt the higher education crisis by deciding on a 15% increase in activity support over the next four years. However, there is a lack of clarity and certainty regarding how the state plans to secure long-term funding for the sector. 

Universities have done their utmost to ensure the quality of Estonian-language higher education in difficult economic conditions. Our universities stand out in international rankings and are successful. Fewer and fewer students are dropping out, and the number of people completing their studies within the standard period has increased. The number of curricula and the duplication of curricula has decreased. Universities could only be more effective at the expense of regional access to or quality of education. 

However, greater efficiency must not be the main objective of higher education policy. We see a risk that the ultimate rationalisation of curricula and the deterioration of access to Estonian-language studies will start to affect the most important goal of higher education – to develop Estonian people and society and to create the preconditions for future generations of intellectuals. 

Underfunding of higher education threatens our democracy and security. Understanding to the complex problems the state and society are facing and finding solutions to them requires critical analytical skills that universities can offer. However, due to economic constraints, universities have been forced to cut the number of student places, resulting in fewer and fewer young people pursuing higher education in Estonian. We are soon facing a shortage of Estonian doctoral students and teaching staff, and public debates are taking an increasingly simplistic view of actual problems. 

We understand that due to the tense international situation, politicians have many practical problems to solve. However, knowing how complex and important the issue of Estonian-language higher education is, we need a straightforward higher education policy today more than ever. Educated people have better chances of succeeding in the labour market and understanding social processes, distinguishing reliable information from information noise, active participation in society, and taking care of their health. They are more creative and enterprising, and they keep up the willingness to defend Estonia. 

Investing in education is also economically reasonable. Every year, the state receives seven to eight per cent of its investment in higher education back in tax revenue. The return on investment is even higher in terms of wider societal benefits. Of course, the return depends not only on the size of the investment but also on how we deliver education and how we can use it to create new value as a society. 

Students are currently in the most difficult situation. Study allowances, which benefit less than one in four students, have remained unchanged for ten years. At the time, the rates were based on the minimum wage, €290 in 2012. The minimum wage has increased 2.5 times since then. Could any of us manage today on our wages from ten years ago? For some reason, we assume that students can. 

Besides supporting students' livelihoods, we need to ensure fair pay for our teaching staff, many of whom are paid less than teachers in general education schools. In 2021, nearly a quarter of academic staff received less than the calculated average for teachers in general education schools (€1,653). The low salaries of teaching staff and the insecurity of academic career have made doctoral studies unattractive among young Estonians. If this trend continues, the continuity and quality of Estonian-language education will inevitably be threatened at all levels. 

But the problems are not limited to undervaluing people. How can we flexibly ensure the training of professionals most in demand in society? At what cost do we develop teaching in a situation where support from structural funds is decreasing significantly? There is a shortage of resources for essential activities that support the development of universities – digitisation, the procurement of modern learning tools and the development of learning environments, the modernisation of curricula and the promotion of interdisciplinarity, not to mention the individual counselling of students or the introduction of new learning methods. 

The system of higher education funding we have been building for 30 years will not lead us successfully into the future. Solving the higher education crisis requires political agreement. In the run-up to the elections to the Riigikogu, political parties must propose a sustainable funding model that would help students to cope financially, pay competitive salaries to teaching staff and develop teaching-related cooperation between universities. 

We propose raising public investment in higher education to 1.5% of GDP. In doing that, three principles must be followed: 

  1. Both the rates of study allowances and the number of students receiving the allowances must increase. The budget for study allowances and stipends must be increased from €13 million today to €40 million and indexed to the cost of living. The model of study allowances and loans needs to be implemented as a whole to allow students to commit to their studies. 
  2. Teaching staff must receive fair pay. Valuing the work of teaching staff will help to ensure the next generation of academic staff and thus the continuity of higher education in Estonian as well as the international competitiveness of our universities. To this end, the activity support of higher education must keep growing also after 2026. 
  3. Opportunities and incentives to invest in higher education must be created for businesses and individuals. Even now, university studies are not free for all. We need a substantive discussion and an agreement on who needs to pay how much for which curricula. Tax incentives must also be introduced for employers investing in education. 

No country offers higher education in Estonian except Estonia. It is high time for our politicians and policymakers to start taking the critical situation in higher education seriously and present a plan for the sustainable future of higher education in Estonia. 

Signed by 

Rein Oja, Council Chair of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, board member of SA Eesti Draamateater  

Ruth Oltjer, Council Chair of the University of Tartu, General Manager of AS Chemi-Pharm  

Taavi Laur, Council Chair of Tallinn University, entrepreneur, Partner at Aureus Capital Consulting  

Ants Noot, Council Chair of the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Chairman of the Board of the Estonian Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce  

Gunnar Okk, Council Chair of Tallinn University of Technology, Vice President at Nordic Investment Bank  

Maria Mägi-Rohtmets, Council Chair of the Estonian Academy of Arts, Attorney at Law and Partner at Maria Mägi Advokaadibüroo   

Hagi Šein, member of the council of Tallinn University, Visiting Professor of Television Culture at BFM  

Heidi Kakko, member of the council of the University of Tartu, Chair of the Board of UniTartu Ventures  

Mari Moora, member of the council of the University of Tartu, UT Professor in Community Ecology  

Jaan Eha, member of the council of the University of Tartu, UT Professor of Cardiology, Academician  

Martin A. Noorkõiv, member of the council of the University of Tartu, Chairman of the Board of Teaduse ja Kultuuri SA Domus Dorpatensis  

Arto Aas, member of the council of the University of Tartu, Managing Director of the Estonian Employers' Confederation  

Tiina Randma-Liiv, member of the council of Tallinn University of Technology, Professor of Public Management and Policy at TalTech, Academician 

Birute Klaas-Lang, member of the council of the University of Tartu, UT Professor of Estonian as a Foreign Language  

Mart Saarma, member of the council of Tallinn University of Technology, Research Director at the University of Helsinki Institute of Biotechnology, Academician 

Andres Öpik, member of the council of Tallinn University of Technology, Professor emeritus at TalTech, Academician  

Tõnis Kanger, member of the council of Tallinn University of Technology,  Researcher-Professor at the Estonian Academy of Sciences 

Peep Lassmann, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, Professor at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre  

Ardo Kamratov, member of the council of Tallinn University of Technology, honorary member at TalTech  

Riho Gross, member of the council of the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Professor at the Estonian University of Life Sciences  

Anne Kahru, member of the council of the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Research Professor at the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics, Academician  

Ants Nõmper, member of the council of the University of Tartu, Managing Partner at Ellex Raidla   

Liina Siib, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Arts, Professor of Graphic Art at the Estonian Academy of Arts  

Allan Vurma, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, Professor at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre  

Siim Raie, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Arts, gallerist at Artrovert  

Kadri Kruus, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Arts, designer  

Urmas Varblane, member of the council of the University of Tartu, UT Professor of International Business, Academician  

Margit Tohver-Aints, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, recruitment consultant 

Paavo Kaimre, member of the council of the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Professor of Forestry Economics at the Estonian University of Life Sciences  

Edith Sepp, Vice-Chair of the council of Tallinn University, CEO of the Estonian Film Institute  

Marek Tamm, member of the council of Tallinn University, Professor of Cultural History, Academician  

Eve Eisenschmidt, member of the council of Tallinn University, Professor of Educational Leadership  

Kristjan Port, member of the council of Tallinn University, Professor of Health Behaviour and Sports Biology  

Raimo Raag, member of the council of Tallinn University, Professor emeritus of Finno-Ugric Languages at Uppsala University, Academician  

Urmo Uiboleht, member of the council of Tallinn University, Chairman of the Board at Hariduse Edendamise SA  

Aleksander Pulver, member of the council of Tallinn University, Associate Professor of Personality Psychology  

Andres Kütt, member of the council of Tallinn University, CTO at Jio Egov Center of Excellence  

Marika Mänd, member of the council of the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Professor at the Estonian University of Life Sciences  

Robert Kitt, member of the council of Tallinn University of Technology, CEO at Utilitas Tallinn  

Elmer Sterken, member of the council of the University of Tartu, Professor of Monetary Economics at the University of Groningen  

Krista Kodres, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Arts, Professor of Art History  

Piret Mürk-Dubout, member of the council of Tallinn University of Technology, Member of the Management Board at Tallink Grupp  

Arvo Oorn, member of the council of Tallinn University of Technology, Laboratory Manager at TalTech  

Heiti Hääl, member of the council of Tallinn University of Technology,  Chairman of the Management Board of Alexela Group  

Marja Makarow, member of the council of the University of Tartu, member of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters, President of Academia Europaea, professor emerita  

Mait Müntel, member of the council of Tallinn University, co-founder and CEO of Lingvist  

Toomas Tammis, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Arts, Professor of Architecture at the Estonian Academy of Arts  

Eva Näripea, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Arts, Director of the Film Archive of the National Archives of Estonia  

Kalle Vellevoog, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Arts, architect  

Anu Hellenurme, member of the council of the Estonian University of Life Sciences, Board Member of the Estonian Pig Breeding Association, CEO and board member of Anu Ait OÜ  

Kirke Karja, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, pianist and composer  

Erkki-Sven Tüür, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, composer  

Indrek Laul, member of the council of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, CEO of Estonia Klaverivabrik AS  

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