Gunnar Okk: related specialties should be taught in one university

Anneli Ammas
Anneli Ammas

Tomorrow, Nordic Investment Bank vice president Gunnar Okk will address research and development committee chaired by Prime Minister to report on situation and options for higher education and research in Estonia. Employees at universities and research agencies are anxious to hear what the report will reveal. In interview underneath, Mr Okk will allow an initial peek. 

-For starters, let me confess I was a bit surprised that it is you who is doing a report on Estonian higher education and science. In Estonia, you are rather associated with Eesti Energia and we know that after you left the company, your international career has been in banking. Like a bolt from the blue, you landed as chairman of board of Tallinn Tech governors. How did you become an expert on higher education and research?  

I have been linked to Tallinn University of Technology for a long time, as member of the board of governors, head for graduates association, and chairman of Development Fund council. With issues of Estonian research and development, I have in these past seven years been dealing with as member of the related governmental committee. Partly, however, the topic touches upon my main job, as a mission of Nordic Investment Bank (NIB) is financing R & D projects and educational infrastructures in Baltics and Nordics. Before the loans are granted, projects undergo thorough assessment and analysis regarding sustainability and competitiveness. NIB has extended loans to such institutions as Chalmers University in Sweden, Helsinki and Aalto Universities in Finland, Bifröst University on Iceland, as Riga’s Stradina University, Tallinn Tech, and Tartu University Hospital. We have also supported innovation and development at several large Nordic IT-companies. Assessing the potential of innovation is a daily job at NIB.

-Based on the report, how would you assess Estonia’s higher education and research?

We were not attempting to pass an assessment. Rather, the aim was to see about international competitiveness and sustainability. During the work, I interviewed over thirty experts in the field, in Estonia and abroad. On top of that, I read and studied numerous writings on the subject. The main goal was to provide ideas and stimulate readers to think further and take action.

-From time to time, the question has been posed if those who have been provided free higher education should work in Estonia for some years, first. Could that be made mandatory?

The scope of free higher education, or whether to have it at all, is a broad subject. How to look at those who go to work abroad and the foreigners who leave here once the studies are completed – many among those that I interviewed were of diametrically opposite opinions. In my advice, I have suggested a combination of both.

-After Estonia regained its independence, dozens of universities sprung forth. By today, a part has been closed down or has merged with some bigger university. Despite the attempts, it has not worked to cut their numbers forcefully. Do you think the state should intervene and apply cuts?

The need is obvious. We need to acknowledge that, as compared to the rest of the world, Estonia’s human and financial resources are rather limited.

The main factor to determine the number of successful universities is their ability to draw a critical mass of talented students, internationally known teachers and scientists – in other words. The ability to ensure sustainably high quality of studies. This, in turn, depends on management and administrative capacity of universities, and financial sustainability. It is important to ensure financing from the state, business, industry and sponsors, and the university’s own economic activity.

A well functioning higher education and research system is a value for the society both economically, culturally and as to the broader competitiveness of the state. As evidenced by developments in several nations, a natural development from grassroots up has been insufficient for major changes of principle.

The inherent human resistance to change on the one hand, and the seeking of some ideal future model on the other hand, often leads to a situation where changes come too late and/or on too small a scale. The success stories show that radical changes for the better, both with development of the network and the choice of fields of activity, requires political decisions from top down, and purposeful execution thereof.

-What should be done to boost our international competitiveness?

The main components of success are, firstly, the concentration of talented teachers, scientists and students. On these rests the quality of teaching and research. No-one pays any attention on their country of origin, all that counts is new ideas and fresh approach.

The other aspect of success is substantially larger budgets and diversity of financial sources. These would be state support for running costs and research, bulky contracts for scientific activity with public organisations and private companies, income from sales of patents and licences, donations and gifts and fees. The stronger the finances, the more options to involve top teachers and scientists, whereby the status will be further boosted and even more money made and involved. Thirdly, it’s an optimal combination of their liberties, autonomy, and professional management.

Alas, in all small nations clear choices need to be made by universities and research institutions, not endeavouring to imitate the global tops. The keyword, however, would be quality – both in teaching and research, as well as in management.

-Higher education and especially research is becoming increasingly English, to stay competitive internationally. Should the Master’s and Doctoral thesis become English only, of could they also be defended in the Estonian language?

Allegedly, Estonian is currently in global top 50 languages as to technological development. Among other things, this is surely thanks to Estonian being an official language in the European Union. Every serious research must be recognised by several independent experts of the field, to assess originality.

To de independent, the aggregate of experts must be large enough as in a smaller community the criteria are next to impossible to meet. Such assessment and evaluations will move on to databases where they are quoted by other scientists around the world. As the Estonian scientific community is too small, it is unavoidable to have research published in English.

It is thus unthinkable for universities to increase competitiveness without greater internationalisation. That, in turn, requires sufficient amounts of curricula in English, high level studies in the English language, teachers who speak the language and students from abroad. It is of course a bit different with humanities related to native language and literature, but even here for adequate assessment of quality the results need to be rendered comprehensible outside of our language space.  

-How’s the level of teachers and scientists at Estonian universities? Should the teachers employed for decades fear for their future?

According to scientific magazines database Thomson Reuters Essential Science Indicators (ESI, 2013), several Estonian fields of science have reached the absolute global top i.e. the uppermost one percent. The Estonian scientists belonging to that group are about thirty. Meanwhile those who are in one way or another involved in science and research number about 6,000.

I think an independent international assessment ought to be performed regarding compliance of quality of teaching of all specialties at Estonian universities to international standards. The same applies to assessing the quality of research and science. The results should be also published, this would perhaps put an end to several disputes and clarify the actual situation.

-Passions flare high about same specialties taught at various universities. Domestically, if serious research is involved, this would be justified by the various schools allowing for essential discussion. In order to remain internationally competitive, however, they should join forces. What do you say?

While generally speaking competition spells progress, then on a small market and with meagre resources, the opposite may be true – the competitors only weaken each other, the quality drops and the resources are wasted. In order to compete with the world outside, the strengths need to be combined; the universities need to cooperate and stop pretending to compete inside of Estonia. In universities, studies should be organised so that a certain specialty or curriculum or one very closely related is only taught at one university.

-It has also been said that some specialties should perhaps not be taught in Estonia at all – in the world, and in nearby neighbouring nations, good universities abound. At the same time, there are specialties and domains that a small nation needs to develop for itself, training new people. This is expensive but inevitable. What could be the specialties and domains the teaching of which could be terminated in Estonia?

Certain domains and activities must definitely be given up, especially where the demand is marginal and quality of teaching questionable. In cooperation with universities in neighbouring nations, however, even broader options for cooperation should be sought, meaning that certain specialties would be comprehensibly taught in Estonia as well, and neighbouring universities would direct students to us as well.

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KeywordscompetitioncompetitivenessdevelopmenteducationEesti Energiaeuropean unionGunnar Okkprime ministerresearchsciencetallinn university of technologyuniversity
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