University of Tartu seeks to swallow three institutes

Tartu Ülikool.

PHOTO: Margus Ansu

Despite the sleepiness of summer, employees at the Institute of the Estonian Language (EKI) are deeply disturbed that their institution – a bastion to defend and develop the native tongue – is in danger of takeover by University of Tartu (TÜ) as approved by the very Ministry of Education and Research.  

Just before Midsummer Day, former EKI head Urmas Sutrop got a letter from TÜ rector Volli Kalm with proposal to launch talks about integration of activities and possibly a merger.

In his reply, Mr Sutrop said the ideas were weighty but he was leaving office and these vital issues ought to be discussed with his successor. The new chief Tõnu Tender, currently working at education ministry, will only assume office starting September 1st. Wouldn’t be a problem, if a reason for TÜ to pursue EKI weren’t the EU money deadline at end of august. Namely, mergers allow research institutions to glean up to €1m from a programme called ASTRA.

EKI staff under leadership of an acting head sat down and wrote the ministry a letter, signed by ten. «An issue as serious as the future of EKI may not be decided just for a one-off financing, in a hurry, during summer vacations,» is what the scientists had to say.

They went on to explain why EKI ought to continue as a stand-alone organisation. «It is only as an independent separate institution that EKI is able to ensure the operational capacity of official tongue. The main activities of EKI (compiling dictionaries, public free-of-charge language tips and other such services, speech synthesis applications) does not fit in with main activities of universities which are provision of higher education primarily,» they underline.

The arguments have been read by Rector Kalm who assured Postimees he honoured the stand taken by EKI and would continue the age old cooperation between the organisations is some other format.

Not as easy as one might think, though, as EKI is under authority of education/research ministry where the discussions of the merger are still underway. While the ministry’s research department tends to favour merger, the language department envisions EKI as independent even in the future.

«From the research point of view, it’s good to have a larger institution, a bigger buffer in case some EKI research project fails to get financed,» said the new EKI head Tõnu Tender. «Meanwhile, language-wise being independent is justified,» said Mr Tender, hinting at differences and even potential quarrels citing a classic Estonian author A. H. Tammsaare.

Among other things, he called to mind the main EKI tasks which are compiling dictionaries, development of professional language and terminology, and free-of-charge language help as ordered by the state to keep and to develop the Estonian language. There is no other such institution in Estonia. «The abolishing of an independent institution would be an ominous sign of the state not caring for the language,» noted Mr Tender, adding that in Finland and in Lithuania such institutions are under state authority.  

Education/research ministry commented that the TÜ rector’s proposal is being analysed and that the ministry would take its stand during August. They will also wait to hear the opinion of the research and development committee led by Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, EKI was not alone in receiving a letter regarding merger by Rector Kalm at the beginning of summer – he knocked on three more doors.

One of these, the Tartu Observatory, is rather in favour as expressed by its director Anu Reinart. Ms Reinart thinks they might talk if the aim of the merger would be boosting international competitiveness of fields of research, developing of studies on their basis, and secure future generations of scientists. However, when it comes to the ASTRA support, she underlines the meaning of it is broader than mere merger of institutions. «Just for the sake of money, it surely makes no sense to merge,» said Ms Reinart.

Also circled by TÜ is Estonian Biocentre, the director of which Mait Metspalu is also applying brakes to a speedy merger. «The extra means meant to those who merge are small motivation – this is no long-term money, and it’s not much,» said Mr Metspalu. He said they would form a working group with the ministry and the university to discuss the biocentre future and develop possible scenarios during a year.  

«Our plan is essential: to discuss and to weigh what the possible merger would be good for, and in what form,» said Mr Metspalu. «The pros and cons we will enter an Excel table, as is the custom today.»

Another recipient of a Rector-Kalm-letter was a totally independent public research institution KBFI – National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics. Its director Raivo Stern will meet Rector Kalm tomorrow. «Then there will emerge some plan how to further improve the excellent cooperation and the aim might be increased legal closeness or unification,» said Mr Stern.

The million euros of merger-money was a tip, he said. «This only makes sense if a merger leads to a research institution even more contemporary,» said Mr Stern. «For a more serious activity, a programme is needed which might be financed dozens of times better.» He said he did not think the ministry was ready to assume such obligations. «To change the sign on the door is never a solution,» he stressed.

While in cooperation with all major universities, the Tallinn-based KBFI has been somewhat closer to Tartu. Meanwhile, the neighbouring Tallinn University of Technology (TTÜ) rector Andres Keevallik beat Mr Kalm with merger proposal. «With him, we have already met,» said Mr Stern. «We’ll try to play the universities against one another and see which makes a better offer.»

As realised by Rector Kalm, they might not be able to marry ‘em all. «To say that small institutes are brides of utmost desire for universities – not that easy,» was his wording. The rector reminded us that mergers actually come with a dark side for the university, namely the current 85 percent rule when dividing research money.

«Meaning: if in some years an institute’s financing falls under 85 percent, extra money will be granted to get to that 85 percent,» he explained. «Within a university the percentage will not be applied and potential shortcomings must be covered by the university, or else the institute will just get less money than when being independent.» Thus, he understands the pragmatic desire of the state to tie small institutes with universities.

As also pointed out by KBFI’s Mr Stern, Estonia has taken an untraditional path to rearrange structures of research institutions. «The ministry wants grassroots initiative and promises extra money to initiators, but will not paint a picture of the future from the top down,» he said. Help might be on its way in the form of a research recently ordered by science development committee from fresh Tallinn Tech board of governors chairman Gunnar Okk supposed to provide an overview on Estonian research institutions structure, their optimality and possible mergers.

The trouble, says Mr Stern, is that the report by Mr Okk will only be presented when the institutions are already having to file the (joint) applications for EU money.

As also admitted by Mr Kalm, the topic is not well timed – people are not fully awake from summer sleepiness. Meanwhile, he has faith the talks of principle – to merge or not to merge – might get done during August. «It’s the issue of when to take these two hours to talk it over,» claimed Mr Kalm.