Paper proposes paid higher education in English

Press education.

PHOTO: Caro / Scanpix

Published yesterday, a report by Nordic Investment Bank vice president Gunnar Okk advises to heap research and higher education on three major universities. Critical of the approach, Marju Lauristin condemns this as administrative-technocratic view on the domain. 

Among other things, Mr Okk advises making higher education paid in full extent i.e. a student should assume a loan which can be deleted if the graduate stays to work in Estonia.

University of Tartu and Tallinn Tech rectors Volli Kalm and Jaak Aaviksoo, involved with the report themselves, praised the direction shown by Mr Okk.

«Doubtless, the direction of the report is correct: Estonia’s research and higher education should be of better quality, more competitive internationally,» said Mr Kalm. «If this is the main aim, then all the other activities suggested may be argued about.»

«The report is very honest, bold and professional,» enthused Mr Aaviksoo. «Indeed, it needs to be taken seriously that if we want to be competitive in the Nordics, we must join forces whether by doing things together or merging institutions,» he said, admitting that all definite proposals aren’t the truth to be followed.

Mr Aaviksoo said the curricula language issue must surely be debated i.e. how large the percentage of studies in the English language. «The Estonian language must not disappear, but it goes without saying that an educated individual knows English and if a lecture is in English all students will understand,» argued Mr Aaviksoo.

Professor emeritus and MEP Marju Lauristin said it was ironic that a report promoting Master’s and Doctoral thesis in English should be published during the week we celebrated the «Letter of 40» from 1980. «The main idea of the letter was that higher education was being turned into Russian so that theses had to be written in Russian and indeed were written in Russia. Now it is considered the only option to switch over to English,» lamented Ms Lauristin.

She was saddened to read that the humanities are planned a special status for Estonian culture and language to be preserved. «Like it is only the humanitarians who answer for the preservation of Estonian culture and language – this is an extremely naive and simplistic technical approach,» said Ms Lauristin.

As observed by Ms Lauristin and former education minister now in Riigikogu Mailis Reps, the report discusses nothing that has not been debated for years on end.  

Ms Lauristin said Mr Okk advises the demolition of current public law system of universities. «In the academic and hopefully in the political public I fail to see the will to demolish the public law universities system, replacing it by a state system as advised by Mr Okk,» added Ms Lauristin.

Mr Okk advises to merge with universities several currently independent research institutions, like the Institute for the Estonian Language.

The Tartu rector Mr Kalm who called several institutions into his fold at the start of summer, said such moves in the beginning of 1990ies have proven fruitful.

What made Ms Lauristin anxious about the «Okk Report» was the allegation that Estonia is too educated, that the aim to reach 40 percent higher education is not important and 30 percent will do.

«The report fails to realise the role of higher education in the development of society, its wellbeing and its quality. Higher education is seen in terms very practical, utilitarian, only how it can be applied and how much they pay for salaries,» said Ms Lauristin.

The proposal by Mr Okk to make higher education, free of charge for just some few years now, was not explicitly supported nor by the rectors, neither by Ms Lauristin nor Ms Reps.

«The loans system suggested is the most widely spread in the world but neither I nor any other can promptly approve that,» said Mr Aaviksoo – education minister when free higher education was established.  

Mr Kalm admitted no university or rector could feel too warmly about U-turns every couple years. «But should we agree that higher education is a good both societal and personal, then both sides should participate in the financing thereof,» said Mr Kalm. «Highly educated people earn more, are happier and healthier, and might pay for their education even later.»

Ms Reps said the free-of-charge system will face change anyway as neither universities nor students are totally satisfied. «One effect was that the universities are forced to open more English language based specialties (for these, they can ask for fee – edit),» noted Ms Reps.

She cited the example of Holland where part of the universities have gradually switched over to English, but have therewith acquired a competitive edge next to the UK. «The issue is: do we want the nations of the world to study here and we’d be proud of that, or perhaps we are not ready for it,» reasoned Ms Reps. «Based on that, cool stuff could be built... but if that means all we have left in Estonian is ethno and eco – do we want that?»

According to Ms Lauristin, many foresaw the problems-to-be with free-of-charge higher education – proven prophetic. «It ought to have been discussed more thoroughly back then,» admitted Ms Lauristin.

She went on to say the Okk Report was Finland-leaning, and written on basis of opinions of a technocratic-administrative group. «Mr Okk has familiarised himself with administrative experience, the report involves a list of leading administrators at Finnish universities, as well as Estonian rectors,» said Ms Lauristin and added: «This is the view of a narrow interest group, not characteristic to 21st century. Mr Okk’s report represents the view taking us back to the centralised machine-like management scheme of 20th century. In 21st century, approaches are rather different towards activities of organisations, research and education.»

Meanwhile Mr Lauristin recognised Mr Okk for assuming personal responsibility with a document whereby he calls the society to debate. «Therefore, it is very important for all to realise this [report] is not and indeed cannot be the basis for any decisions,» said Ms Lauristin.

Mr Aaviksoo agrees debate is needed but cautions against the attitude that there is some evil intent lurking behind the report. «We must debate. We must benevolently debate,» was the rector’s wording.