Free international education in jeopardy

Helen Mihelson
, reporter
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Photo: Raigo Pajula

Heads of municipal schools are troubled over government deliberations on how to finance international education in Estonian schools.

Estonia has six schools in Tallinn and Tartu offering international education. Most of these are private schools, while two municipal schools, the Tallinn English College and the Miina Härma High School in Tartu, have also been offering the IB education program for years.

Both schools allow Estonian and foreign children to learn in English for free. Their education is paid for from local government and ministry budgets. The annual fee for IB education ranges from a few thousand euros to €20,000 in private schools.

However, the Ministry of Education and Research has been working on a plan of changing international education financing for some time.

The preliminary plan was approved by the government’s economic development committee a month ago. The initiative came from Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps (Center Party) whose proposal was to clearly define those with access to state support.

The ministry presented the plan to headmasters in mid-May. Even though the entire plan is in early stages, developments are seen as troubling by principals.

“There is a lot of confusion,” said Director Toomas Kruusimägi of the Tallinn English College. “What makes it bad is that we do not know how to proceed. The ministry says there is all the time in the world, while things seem to be running away from us quite quickly.”

The government has designated so-called priority target groups who will retain access to state-funded international education also in the future. They include children of diplomats, top specialists and experts returning to Estonia.

Next to them, the ministry has also designated an expanded target group who will not automatically qualify for free international education. They are foreign diplomats, university lecturers and doctoral students, foreign specialists, multilingual families, and others returning to Estonia.

“International study places must be ensured for the expanded target group; however, they will not be able to count on availability of free international education,” said adviser at the ministry’s general education department Katre Mehine.

The Miina Härma High School has a total of 62 basic and high school students in its IB program. The figure is changeable – some students enroll mid-academic year while others only stay for a few months. One or both parents of about 90 percent of basic school students have come to work or study at the University of Tartu or the Baltic Defense College.

“What worries us the most is that lecturers are not part of the priority group,” said head of Tartu city government’s education department Riho Raave. He explained that the city has been developing IB education at the Miina Härma High School for years and finally has all the programs.

The ministry allocated €202,901 for Tartu and €296,557 for Tallinn for IB education last year. The capital also received support from the foreign ministry. “If the city had to pay for all of it, it would be a heavy burden indeed,” Raave explained.

Headmaster of the Miina Härma High School Ene Tamberg shares his concern. “The document’s priority target group designation looked quite Tallinn-centered to me. We do not have diplomats in Tartu,” she said.

The ministry prescribes a life raft: expanded target group study places can be supported by state and private institutions and organizations. Extent of sponsorship will likely be up to individual organizations to decide. “However, it needs to be a well-grounded and reasoned decision for state agencies,” Mehine said.

She added that foreign professors and doctoral students are still a high-priority target group for the ministry and that it will continue to support their education.

Mehine said that the state must treat everyone equally when allocating funds, and that IB program student places should be better available.

Raave said that while she understands the state wants to support everyone equally, including private education, free education should be retained as a possibility. “Not everyone wants to go to a private school and not everyone’s employer is willing to pay for it,” she said.

Mehine emphasized that the entire process is taking baby steps and the ministry will meet with representatives of the two cities to find the best possible solution. Today’s deliberations should manifest as real change in 2020.

The education ministry also plans to create a coordination council made up of representatives of ministries, employers, and schools. The council would forecast and assess the need for international student places on which the ministry would base its future decisions.