Students disgruntled over subjects taught in English

Tallinn University student Sten says that students with a weaker grasp on English are put at a disadvantage by universities

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

English subjects hidden in Estonian curricula add internationality to universities but end up failing students who could be successful studying only in Estonian.

Students of most Estonian universities have no choice but to take some subjects in English, while those of Tallinn University do not know which subjects will be taught in a foreign language when they enroll. In cases where subjects taught in English have very complicated special literature, graduation could depend solely on a person’s grasp of a foreign language.

Sten, who attends Tallinn University since last year and did not want to reveal his last name, said he had no idea he would have to take so many subjects or use material in English. The young man was also surprised to learn that no one warns future students in advance.

“We cannot lump all students in together and expect them to have equal language proficiency,” Sten said.

Students have turned to the Ministry of Education and Research on several occasions. They are baffled to find themselves in a class taught in a foreign language as part of what should be in an Estonian curriculum.

A lot of information gets lost

Tallinn University student Hanna said things become difficult when one is expected to read complicated scientific papers in English that later serve as basis for the exam and are also used by several Estonian lecturers. “I believe quite a lot gets lost in translation.”

The Language Act states that one’s education is deemed Estonian if at least 60 percent of study takes place in Estonian. This allows universities to offer close to half of subjects in a foreign language.

Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps said the ministry has talked to universities about Estonian education gradually becoming English education. English study is causing problems for older students who did not learn English in school, Reps said. The minister added that it is a separate question whether a foreign lecturer should teach Estonian auditoriums.

“We have talked about it with Tallinn University Prorector Priit Reiska. As concerns older students, Tallinn University promised to make sure students have access to study materials in other foreign languages.”

Prorector Priit Reiska told Postimees that the university has no such problem as all Estonian curricula are taught in Estonian. Both bachelor’s and master’s students are expected to take a subject to develop mandatory or specialty-related foreign language proficiency worth six credit points. In addition, at least one subject taught in a foreign language must be selected in the master’s program.

In the name of quality

Reiska does not believe Estonia is short on professors who speak Estonian and is convinced subjects could be covered by Estonian lecturers. Foreign professors are used to boost quality of education, he said.

The prorector added students have not had problems understanding course materials. “We also dropped mandatory B2 English language proficiency that used to be a prerequisite for graduation,” Reiska explained. He also does not believe language proficiency determines who can study at the university. “We require knowledge in all areas. Those admitted to and graduating from the university must have above average education that includes language proficiency,” Reiska said.

The topic does not only apply to Tallinn University. The University of Tartu refused to sign its contract under public law last year as it felt the ministry was meddling too much in its autonomy.

Prorector Aune Valk said it is clear that one needs to read foreign literature to stay up to speed on latest scientific developments. She also said that shortage of Estonian professors is not the reason for English subjects. She added that it might become a problem in the future if higher education funding remains poor and young people lose the motivation to pursue academic careers.

The Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) did not wish to comment on the matter.

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