Mari-Liis Pintson

Experts debated the future of higher education funding

On 26 April, at the invitation of the University of Tartu, the rectors of Estonia's public universities, representatives of the Ministry of Education and Research, the Estonian Qualifications Authority and other experts in higher education gathered to start a discussion on the development of a long-term plan for financing higher education.

In order to gradually make up for the continuous underfunding of higher education, it was agreed in the 2022 national budget strategy that the amount allocated to higher education would increase by 15 percent per year until 2026 (incl.), while a permanent financing plan is developed.

"We understand that both the state of public finances and the geopolitical situation are very challenging at the moment. Nonetheless, it is inevitable to continue the societal debate on the future of higher education in Estonia once the difficult times are over," said Toomas Asser, Rector of the University of Tartu. "We need a long-term plan for higher education funding as early as spring 2025, when the renegotiation of administrative contracts will start. So, over the coming year, we need to work out a funding model on the basis of which universities can agree on commitments with the state for the new period."

At the gathering, Toomas Asser, UT student representative Renar Kihho and OSKA Head Analyst at the Estonian Qualifications Authority Yngve Rosenblad gave an overview of the expectations and needs of universities, students and the labour market for the future of higher education. Member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences Jaak Aaviksoo, who is compiling a review of Estonian education spending for the Ministry of Education and Research, presented the higher education section of the forthcoming analysis, and Margus Haidak, Head of Higher Education Policy and Lifelong Learning Department of the ministry, spoke about the possibilities of private funding in higher education and proposals for reforming the student loan system. Kadri Männasoo, Professor at the Department of Economics and Finance, Tallinn University of Technology, addressed the societal choices of financing higher education, taking into account the socio-economic benefits of higher education.

The gathering stressed the need to agree on a joint methodology for calculating the costs of higher education, including research, in order to analyse the current situation and prepare funding scenarios. In addition to covering the costs of higher education, the IT and real estate investments needed to run universities must also be guaranteed. In the context of the involvement of private funding and the declining population, it was acknowledged that the role of international students in the future Estonian economy and society needs to be discussed. In a situation where more jobs requiring higher education are emerging on the labour market, the target set in Estonia's long-term development strategy to have at least 45% of people aged 25–34 with tertiary education by 2035 is still relevant. It is important, however, that higher education is not limited to a bachelor's degree. It was also pointed out that there is a need for more people with both higher education and vocational training, which is why there is a need to focus on the population without professional education.

Discussions on the future of higher education funding will continue in the near future under the leadership of the universities as well as in the Ministry of Education and Research, the Riigikogu and the Estonian Research and Development Council.

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