An analysis by the University of Tartu found that a higher education system aiming for three goals – lots of students, no tuition and low cost – can only achieve two. Going after all three will inevitably have an impact on the quality of education offered. This is precisely what is happening in Estonia today.
“The number of elective subjects has decreased over the years. There simply aren’t enough teaching resources available to offer all of these courses,” said Hanna Britt Soots, deputy director of student body at the University of Tarty.
Universities that are unable to offer professors a competitive salary can also have an impact on the quality of teaching. For example, this could lead to training problems for future computer scientists.
Experience from other countries suggests that there are two options: increase public funding of free higher education, as Finland has done, or introduce reasonable tuition fees, as in the Netherlands.
“Considering tuition fees, we must also consider benefits to ensure access to higher education. These two things must go hand in hand, the analysis clearly showed. Even what tuition fees are,” said said pedagogue Gerli Silm, one of the study’s authors.
In the two countries mentioned, higher education is accessible to those whose parents cannot afford to support them financially. Whereas students in Estonia either have to work while studying or rely on their parents.
“Study loans are very small. We are talking about €2,500 per year or around €200 per month, which is not enough for a student to cover his living expenses. He needs support extra,” Silm said.
While the university prefers the Finnish route, Nicholas Barr, professor of public economics at the London School or of economics and political science, recommended that Estonia learn from the Netherlands. Barr pointed out that means offering state support for student loans.
“The answer is education loans plus income-contingent payments. In other words, a student uses a loan to pay for education that they will repay after graduation as part of their income, just like a person pays income tax. Low income would result in lower or non-existent loan repayments. This would ensure very low risk for students. With the government in charge of collecting the payments, creditors would have confidence to offer low interest rates,” Barr suggested.
The professor added that the administrative costs of such a system are low because it builds on an existing tax system.