Tanel Kerikmäe, Aivi Remmelg

Political and institutional developments

The state and the local government must guarantee that everyone in Estonia the opportunity to fulfil the obligation to attend school,[1] which gives the opportunity to obtain education from pre-school level to higher education level. Although the international surveys (PISA 2009; OECD 2012; ESLC 2012) give Estonia’s population a high appraisal the steps in education politics must be considered carefully in a state with diminishing and aging population.[2] Estonia’s education politics is based on the principle of inclusive education, according to which all students have the right to education based on their abilities and needs.[3] Yet the focus of education reforms is placed on economizing and quality, which might not guarantee materialisation of principles of inclusive education and granting equal opportunities for access to education.[4]

The 2012 higher education reform fulfilled the election promise of free higher education by adopting the Universities Act. Processing of the draft of the Universities Act created a lively debate in the society and opposing positions were given by the students as well as the president. The expectations of the students[5] had mainly to do with guarantees of equal access and changes to the system of education allowance, which would enable students to dedicate to their studies more.

The state-wide teachers’ strike turned attention to issues of funding.[6] Providing support services in schools and considering it an education cost turned out to be a problem. The local governments are unable to pay for support services.[7] Yet the number of children with special needs has risen and making the necessary specialists redundant contradicts the children’s rights to education based on their abilities – they have to be guaranteed a growth environment based on their needs that is conducive to development.[8]

Regional inequality in education may start to endanger the state’s balanced development and economic growth.[9] The proposed plan to stop offering professional
higher education at Võru County Vocational Training Centre would reduce the amount of students by 300-350, which could lead to closing down of the school and leave companies of processing industry without educated and trained specialists, thereby exacerbating the socio-economic situation of South-eastern Estonia.[10]

Sustainability of country regions has to do with existence of kindergartens and schools. Reorganisation of school networks may begin to limit the parents’ right to choose a suitable school for their child, as the distance of the school from home and the length of the day influence the decision making. Right to education presupposes that the national policy also includes considering regional and social politics in addition to reforms of the content of education. The demographic situation and the poor condition of the education reform have lead to remoter areas becoming peripheries. According to the Statistical Office[11]  the number of school students in Estonia has reduced by roughly 33% in the past ten years and more than 100 general education schools have been closed down. At the same time, the number of children in towns and rural municipalities near towns has increased, which has brought about a shortage of kindergarten places.

Legislative developments

Riigikogu passed the act amending the Universities Act, the Institutions of Professional Higher Education Act and other relevant acts 10 May 2012.[12] Processing of this draft act brought about a widespread discussion among various interest groups. The main reasons for opposing opinions, which were drawn attention to also by the National Audit Office were the fact that rash action in carrying out of the higher education reform can lead to unwanted results, as several important questions to do with funding, distribution of places, education allowance and scholarship and other issues have not been solved.[13]

According to the good practice of legislative drafting the decisions made in legislative drafting have to be in accordance with the interest of the public and be transparent and reasoned. The more significant the change the more thorough the explanation has to be.[14] The president found the Universities Act adopted in Riigikogu 9 February 2012 to contradict paragraphs 10, 11, 13, 38 subsection 2 and paragraph 87 point 6 of the Constitution and refused to proclaim the act.[15] The draft act passed the second reading without material amendments, ignoring proposals regarding academic leave and reimbursement of educational expenses (which would have posed more favourable conditions for the students). The proposed amendment – to forbid taking exams and assessments during academic leave – was originally supposed to enter force 1 January 2013, before the free higher education system came into force. According to the act that came into force the provision shall apply to students who started their studies in 2013, students who started earlier were left the opportunity until the end of 2015/2015 academic year in order not to limit the justified expectations and rights of students who were already studying.

Among the propositions made for the Estonian higher education strategy for 2006-2015 is the proposition to review measures guaranteeing equal access to higher education for persons in socio-economically worse conditions. According to the higher education reform the education allowance will be paid based on need calculated by the income of the family. Getting by on 135 euros places students from families with economic difficulties in an unfair situation. The calculations of the Federation of Estonian Student Unions show that needs based education allowance will be paid to just 9% of all students instead of 37%.[16] The new support system makes equal availability of higher education questionable, because education is a right, which can only be limited by mental ability and a person’s social or economic conditions should not be a hindrance in acquiring higher education. The students’ opportunities to acquire higher education should not depend on the economic circumstances of themselves or their parents.[17]

The proposition of the Chancellor of Justice to amend the Private Schools Act,[18] which currently allows teaching in a foreign language in private secondary schools belonging to public authority deserves attention, as it does not sufficiently guarantee access to education in Estonian.[19] In case of private schools the language of instruction is determined by the operator. In order to actually realise everyone’s right to education the state – the legislative as well as executive power and the local governments – has to guarantee everyone’s right to Estonian language instruction.[20]

Court Practice

Tartu Administrative Court[21] quashed the decision of Otepää Rural Municipality Council about closing of the Pühajärve basic school. Parents of Pühajärve basic school contested the decision of the council, which breaches the right of the parents and residents of the municipality to receive education for their children (Constitution, § 37) and right to good education (Constitution, § 14). In the court’s view the decision had been rash and not thought through, the council had used their discretionary power contrary to the purpose of the discretion, which causes the decision to entail significant abuse of discretion, and renders the decision unlawful.[22] In the course of processing the decision the principle of good administration had been ignored, the relevant persons had not been included, and the parties to proceeding had not been granted the right to be heard before passing the administrative legislation, which, according to the Supreme Court’s practice so far is considered a breach so severe it brings about unlawfulness of the administrative act (RKHKo 3-3-1-94-10).[23]

The project Estonian Education Strategy 2012-2020[24] prescribes the state guaranteed opportunity to obtain pre-school education.[25] A Tallinn Administrative Court decision created the first precedent: Pärnu City Government was required to create kindergarten places as planning of budgetary means is the obligation of the local government and the awareness of shortage of kindergarten paces had been known for a longer period.[26]

The State Budget Strategy 2013-2016[27] confirmed by the government does not allow local governments to increase lending over 60% of working income in financial year. the level of administrative capacity of rural municipalities and towns and the services provided is not only the matter of the local governments, but clearly also of the state. Rural municipality mayor: “The situation is absurd – the court says the judgment made in favour of the parent has to be executed and if the state does not provide sufficient means to fulfil the obligations the local government has to argue with the state.”[28]

Basic Schools and Upper Secondary Schools Act places the obligation on local governments to pay for operating costs of students of private schools. Educational and Cultural Union Läte, which maintains a school based on Waldorf pedagogy, filed an action against city of Tallinn for operational expenditure. City of Tallinn challenged it in court claiming that no money had been put aside for it in the budget.[29] The Supreme Court refused to accept the claim and therefore the judgment of Tallinn Administrative Court about paying operational expenditure came into force.[30]

Right to education also involves prisoners. As the prisoner was not enable to obtain general secondary education in prison he filed a complaint, which was challenged by the prison with the statement that the prisoner had already obtained basic education. The judgment of the Supreme Court guaranteed the prisoner the right to obtain general secondary education.[31]

Statistics and Surveys

Survey carried out by the Statistical Office on education[32] highlights the fact that there is no statistics on education in several fields, there is a lack of skill or will to use the data available and there is no agreement about how to reach the set aims. Insufficiency of analyses and surveys in appraisal of effects and passing decisions are emphasized by the National Audit Office[33] as well as the OECD report[34] – “Equality is not among priorities of higher education politics, few initiatives are aimed at improving equality, little information is gathered to assess the extent of the problem and just an insignificant part of budget funds are aimed at needs-based financial supports.” [35]

In Federation of Estonian Student Union’s appraisal the purpose of activity support is to create equal study opportunities for all motivated and capable students, however there are no surveys to confirm the students’ socio-economic situation and support the ministry’s view on students coping on needs-based education allowance.[36]

Noteworthy public discussions

The case of school violence of minors in Valga special school brought the subject of safety of school environment to heightened attention.[37] Severity of the problem was confirmed by the survey carried out by the Estonian Union for Child Welfare.[38] The ministry continues to appeal to the public to make schools safer.[39] At the same time the state places the obligation to order the services of school psychologists and social pedagogues on the local government, which may make its availability opportunities-based. Ombudsman for children emphasizes: “It is important that the child is cared for in every situation according to his or her age and that his or her safety is guaranteed.”[40] Access to education may be limited for someone suffering from school violence.

Trends in 2012

Right to education means that everyone has the right, regardless of his or her residence and of his or her family’s socio-economic background, to obtain an education according to his or her needs and abilities. 2012 was a remarkable year in education as the Universities Act was amended and steps were taken to shape the schools’ network. Guaranteeing religious beliefs through school education has gathered momentum because of parents’ worry that a national curriculum alone does not guarantee education based on values.[41] Therefore, several schools have started to emphasize education based on values in the context of Christian education. There is a Tallinn Jewish School in Estonia and more attention is paid to religious needs of Muslim students.[42] Right to education is connected with the quality of teaching. Despite the government’s promise to teachers of 11% raise there is concern from the public about which means and methods will be used to execute this promise.

The students’ protests and the teachers’ strike indicate that the views of the interested parties have not been taken into consideration. This highlights the problem areas of the regulation, which could have been avoided with the actual and balanced engagement of the parties.[43]


  • State authorities should base implementation of education reforms, in addition to principles of cost efficiency and quality, also on principles of inclusive education and equal opportunities, which is one of the basic principles of Estonia’s education politics.
  • Improve funding of schools so that quality support services can be offered to children with special needs. The local governments should be offered support in this when there is a need for it.
  • Reorganisation of school framework should consider regional and social politics in additions to issues of education and engage relevant persons in decision-making.
  • Consider reviewing Estonia’s higher education strategy for 2006-2015 and its needs based system of education allowance as the Federation of Estonian Student Unions is of the opinion that the proposed system may limit access to higher education for students from families experiencing financial difficulties.
  • Right to education must also be granted to prisoners and they have to be allowed to obtain general secondary education in prison.
  • Gather statistics on education in all topics and analyse the data that has already been gathered or that is being gathered.

[1] Education Act, Riigi Teataja 1992, 12, 192.

[2] Noorkõiv, R. Pettai, Ü. Piirkondade hariduslik tasakaalustamatus [Educational imbalance of regions]. Eesti piirkondlik areng. 2012. Tallinn. Statistical Office. 2012.

[3] Kaasava hariduse põhimõtted [Principles of inclusive education]. Available at: http://primus.archimedes.ee/takistusteta/7.html.  Also see Kerikmäe, T. (2012). From liberalism towards more control: Short-sighted strategy of a State in higher education. International Conference on Curriculum Theory and Practice. Taba, H.110, 7-8 December. (Ed.) Kalamees-Ruubel, K.. Tallinn: Juura, 2012, 67-68.  Kerikmäe, T (2012). Cost of non-inclusiveness: social stratification and failure of the EU competitive market. Sustainable growth in the European Union – the role of education and training, Bruxelles, Jean Monnet Conference/ECSA World conference 13-14 November. European Commission, Education and Training. 2012.

[4] Kerikmäe, T; Roots, L. (2012). Excessive Control over the University Business by EU Member States: Baking the Goose that lays the Golden Egg? T. Muravska, G. Prause (Ed.). European Integration and Baltic Sea Region Studies: University-Business Partnership through the Triple Helix Approach. Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag.

[5] See views of EÜL. Available at: http://www.eyl.ee/ap/?p=398.

[6] „Ministeerium karmistab õpetajate palgaraha kasutamise korda“ [The ministry to make use of teachers’ money for salary more strict]. Postimees 14.02.2012. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/739168/ministeerium-karmistab-opetajate-palgaraha-kasutamise-korda/.

[7] „KOV-id on vastu kavale, et hariduse tugiteenused oleks nende kanda“ [Local governments oppose plan that educational support services are their responsibility]. ERR 30.06.2012. Available at: http://uudised.err.ee/index.php?06256318.

[8] The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child art 6, 23; the Constitution § 16; Child Protection Act § 8.

[9] Noorkõiv, R. Pettai, Ü. Piirkondade hariduslik tasakaalustamatus. Eesti piirkondlik areng, 2012. Tallinn. Statistical Office. 2012.

[10] Tulik, Ü. „Rakenduskõrghariduse pakkumine Võrumaa kutsehariduskeskuses peab jätkuma“ [Offering professional higher education must continue at Võru County Vocational Trainin Centre]. Võrumaa teataja. Available at: http://vorumaateataja.ee/index.php/ee/mangud/44-arvamus/6252, 22.01.2013.

[11] Statistical Office. Available at: http://www.stat.ee.

[12] Universities Act, Riigi Teataja I, 30.05.2012, 1.

[13] Olgo, T. The opinion of the National Audit Office 30.09.2011 no. 1-8/11/39 on the draft act amending Universities Act, the Institutions of Professional Higher Education Act and other relevant acts.

[14] The good practice of legislative drafting. Available at: http://teenusmajandus.ee/hot.

[15] The decision of the President no. 59 of 27.02.2012 to refuse to proclaim the act amending Universities Act, the Institutions of Professional Higher Education Act and other relevant acts.

[16] Läänemets, L. Vajaduspõhised õppetoetused – nalja teete? [Needs based education allowance – are you joking?]. 23.10.2012. Available at: http://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/arvamus/lauri-laanemets-vajaduspohised-oppetoetused-nalja-teete.d?id=65150994.

[17] The opinions of the Federation of Estonian Student Unions about education allowance. Available at: http://eyl.ee/?page_id=847.

[18] Proposal no. 16 of Chancellor of Justice to Riigikogule: eestikeelse hariduse piisav kättesaadavus [sufficient availability of education in Estonian]. 02.07.2012. Available at: http://oiguskantsler.ee/.

[19] „Riigikogu hakkab muutma eestikeelse hariduse tagamiseks seadust“ [Riigikogu is about to amend the act of law to guarantee education in Estonian]. Postimees, 13.09.2012. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/971068/riigikogu-hakkab-muutma-eestikeelse-hariduse-tagamiseks-seadust/.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Judgment of Tartu Administrative Court no. 3-11-2982 of  7.03.2012.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Eesti haridusstrateegia 2012-2020 projekt. Available at: http://www.haridusfoorum.ee/images/stories/haridusstrateegia/eesti-haridusstrateegia-2012-2020-projekt.pdf.

[25] Judgment of Tallinna Administrative Court no. 3-11-1757 of 1.12.2011 “Right to pre-school education is related to national curriculum of pre-school child care institution adopted by the government, according to which the children are provided pre-school education also in crèche. The Constitution states everyone has the equal right to education. If the parent does not wish to he or she does not have to put the child in the kindergarten, but if there is such wish the local government is obliged to enable pre-school education KEL § 10.“

[26] Judgment of Tallinna Administrative Court no. 3-11-1757 of 1.12.2011.

[27] The state’s budget strategy 2013-2016. Available at: http://www.fin.ee/res.

[28] Oravas, H. „Kohtusse koolikohta nõudma?“ [Demanding a place at school in court?]. Delfi uudised 29.11.2012. Available at: http://www.delfi.ee/news/paevauudised/arvamus/haldo-oravas-kohtusse-koolikohta-noudma.d?id=65334220.

[29] Judgment of Tallinna Administrative Court no. 3-11-2703 of 3.02.2012.

[30] “The respondent’s view that non-fulfillment of obligation stated in § 222 of EkS could be justified with the fact that the state has not allocated the town of Tallinn sufficient budget funds to fulfil arguably national obligations stemming from PGS and EkS is unfounded. Whether participating in covering of operational expenditure is a national or state government task is not relevant in this case. The act clearly places the obligation to participate in covering expenses on the town or rural municipality. It is not a conditional obligation only to be fulfilled if the state provides the money.”

[31] Judgment of Supreme Court no. 3-3-1-31-12 of 16.10.2012.

[32] „Eesti piirkondlik areng 2012.“ Tallinn. 2012. Statistical Office.

[33] Kõrgkoolide tulemuslepingute täitmine [Implementation of performance contracts of institutions of higher education]. Report of the National Audit Office to Riigikogu. 8.08.2012.

[34] Huisman, J., Santiago, P., Högselius, P., Lemaitre M., J., Thorne, W. (2007). OECD kolmanda taseme hariduse temaatiline ülevaade [OECD thematic overview of third tier education]. Estonia. Tartu. 2007.

[35] Ibid.

[36] See views of EÜL. Available at: http://www.eyl.ee/ap/?p=398.

[37] Hirv, L. ERR uudised 19.10.2012. Available at: uudised.err.ee/index.php?06263936&com=1.

[38] ERR news, 19.10.2012. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/1012782/psuhholoogid-riik-peaks-koole-tugispetsialistide-palkamisel-aitama.

[39] Ministeerium lõpetas Jaanikese kooli teenistusliku järelevalve [the Ministry ended supervisory control of Jaanikese school]. 7.12.2012. Available at: http://uudised.err.ee/?06267718.

[40] Convention on the Rights of the Child art 19, 20, 32, 37; the Constitution § 18, § 28, § 29; the Child Protection Act § 10, 14, 15. Available at: lasteombudsman.ee/et/…/lapse-oigused-ja-kohustused.

[41] Parijõgi, M. „Eestis kasvab huvi kristlike koolide vastu“ [The interest towards Christian schools rising in Estonia]. Postimees, 12.10.2012. Available at: http://arvamus.postimees.ee/1004230/eestis-kasvab-huvi-kristlike-koolide-vastu.

[42] Moslemilapsed Eesti koolisüsteemis [Muslim children in Estonian school system]. Available at: http://www.teretere.eu/moslemilapsed-eesti-koolisusteemis/.

[43] Kerikmäe, T. (2012). Prerequisites for European higher education in the context of Globalized Market. Fausto de Quadros, Pedro Barbas Homem (Ed.). Higher Education in the Framework of the 2020 European Union’s Strategy (25 – 31). Lisbon: Jean Monnet Center of Excellence of the University of Lisbon.

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