Tanel Kerikmäe

 

Access and right to education is despite the non-hierarchal nature of human rights the most important premise to building a civil society. Precisely thanks to eruditeness the individual is able to fathom the extent of his or her rights and freedoms and to be considerate about fundamental rights of others whether it comes across in his or her attitude or behaviour. Right to education merited media coverage on several occasions in 2010. Content analyses were also carried out.

We are becoming more like a state of law thanks to the discussions. On the other hand, we have to face choices due to economic and political pressures, which conceptually define the right to education in Estonia.

The following review brings out the most important questions of 2010 throughout the levels of education as well as regarding access to education by less protected social groups (foreigners and elderly people).[1]

Basic and Upper Secondary Level

The controversy surrounding uniting basic level schools continued in 2010. The closing of schools because of financial reasons caused difficulties for pupils who now have to go to school much further from home. Because of this situation several local governments have turned to the state to avoid having to close the local secondary schools, or to gain additional funding. Their applications often contain the petition to found a state sponsored secondary school (in Jõgeva, Viljandi and Haapsalu). Several heads of schools have admitted that this subject has not been thought through and therefore the efficiency of the state sponsored secondary schools in unpredictable. It could also severely affect the conditions for access to education.

The problems of special schools have been given special attention. Chancellor of Justice of the Republic of Estonia has spoken out about enforcement of surveillance over the process of working out the necessary legal regulation in order to apply the concept of schools for special needs children.

On November the 5th, 2010 a verification visit to Kaagvere special school took place. It occurred, among other findings, that the Ministry of Education and Research has not compiled the draft amending the Juvenile Sanctions Act by which the provisions stated in Special Schools’ Conceptual Bases could be enforced. Charges for discrimination arose regarding special schools. European Commission against Racism and Intolerance pointed out the discrimination against Roma in its 2010 report on Estonia. Minister of Education has denied the accusations in media and the representative of the ministry claims the Roma are studying in schools for special needs children exclusively with the consent of their parents. In Estonia’s report to the Council of Europe the state points out the methods for increasing efficiency of language training, which enable everyone regardless their language and ethnic background an equal access to education.

Higher Education

A survey was carried out in 2010 by Praxis, in association with SA Archimedes Primus program regarding access to higher education. The survey gained the attention of the Federation of Estonian Student Unions, which pointed out that only 5% of students come from families of low socio-economic background. 19.5% of Estonian population lives in relative poverty. Stipend-based support system increases the inequality occurring in higher education and therefore it depends on the income of the student’s parents and their place of residence whether a person has access to education. The survey also shows that 66% of students in Estonia work, which is the highest such figure in Europe. 51% of full time students also work full time and spend the least amount of time on studies of the students in Europe.

The act amending the Tartu University Act, which mainly regulated questions regarding intra-university study disciplines, was passed in 2010. The Act Amending Tartu University and the Universities Act[2] adopted in Riigikogu on 16 February 2011 also ties in with the question of running the university, more specifically what is the relationship between the board of governors and its council? This discussion concerns the wider society. The board of governors’ (which comprises of persons outside the university) effect on the autonomy of the university (and therefore also to the access of education) has not been sufficiently analysed. The first conflict has already occurred. Passing the specific law may place universities in an unequal standing and thereby regulate free access to education.

September 16th, 2010 the government passed the document “Ülevaade Eesti kõrghariduspoliitika arengutest 2006–2009”, which concedes that the “[m]ain deficiencies are to do with limitations of funding from the state budget”. It clearly has to do with disproportionate funding and unfounded policies of study programmes and universities. A part of this document is titled “Linking higher education to the needs of Estonia’s society and the expectations of the labour market”, which refers to the fact that the policy regarding higher education is in essence protectionist and does not consider the principle of freedom of movement of the EU, nor does it see the increase of foreign students as a priority or admit the fact that the graduates often end up working in a foreign country.

The topics of higher education fees and free higher education were also discussed in 2010.[3] These topics do not stem from educational strategy documents of Ministry of Education and Research or from their enforcement documents. This has planted the feeling of lack of legal certainty, as it is unsure, which criteria determine the allocation of free higher education, who finances it and how the state aid is divided (and by whom) between various specialties and universities. Various other topics that have not yet been discussed also tie in with the question of access to higher education, for instance the conditions set by associations of the field to gain access to activities in the field for the person who has acquired higher education, as well as the ongoing discrimination in the current law. § 29 subsection 3 of the Bar Association Act[4] states that the professional suitability assessment committee which determines the suitability of the candidate includes ex officio a jurist from Tartu University. Also the examination board for judge’s examination includes a representative of Tartu University. Since there are three universities teaching law that have been recognised by the state the equal treatment of students of these universities should be expressed in laws. It would be fair to employ a rotation or to prescribe the representation of all the universities in such examination boards. Otherwise it will not be the academic content of the university but the words awarded by the executive power “unnecessary duplication” that are of utmost importance when it comes to choosing a university (in the field of medicine, law, architecture and other disciplines). This refers to the need to gather certain study programmes in one university; this would limit the student’s freedom of choice and minimise healthy competition. The term used by the Minister of Education “principle of feasibility”[5], which has been used to justify education policy decisions, has remained unclear and potentially restrictive to academic freedom and access to education.

One must agree with the authors who claim that Estonia needs systematic and professional analyses in order to solve our educational problems. This claim would make consensus between political parties possible.

A positive example for eradicating age discrimination is a project called “the university of the dignified”, which allowed several hundred of the elderly (at the average age of 70) to begin with self-improvement studies. The representatives of refresher courses in Tartu University claim:

“Tartu University’s university of the dignified has been founded on the principles of lifelong education to flexibly react to changes and needs of the society and to offer refresher courses to various groups of people. The university of the dignified in Tartu is also supported by the town of Tartu and the Ministry of Education and Research.”

The concept of the university of the dignified also works regionally. Nearly 350 people over the age of 50 have graduated from courses in Tartu University’s Pärnu College.

Refunding study loans

One of the acute topics in 2010 was the topic of refunding (or to be more precise: not refunding) the study loans. That is without a doubt an important factor in access to education. Refunding study loans for workers in the public sector and their parents was discontinued by the second State Budget Act for 2009, in connection to the act amending other acts, which was passed in Riigikogu on June 18th, 2009. The act also influences refunding the interest of the study loan. The Federation of Estonian Student Unions claim alternatives should have been considered. The Federation gathered 12,725 signatures for continuation of refunding the study loans and is according to their representative ready to proceed all the way to European Court of Human Rights to challenge the infringement of the principle of legitimate expectation. Interpreting the act has caused ambivalence. Administrative Court of Tallinn passed the decision, which required the municipality to continue refunding the study loan for the teacher of a secondary school. Other instances of turning to court have been known to occur and one may assume that the final assessment for the act’s accordance with the Constitution will hopefully be given by the Supreme Court in the near future.

Summary

The continuing problem of 2010 is the uniting of schools, which will result in closing of several schools in the rural area and this may also mean potentially more difficult access to education for children in that area. Problems in access to education are also present in higher education, however, the main problem here has proved to be the economic possibilities. The topic of not refunding the study loans which reached the courts in 2010 also plays a role in access to education.

The topic of special schools also gained the attention of the pubic in 2010, especially the Chancellor of Justice’s criticism about the Kaagvere special school. The Chancellor of Justice accused the Ministry of Education and Research of inactivity in working out the necessary amendments for the Juvenile Sanctions Act, which would increase effectiveness of the purpose of special schools.

The unequal treatment of institutions of higher education has also proved to be a problem which has been exemplified by several developments in 2010, for example the disproportionate funding and politics, also appointing experts based on possession of a diploma from one preferred university.

The activity of the Federation of Estonian Student Unions in debates has been a welcome sign. Problems become clearer in the course of discussion and that is the prerequisite to finding solutions suitable for a state of law. The topic of education has been more central in 2011’s general elections than ever. Hopefully some benefit will arise from the discussion surrounding the election promises and the access to education will become more available to all the social groups.

Recommendations

–          Monitor and analyse the practice of uniting basic level secondary schools and ensure access to basic secondary education.

–          Analyse problems connected with higher education fees and take measures to guarantee access to higher education for secondary school graduates from lower income families.

–          Strategies of higher education should consider the principle of balance of rights of various interest groups and the principle of legitimate expectation.

–          Work out a draft to the act amending the Juvenile Sanctions Act, which would make it possible to implement the Special Schools’ Conceptual Bases.


[1] The topic of education has also been covered in chapters 8 (prohibition of discrimination) and 12 (Integration and ethnic cohesion of the Estonian society).

[2] The Act amending Tartu University Act. RT I, 3.03.2011, 4.

[3] See for example Lukas, Tõnis (2010). Tasuta kõrgharidus? [Free higher education?] Postimees 20.09.2010. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/?id=31518; Lukas, Tõnis (2010):

Üldine tasuta kõrgharidus pole utoopiline [General free higher education is not utopia]. Postimees, 20.11.2010. Available at: http://www.postimees.ee/?id=345021; or Lukas, Tõnis (2010). Tasuta kõrgharidus peaks olema meie tee [Free higher education should be our choice] 20.09.2010, Äripäev. Available at: http://www.ap3.ee/?PublicationId=f3f60fcd-cc69-44fd-9be8-98c1762f6be9.

[4] RT I 2001, 36, 201 … RT I, 14.03.2011, 3.

[5] See for example the discussion on the draft amending the Institutions of Professional Higher Education Act in the Government of Estonia. Government of Estonia (2000). 5. The draft amending the Institutions of Professional Higher Education Act. Government’s 23.05.2000 session info and agenda. 23.05.2000. Available at: http://www.valitsus.ee/et/uudised/istungid/istungite-paevakorrad/6922/valitsuse-23052000-istungi-info-ja-paevakord or Lukas, Tõnis (2007). Mis muutub lähiaastail meie kõrgharidusmaastikul? [What will change in our higher education in the next few years?] Põhjarannik 3.08.2007. Available at: http://www.pohjarannik.ee/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid=5908.

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