TALLINN - After drawing heavy criticism from Estonia's Language Commission, the Senate of Tallinn University on Nov. 12 postponed its decision on whether to start a program next year that would let students earn bachelor's degrees studying in the Russian language.
The planned program, Katariina (Catherine's) College, envisages offering degrees in humanitarian and social sciences to about 500 students. Courses would be taught in Russian while students would be required to raise their Estonian skills to the level needed to continue post-graduate studies in the national language.
The Language Council has slammed the plan, saying that the establishment of a Russian-medium college in Tallinn would send pupils at Russian high schools the message that command of Estonian is not necessary for them to be able to continue their studies, and that the courses would contribute to segregation of the society on the basis of language.
The criticism was echoed by the Nationalists' Association, an independent group within the conservative Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica party (IRL). In a Nov. 11 statement, the association's general assembly said that the move would undermine the nation's language policy, and proposed that the Ministry of Education reduce the university's public funding next year.
"At the same time the state is making efforts to switch the Russian language secondary schools to Estonian language teaching, Tallinn University has decided to take the higher education from Estonian back to Russian," said the statement.
Tallinn University Rector Rein Raud defended the plan, pointing out that there are already several institutions, such as Tartu University's Narva College, where higher education is conducted with Russian as the language of instruction.
He also said that due to the low-quality of Estonian language still taught in Russian-language high schools, Russian students entering the university are at a serious disadvantage.
"If talented students have to dedicate half of their effort to struggle with difficult academic texts, then this is not a very rational way to organize their studies," he told The Baltic Times in an e-mail.
Other reasons Raud gave for offering education in Russian included the low quality of alternative Russian-language colleges in Estonia and the possibility to attract students from neighboring countries.
"We also think that the democratic experiences of Estonia could be useful for people from Belarus, the Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and other places where Russian is well known," he said.
Tonis Lukas, Estonia's Minister of Education and Research, told The Baltic Times that his ministry would not block the establishment of Katariina College, but would not support it either.
"If we start dubbing the education system to the Russian language, the stimulus [to learn Estonian] might get lost and [Russian speakers] would have difficulties with competing in the labor market," he wrote.
Meanwhile the university's rector still aims to push ahead with the project.
"The Senate did not propose to abandon the plan, simply to postpone the decision for some time, because the general public has been misinformed about its nature. I am still optimistic and I hope we will be able to start next autumn as planned," said Raud.