Schools close due to low birth rates

  • 2001-06-21
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - Estonia will close 24 high schools before the coming educational year begins, due to low birth rates. The number of children due to enter elementary schools in 2001 will be almost 50 percent less than in 1995, if current trends continue. The Estonian population has declined by 200,000 people since 1989, with far fewer births registered since independence than in the Soviet period.

According to Heli Aru, an adviser to the education minister, over 30 schools have been closed over the last three years. "In 1995 over 23,000 children went to school for the first time. Last year only 15,000 did," she said.

Keeping extra schools open in regions where there are no children would be more expensive than taking those children to school by taxi, a Ministry of Education official was quoted as saying last week.

Even in the capital some 12 schools will be closed over the next six years for the same reason, said Liisa Pakosta, Tallinn's deputy mayor.

The trend is also clear in higher education. At a news conference last week, Education Minister Tonis Lukas said that about 10 universities would be enough for Estonia.

Estonia has 15 universities, six of which are state-run.

Olav Kruus, an Education Ministry spokesman, said the minister meant higher education institutions of the classical type, in other words with ongoing research work in addition to regular studies.

"Such criteria can be applied to all of the state universities and the strongest private universities, like Concordia, the Estonian Business School and the Humanitarian Institute," said Kruus.

At the beginning of this educational year 56,437 students were attending Estonian universities, according to Education Ministry statistics. But the overall number of higher education institutions, including academies and other special colleges, is as high as 48, which, according to Kruus, is too many for a country of 1.4 million.

"At the dawn of democracy here, the laws on education were fairly liberal, which caused a glut of universities to appear," he said.

Reforms in the higher education sphere, currently under development in the ministry, involve specifying the concept of a university and working out unified requirements for higher education institutions, said Kruus.

Kruus said that over the next five or six years competition in the sector would bring about Lukas' predictions.

Oigusinstituut, a private law school founded in 1994, announced its merger with Tartu University on June 5. The law institute will be called the Law Institute of Tartu University, and unification work will begin this fall.

The merger of two state-funded universities, Tallinn Pedagogical University and Tallinn Technical University, to create an entity with the simpler name of Tallinn University, is still under discussion.

According to the ministry, Estonia now spends a little over 1 percent of GDP on higher education, which exceeds higher education spending in many other European countries.