TALLINN - A prominent educator triggered controversy this week by casting doubt on the holiest of the holy, and suggesting that Estonian students help pick up the tab for tuition.
In an opinion piece in the Eesti Paevaleht on Jan. 6, Tallinn University Rector Mati Heidmets argued that students should pay 25 percent of their tuition. What's more, he said his colleagues support the proposal.
Indeed, once the article appeared, deans at both Tallinn and Tartu universities expressed the need to consider establishing some sort of tuition fee for all students in higher educational institutions.
Reaction from the government was swift.
Education Minister Mailis Reps vowed that, at least during her tenure, the state would continue to fund higher education.
"If a tuition fee is introduced, there would be a risk that part of the state's would-be students cannot enter a higher educational institution because of financial reasons," Reps told the Postimees daily on Jan. 10.
In her words, students should not become more dependent on their parents' purses than they already are.
But Heidmets argued that the government's system of financing university education - where the taxpayers cover the cost of nearly half the nation's students - needed to be modernized.
He said the number of students had doubled in Estonia since the early 1990s, and higher education was becoming "education for the masses."
"Along with the growth in the number of students, the question of who will cover the increasing costs is becoming more acute," Heidmets wrote.
"For a long time now, the state purse has not been able to meet today's needs, either in Estonia or in the rest of the world. The result is growing tension in the financing of higher education. On the one hand dreams of a knowledge-based society and on the other hand the actual reduction of the amount of money per student," he continued.
Heidmets drew attention to a higher education strategy draft, published in December, which says the possibility of introducing university tuition fees, paid in part by the students themselves, should be considered. He did not specify how much students were expected to pay, noting only that in experts' opinion, tuition fees could make up 25 percent of university institutions' income.
The rector of Tartu University, Jaak Aaviksoo, added that higher education had never been free. "The question at this point is rather whether [tuition] should be paid for by taxpayers through state taxes or at least partly by those who are going to benefit from the studies," he said.
Aaviksoo observed that introducing a tuition would give the state an additional opportunity to direct young people preferentially to either vocational or higher educational studies.
Heidmets added that student-financed education is not a novel concept, as about half of Estonia's students pay the full cost of their university studies. The other half is also fully covered but by the taxpayer.
"Such a system is not very wide-spread, and can be met mainly in Eastern Europe and, for example, in Uganda," Heidmets wrote.
He said the "all or nothing" model was not just or compatible with a developed country's principle of equal treatment. He concluded that, in the long run, state-funded upper education was not good for Estonia.
"Among other things, it is necessary to take into consideration a significant fall in the number of those entering higher educational institutions over the next decade. It is our inevitable duty to put as high a value as possible on [Estonia's] existing minds. Ensuring access to higher education in a way that would not leave any potential bright person aside, either because of economic or other reasons not depending on that person, will become the key issue. The present black-and-white scheme of financing does not ensure this and is not just with respect to students," Heimets wrote.
Since independence in 1991, Estonia has placed a high value on state education, serving as an example for its fellow Baltic states.
Likewise, in this week's interview with The Baltic Times (see Page 18), Lithuanian politician Vytautas Landsbergis voiced his concern over the government's lack of attention to education. "We need to invest our money into education and the modernization of our old scientific infrastructure," he said.
Latvian Education Minister Ina Druviete has also made recent efforts to bring national education to the limelight.