The Federation of Estonian Student Unions is planning to stage a large-scale protest on May 20 to convince the government to release funds for "scholar allowances," the financial aid that many university students have been expecting for three years.
Education Minister Mailis Rand said recently that the long-awaited 1,300 kroons ($74) monthly allowances would likely not be issued this fall despite promises from the previous government led by former Prime Minister Mart Laar.
"After a long discussion with the prime minister (Siim Kallas) I can say the allowances in their planned form cannot be endorsed," said Rand.
She suggested that the students could still receive financial support from the state if the aid was scholarships tied to a student's course of study.
But even if that is approved, students will begin receiving money in January 2003 at the earliest.
The statement by Rand, made last week, sparked outrage from educators and students. Some called for her resignation.
Jarno Lauri, chairman of the Young Moderates, said Rand was too quick to scrap the allowances.
"The allowances would let the students focus on their primary task - their studies," said Lauri. "Students from low-income families would receive an initial financial base to pursue higher education."
According to the draft plan for the allowances, every student whose total monthly income is less than 2,350 kroons may apply for a maximum of 1,300 kroons per month. About 30 percent of current students, or about 17,000 people, would qualify, according to the Education Ministry.
The allowances would immediately require 500,000 kroons from the state budget, according to the Finance Ministry.
Andres Taimla, head of the Reform Party faction in the Parliament, said that the allowances could be abused. "They (the students) would easily prove they have no income even if they did have some," he said.
The student organizations called on all higher education institutions to join the May 20 action to back the student allowances act. All state and a handful of private universities have so far backed the students.
"The preparations for the protest are underway, and we aren't going to scrap the protest idea until we receive a clear confirmation from the Cabinet that the allowances act will be in force beginning this autumn," said Rait Talvik, public policy chief of the students' federation.
Talvik hopes the protest won't be needed.
"We've recently had a couple of meetings with Education Ministry experts, and hope to reach a consensus before May 20," he said.
Students have two bones of contention. First, they want the aid called student allowances not scholarships.
"Scholarships are material compensation for good academic achievements, and allowances are meant to support people who need money," explained Talvik.
The second is the timing.
"C'mon, we've been expecting them for three years. The Cabinet must endorse this before leaving for summer vacation," Talvik said. "The Finance Ministry argues that the students will cheat on the state to get the allowance. Let's close the universities then if the government wants to treat the students like swindlers," Talvik said.
The federation also has concrete suggestions to reach the compromise.
"First, the state should set the income limit for postgraduate students, who are usually middle-aged persons," said Talvik. "The second idea is to tie the period of allowance to the normal time period given to complete studies."
The latter will motivate students to finish university quicker.