Estonia embraces university degree revamp

  • 2002-08-29
  • Kristjan Teder

The University of Tartu and other Estonian universities will launch a hotly debated new scheme this year that cuts bachelor's and master's studies by one year.

This September, freshmen will start under the new plan, most of them heading straight for the master's degree that is to become a new standard.

The revamp, designed to strengthen Estonia's future competitiveness in the European Union, has given rise to heated debate with both advocates and opponents still standing strong.

After the Soviet collapse, Estonian universities gradually transferred to a system that provided a standard four-year cycle for earning a bachelor's degree and another one or two years for a master's. The model proved successful, but brought some problems in evaluating the Soviet-era degrees based on the new model.

The latest degree system, adopted this spring and commonly known as the "3+2 scheme," is seen as resulting in weaker education but also new benefits for future competitors on the Pan-European labor market.

The reform includes instituting new unified basic courses, thus enabling students an easy shift to another field.

To date, the bachelor's degree was a standard for a majority of Estonian students. The state-funded master's programs were available for a mere fraction of graduates, who often returned to the books after working their way in their professional fields.

The 3+2 scheme, inspired by the 1999 Bologna Declaration by the European ministers of education, leaves the bachelor's degree as a mere "step toward education," while the master's degree becomes a common exit-degree.

The government has promised to fund the master's studies of up to 75 percent of this year's freshman class.

The perspective flood of those studying for master's degrees has caused mixed feelings among recent bachelor-level graduates and current master's degree-holders, who under the new system would probably be a quarter of the way toward a doctorate degree. As attempts to mark the new master's degree with a distinctive nomination failed, it will in fact be virtually impossible to separate them from the old.

"Estonian education has to date been too good to meet the European standards and naturally had to be watered down in the wake of EU integration," says law graduate Allan Kaldoja, taking a cynical approach.

While acknowledging the certain simplicity and transparency of the new model, critics have noted that it is not quite compatible with the needs and conditions of professional education and training in fields such as engineering or law.

It has also been argued that the 3+2 scheme is a mere conspiracy by the universities hungry for more cash, which prolonged studies will guarantee.

Some are even worried by the impact of the gap created by the new five- rather than four-year graduation standard. In this view, the market could at some point be inundated by an excess number of highly educated youth, giving rise to employment problems.

Advocates of the reform have, in turn, strongly relied on the notion of mobility attached to the new model. Apart from opening universities of Western Europe and Scandinavia to more Estonian students, it ought to bring in fresh blood from foreign schools as well.

It is also noted that many bachelor's degree-holders are employed in jobs not requiring higher education at all. And through shortening the studies necessary for a basic degree, the system is supposed to benefit students who do not qualify for state-funded seats and have to finance their studies themselves.

According to critics, the model is but a headache for the latter, most of whom that now have to save for another year's tuition to receive an acceptable degree. About half of Estonian university students have to finance their degrees themselves.

The 1999 Bologna Declaration on the European space for higher education envisages adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees, essentially based on two main cycles. The first, with a minimum duration of three years, should give access to a degree comparable to the bachelor's degree and the second will lead to the master's or doctorate degree. The declaration also calls for a unified system of credits to promote mobility and competitiveness of European students.

Universities have until 2010 to adjust their curricula to the new scheme.