Playing around with higher education?
By Abdul Turay
Published Postimees 4th February 2011

The IRL is promising to scrap tuition fees for a large majority of university students. The Social Democrats are accusing them of populism and Keskerakond are claiming that they are just stealing their policies.

But what do the students themselves think?

At 18 years old, and about to enter University, Diana Kull is just the type of person whom this policy is aimed at. Free education sounds good to Kull, it was the main reason she picked the university she picked. She is also just the type of young swing voter the IRL is trying to win over. She likes the Social Democrats but she believes the IRL are the party of common sense.

“(I like) their general appearance. The IRL are not too nationalist, they are in the safe zone in the middle,” she said.

Don't count on Kull voting for the IRL just yet. In fact don't count on her staying in Estonia at all.

Kull is leaving the country, she decided to study in Denmark because which already has free tuition.

Even if the education was free she wouldn't be staying. For Kull, who wants to study fashion design, the issue isn't just money, it is the quality of education she can get abroad.

“Even though we pay for education the level of education is so bad. If I go to Denmark they have all these machines for making fabrics.
“ Here they make things on looms, no-one does that any more, it's just useless,” she said.

As for returning to Estonia Diana Kull faces the reverse moral dilemma.
“Maybe the question should be should I stay in Denmark? Maybe I would feel guilty about having their tax payers pay for my education,” she said noting the irony of the situation.

When I talked to the people who the policy will effect directly, the students, one thing became clear, they are just not buying it. Students understand that things are far more complex than the three words in the manifesto pledge “tasuta kõrg haridus” would have you believe.

The central problem the The IRL faces is people don't believe the contradictions. They don't believe that a party that is still most forcefully in favour of fiscal austerity, can deliver programs, mothers pensions, free education, that are obviously going to cost a lot of money.

Aleksandr Popov, 26, Ph.D. candidate and lecturer in International Law at the University of Tartu believes they can't do it.

“It's a discussion that going to effect everybody for the next four years. Obviously the IRL is trying to encourage students. Special pension for mothers. It's a good idea but where are we going to get the money.”

“They can raise raise some kind of tax. But then I don't see the difference. People will have to pay for their children's education through tax,” he said.

Popov argues that trying to find the money from somewhere else won't work either.

“It might be an idea to cut the expenditure from the military, this has been tried four times and each time it hasn't worked. A plague of historian will argue that the Russians are around the corner, we can not cut.
“Since we are members of NATO we have an obligation to take part in NATO treaties. There is no other area to cut. Culture has been cut and health,” Popov said.

Estonian Universities face a fundamental problem as they improve. If universities here begin to compete in a global market it pushes prices up towards international norms. Thus the Reform party talk of attracting top international lecturers won't wash if they can't afford to pay them.
Other countries have faced the same problems for decades. It was precisely this issue that led to the collapse of Britain's free education system in the the 90s. Britain's Universities were and are in direct competition with American Universities. Lecturers began to demand higher wages and better faculties or they would leave to go to the United States. The government wanted to increase the number of students attending University. The answer was to make the students pay; just a little at first. People accepted it, more or less, at the time.

Now the students are rampaging through the streets of London. You have probably read about the mayhem that broke out last year; cars set alight, hooligans fighting running battles with the police. The heir to the throne and his wife, cowling in terror as an angry mob set about their car. More violence is set to follow

We came learn a lot from this the story, and we can learn a lot from the story of the Liberal Democrats, like Keskerakond, their Estonian equivalent, they have touted, free higher education as a key policy. They were the most popular party among the young for precisely this reason. Yet when they came into power as part of a coalition, they increase tuition fees by 300 per cent from 3000 pounds to 9000 pounds a year. Students were outraged and reserved special hatred for Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg.
Cynical Estonians may shrug this off. In Estonia, political parties routinely do things that were not in their manifesto or don't do things that were. But it is instructive, parties normally don't the precise opposite of their manifesto promise, unless they are in coalition. Britain does not have a tradition of coalition governments. Hence the riots. Estonia does.

This doesn't mean that the IRL will definitely renege on their promise, but students are not counting on it, they are not even discounting the possiblity that an IRL government might actually raising fees.

They are also worried that not enough thought has been put into the implications of the policy. Free education may actually make the education system worse.

Erik Loide, 19, is precisely the type of student that the policy is aimed at, he planning to study biology.
He said: “Of course I think it is a good policy. My family isn't very rich, And I can't rely on my mother who is like a single mother right now. If I would like to go to University she could pay for living she couldn't pay for living and tuition.

“If you are paying a 1000 Euro for going to school it will put a lot of pressure on the student.”

But he fears the quality of education will suffer.

“Money is needed for research and materials and new technology. If we should take away the tuition fees, it won't go there if everybody gets free education,” he said.

Loide argues to suddenly spring this policy on people in the year of the election was a mistake.

“By the time they give the free education, if they give the free education, it will take years of reforms,” he said.

Popov argues that throwing money at the problem will not improve education.

“I am for free higher education. I am for tougher education to get into university. Someone should be emotionally ready to get into University. Many young people who come to University still have the high school mind set,” he said.

Popov argues that Universities need to change the way they do thing.

“In Estonia we don't have strict regulations in establishing Universities. We have a lot of primal academies.
“People are uninformed. And generally high school kids are very uninformed because our Universities don't do 'open door weeks' which logically they should do every year.
“I didn't have a clue when I went to University,” Popov said.

Even those who already get a free education see problems. Edith Nigumann, 23, is training to be a radiology technician.
She thinks making everything free will demotivate teaching staff and students.
“ Maybe tutors won't work hard. It will be really harder to get into school and somebody who really doesn't want to study this profession will go because it is free,” she said.

Though her first choice would be to stay in Estonia she said she would still consider going abroad if she got the right offer.
“When we started school they told us that we were going to have jobs, good salary, Now they told us all the jobs are full. We were disappointed because this profession isn't so widely spread,” she said.

Some students especially those active in student politics are totally cynical.

“I think their promises are nonsense, where does the money come from?” Kristjan Kilk, 16, who campaigns for the Estonian School Councils Union, said bluntly. He is not against the policy he just doesn't trust the IRL, to deliver it.

The IRL is hoping the free tuition will improve the education system making it accessible to the poor. No-one I spoke to was convinced.

The IRL is hoping that free tuition will encourage people to stay in the country, or if they do work abroad, to come back. No-one I spoke to was swayed.
“If I stay in Estonia it will be because of my family is here and things like that. I don't think I should stay here because the country has paid for my education,” Kilk said.

The IRL is hoping that this policy would win votes. All of the students I spoke to were cautious.

Nigumann said:“It would be nice to know maybe my children can go to school. But it is not going to influence the way I vote. I would rather vote for the individual, not the policy.”

The underlying theme is penny pinching and freebies do not mix. Maybe the IRL needs to see whether it's policy is really a vote winner.