Today, the Riigikogu deliberated the matter of significant national importance “The future of English-language higher education”, initiated by the Faction Isamaa.
Member of the Faction Isamaa Mihhail Lotman, CEO of Cleveron Ltd. Arno Kütt, former Chairperson of the Federation of Estonian Student Unions Sigrid Västra and Professor of the University of Tartu Martin Ehala made reports.
In his report, Mihhail Lotman said that the Estonian language was undermined by the pressure of the English language. “We tend to give up certain language fields and functions, and unfortunately this is taking place not only in popular culture and on the Internet, for example, but also in the Estonian higher education,” Lotman said. In his words, it is very important that no “white spots” – areas where only English could be used, for example, – emerge in higher education. “Higher education in Estonia should be in Estonian, on all levels,” he said. Lotman specified that he did not mean to say there should be no English-language curricula in universities. “However, to my mind, no curriculum should be exclusively in English at the expense of the Estonian-language curriculum.”
Politicians and officials have very limited opportunities for developing the Estonian language, Lotman said. “The development of a language depends on how poets, researchers, philosophers and other smart and witty people use it. What we can do however is create somewhat more favourable conditions for the development of language, and remove some obstacles – especially the ones we have created. Here I have in mind for example the normative that a university curriculum can be provided in Estonian or in another language. This normative is interpreted as an exclusive disjunction, either one or the other. This means that if a specialised curriculum is in another language it must not be “duplicated” in Estonian. This needs to be changed. Universities will have to retain the right to establish and complete an Estonian-language curriculum also when for example an English curriculum already exists,” Lotman said.
In his report, Arno Kütt said that free Estonian-language education was a political decision. According to him, it can also be implemented so that the funds are not allocated to schools, but “move” with students. “All studies would be for a fee both in national and private institutions of higher education, and it would be possible for students to choose the schools they wish to attend, whether a national or a private school, and the student could take a student loan for three years or five years. And once the student graduates from the school and takes up a job in Estonia, they will contribute to the Estonian economy thereby and then their student loan can be written off. This way they will have received free education,” Kütt noted.
Kütt also spoke of the regional impact of higher education. “Take Viljandi for example. What do bright students do when they graduate secondary school in Viljandi? They go to Tartu or Tallinn to acquire higher education. They settle, get a job, and often find a partner there. More often than not, it is an exception for young people to return. However, there would be a balance if higher education was offered in the regions,” Kütt said. He added that regional colleges could be funded from the funds directed at regional policy rather than from the funds of the ministry of education.
Sigrid Västra spoke of striking a balance between internationalisation and preservation of high-quality Estonian-language studies. “At present, a vision is also lacking in the national development plans. At the same time, for example, the role of the Estonian language as the language of higher education has not been defined in the Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy until 2020 and the higher education programme for 2019–2022,” she said.
Västra highlighted the problems that had emerged after the higher education reform of 2013; one of them was that a single language of instruction had to be appointed for curricula that had earlier been multilingual. As another problem, she pointed out that universities were inclined to decide in favour of English-language curricula. In order to solver the first problem, a legislative amendment is needed to allow for a curriculum to be provide in two or more languages. In order to solve the second problem, Västra suggested that, in addition to determining the maximum share of English-language curricula, the necessary state funding to secure free Estonian-language study needed to be ensured.
In addition to that, Västra noted that underfunding of higher education was also making universities to decide in favour of opening English-language curricula. “Since the sustainability of Estonian-language higher education is closely connected to constant funding from the state, the issue of the duplication of curricula and its possible impacts must inevitably be analysed with the issue of funding,” she suggested as a solution.
In his report, Martin Ehala said that “The Development Plan of the Estonian Language” contained a ‘red line’ that no field of study must become wholly English, and that line had already been crossed. He explained that there were curriculum groups that included no Estonian-language curricula any more, and there were fields where more than half of students studied in English. “The processes of the curricula and areas of study adopting English step by step, and the increase of the number of students who study in English in different fields and at different speeds have taken place imperceptibly,” Ehala said. In his words, the reasons are economic.
Ehala also suggested solutions. He said that, for the Estonian language to survive in higher education, it was necessary to ensure that no curriculum was entirely in a foreign language, and that every curriculum included an Estonian-language part. For that, it would be necessary to provide by law that every curriculum must include a part in Estonian and to define the minimum amount of such a part for each level of higher education. “There should be a restriction to the effect that at least 60% of bachelor level curriculum and 20% of master level should be in Estonian,” he brought an example.
During the debate, Helir-Valdor Seeder (Isamaa), Signe Kivi (Reform Party), Katri Raik (Social Democratic Party), Aadu Must (Centre Party), Jaak Valge (Estonian Conservative People’s Party), Üllar Saaremäe (Isamaa) and Peeter Ernits (Estonian Conservative People’s Party) took the floor.
The Riigikogu passed the Act on Amendments to the Consular Act and Amendments to Other Associated Act (44 SE) which determines the list of consular acts in the event of which a consular secretary can also provide consular services. As the concept “consular secretary” is not in the current law at present, the concept is provided for in the Act. Under the Act, consular secretary is a member of staff working in a non-diplomatic post who can provide consular services, under the proposed amendments. Under the Act, the services are provided under the supervision of a consular officer.
The amendments do not automatically involve the right of all consular secretaries to provide the services listed in the Act, but the legal basis for such a possibility is created. The right to provide the services will be decided separately for each particular member of staff. Along with that, members of staff will be granted relevant access to the register of professional acts of a consular officer for registration of acts.
84 members of the Riigikogu voted for the passing of the Act.
Verbatim record of the sitting (in Estonian)
Video recordings of the sittings of the Riigikogu can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/riigikogu
(Please note that the recording will be uploaded with a delay.)
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