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Bachelor’s studies and studies in professional higher education


7.2.First-cycle programmes

7.2.1Bachelor’s studies and studies in professional higher education

Last update: 18 December 2023

Branches of Study

The standard period of Bachelor's study as well as of professional higher education study is three to four years and the study load prescribed in the curriculum is 180–240 European Credit Transfer System credits. As an exception, the standard period of study of nursing study with specialisation in obstetrics is four and a half years. The study outcomes of Bachelor's study and professional higher education study correspond to the study outcomes on the sixth level of Estonian and European qualification framework.

Students can make a choice between two types of curricula of the first cycle of higher education:

  • theory-based Bachelor's curricula, where practical skills are created on the basis of theoretical principles; curricula presume strong general education knowledge;
  • professional higher education curricula focussing on practical training, theoretical knowledge is created mainly on the basis of practical needs: curricula contain practical work (incl. practical training in work environment) at least to the extent of 15%.

It is possible to access Master’s studies after the completion of either of the above curricula, on the presumption that the admission requirements established by the institution of professional higher education or university are fulfilled.

Classification of broad groups of studies, fields of study and curriculum groups in higher education is based on the principles of the International Standard Classification of Education ISCED.

The Standard of Higher Education establishes uniform requirements for studies at higher education level, including the requirements for the quality of studies and study programmes, for organisation of studies and conditions for the completion of studies under a curriculum. Further, the standard also establishes the minimum qualification requirements for the members of the teaching staff and the principles for recognition of prior learning and professional experience. Annexes to the Standard of Higher Education establish the learning outcomes of the level of education anda list of broad areas of study and fields of study and study programme groups where given educational institutions have the right to conduct studies and to issue corresponding academic degrees and diplomas.

Admission Requirements

All persons with secondary education or with a corresponding qualification have an equal right to compete to be admitted to a university, an institution of professional higher education or vocational school. 

The board of an educational institution establishes the conditions and procedures for admittance of students. In addition to an upper secondary education certificate, also the National Examination Certificate, results of entrance exams, professional aptitude interviews, academic aptitude tests, etc. may be considered.

Higher education institutions have created specific possibilities for competing for study places for students with special needs and flexible forms of study for different target groups. For example, several educational institutions offer the people who are working, an opportunity to study in the evenings, at weekends, once a month, etc. 

Where justified, the higher education institution may set a maximum limit of students to be admitted to a study programme and fill the student places based on the applicants’ ranking in fulfilling the admission criteria.

A student is a person who is admitted to studies at the level of higher education (matriculation) until exclusion from studies.

No tuition fee is charged from a full-time student who pursues an Estonian study programme and completes the study programme in full. A higher education institution has the right (but not an obligation) to demand partial reimbursement of study costs from students who study part-time, do not comply with the requirement of full-time study or following a curriculum, the language of instruction of which is other than Estonian.   

The proficiency level of international students in the language of instruction is set by higher education institution. The procedures for admission and covering of study costs of persons who study on the basis of international agreements and who are not residents of Estonia are set out in accordance with these agreements.

Estonian higher education institutions do not have the right to implement the system of taking account of previous study results and professional experience (VÕTA) in the course of student admission as the primary admission requirement is the existence of a certificate of acquisition of secondary education. APEL (Accreditation of Prior and Experimental Learning) can be used with regard to other admission requirements and as a part of fulfilling the curriculum.


The objective of each curriculum is to offer a student the knowledge and skills necessary for starting work or continuing studies. The Higher Education Act establishes uniform requirements for higher education curricula. The requirements concern the quality of studies, nominal period of the curriculum, the requirements for teaching staff, the conditions for access to studies and the conditions for completion of studies. 

All educational institutions have the right to develop curricula that fall within the framework of established general requirements and correspond to the profile of the institution; these curricula are approved by the board of the educational institution and registered in the Estonian Education Information System.

The Standard of Higher Education sets out the study results at higher education levels, which form the basis for the development of curricula. Learning outcomes mean knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired at the level which is necessary for completion of the study programme. Learning outcomes inform both the learner and employer of the skills and knowledge achieved by completing a specific curriculum.

One of the characteristics of a learning outcomes-based curriculum is its modular structure. By selecting modules, a student specialises in his or her main field of study and, if necessary, also in one or more secondary fields of study. For the purpose of specialising in a certain field of study, the educational institution offers the student necessary modules. The final selection of modules will be made by the student when compiling his or her own personal curriculum, i.e. selecting his or her elective and optional subjects. It is therefore possible that a student’s main field of study develops during completion of the curriculum.

It is important that the objectives and learning outcomes of the curricula are in correlation with the learning outcomes of the higher education level and through that also with the qualification framework: objectives and learning outcomes must be phrased in a way that they would enable the assessment of the knowledge and skills of a graduate of the curriculum; the name and structure of the curriculum and manner of carrying out study (teaching time, practice, individual work) must support the achievement of the objectives of the curriculum.

There are some differences between the qualification requirements for the teaching staff of universities and that for institutions of professional higher education (regarding the positions of a professor and a teacher). The qualification requirement of teaching staff is generally the existence of either a Doctoral or Master’s degree or a degree equal thereto, in addition, pedagogical skills and experience in supervising of students are required.

For graduation from any curriculum, it is necessary to pass a final examination or to defend a final thesis, with the exception of Doctoral study that ends with the defence of the Doctoral thesis.

Language of instruction is the language used in conducting studies, knowledge of which allows achieving study results at higher education levels. The language of instruction of the study programmes of the first and second level of higher education is Estonian or, by a decision of the higher education institution, a foreign language, provided that it is necessary for ensuring the quality of the studies or the availability of specialists with higher education and the resources required for the studies in the foreign language are available. The language of instruction and other languages required for achieving the learning outcomes are determined in the curriculum. The languages of instruction in a private higher education institution are decided by the owner of the private institution. A student with no command of Estonian shall be provided with an opportunity to learn Estonian profoundly during one academic year and, therefore, the standard period of his or her studies are prolonged by one year. Intensive national language study is financed through the operating grant allocated to the educational institution.

Educational institutions may take account of a person’s previous study results and professional experiences (APEL) to the extent and according to the principles established by the higher education institution and bearing in mind the principles established in the higher education standard. It is not possible, according to Estonian legislation, to take account of a person’s previous study results and professional experiences to compensate for a missing formal qualification in order to begin studies.

Higher education institutions may launch joint curricula. In case of a joint curriculum, study is carried out in two or more education institutions offering higher education that have cooperatively developed and approved the joint curriculum. If a part of the joint curriculum is carried out in an educational institution located abroad, the parts of the curriculum implemented in different countries must correspond to the requirements of these countries.

Teaching Methods

In general, teaching methods are chosen by teachers.

The most common method of teaching is still a lecture, in which a teacher presents an overview of the most important issues of a topic usually within 2 academic hours (90 minutes). The method is, however, gradually losing its prominence and the popularity of other, more interactive methods is increasing. In seminars, the topics and issues covered in lectures or studied independently are discussed and analysed, problems are solved in working groups and reports are presented. Case studies, different forms of project or teamwork, etc. are the methods widely used. The ultimate choice with regard to teaching methods and study aids nevertheless lies with the teacher offering a course.

Institutions of higher education actively extend the possibilities for e-study by providing web-based learning environments and learning aids.

Progression of Students

Higher education studies may be undertaken in the form of full-time study, part-time study or external study. People in full-time study and part-time study are considered students; those in external study are not considered students. The provisions of the Adult Education Act concerning formal education apply to external students; such provisions mainly deal with the right to get study leave. Students in external study cannot apply for education allowance or study loan.

In full-time study, a student shall cumulatively complete at least 75% of the study load required by the curriculum to be completed by the end of each academic year, and in part-time study – 50−75%. Upon enrolling in a higher education institution, the student decides whether they will study full-time or part-time in the first academic year, unless the study programme allows for studying only full-time. In the following academic years, the higher education institution shall base its decision of whether the student is studying full-time or part-time on the student’s completion of the study load required by the curriculum to be completed. The higher education institution transfers a student who does not meet the requirements of full-time study to part-time study.

The higher education institutions establish the general rules of study activities, as well conditions and procedures for dismissal of students from the university.


The employment opportunities are determined by several factors, incl. country’s economic situation, acquired profession, obtained skills and knowledge, etc. According to graduate survey (2023), higher education has a clear added value, both in terms of higher employment and higher wages. 

Compared to graduates at other levels of education, the employment rates of tertiary graduates are the highest (77% of graduates in 2020, 79% in 2021). The highest employment rates are among graduates in health, and architecture and construction (over 90% in 2021), and the lowest among graduates in natural sciences and arts (just over 60%).

In 2020, the average wage of a higher education graduate was 13% higher than the national average, with integrated bachelor's, master's and doctoral graduates earning the highest wages.
Graduates in ICT and health have the highest earned incomes. ICT graduates earn nearly 40% more than the average graduate, while health graduates earn a tenth more. Humanities, languages and arts graduates have the lowest wages, a third below the tertiary average. 

According to a labour force survey (2020), there is a growing need for professional and higher education staff. More graduates are needed in engineering, manufacturing, construction, science and technology, education and agriculture. 

The students studying in Estonian institutions of higher education can, in general, be characterised by working while studying: according to Eurostudent VII (2018-2021), 70% of students works while studying. Being active on the labour market during studies and the acquired working experience helps to hold the employment level high after the studies.  

Based on the data of the last survey conducted among graduates, it took longest to find professional employment for the graduates from agriculture, humanities and arts, and social sciences, business and law; nearly one-tenth of them sought professional employment for at least one year. The graduates from services were the fastest to find professional employment within the first six months.    

With a view to decreasing the gap between teaching skills and knowledge and the actual labour market needs, a jobs and skills forecasting system OSKA has been launched to allow for a better consideration of the labour market needs in teaching and learning. OSKA forecasts enable to create a closer link between the labour market and studies, and development of skills. 

Similarly, a system supporting the development of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship studies has been launched at all levels of education. Guidance documents and courseware have been developed; cooperation with entrepreneurs, local communities and other organisations are promoted. A traineeship system in higher education is being developed with an aim to modernise the organisation of traineeship. Through a greater cooperation between teacher training, educational institutions and employees, readiness of students to cope on the labour market is increased. 

Student Assessment

Along with the implementation of learning outcome-based curricula, an assessment system is used where the focus is on assessment of a student’s achievement of learning outcomes and on supporting students in the study process, in order to give him or her reliable information on his or her effectiveness in passing studies. The assessment system pays attention to measuring how the learner has acquired the knowledge and skills described in a curriculum pursuant to the learning outcomes specified therein.

Differentiated and non-differentiated scales are used in student assessment and the scale to be used must be known to the student already before beginning studies. In case of a non-differentiated scale (“passed” and “failed”), thresholds (base level) are established and if a student exceeds them, he or she has successfully passed the subject or module, i.e. achieved the described learning outcomes. In case of a differentiated scale, initially also the thresholds for passing a subject or module are established and then also the criteria of learning outcomes are described for obtaining grades from A to E (from 5 to 1) that signify a positive result. The level of thresholds is determined by the teacher.

The general scale for assessment of acquisition of learning outcomes is as follows:

  • grade A (5) – excellent – an outstanding and particularly exhaustive achievement of learning outcomes characterised by free and creative usage of knowledge and skills that is above the very good level;
  • grade B (4) – very good – very good achievement of learning outcomes characterised by effective and creative usage of knowledge and skills. Errors not related to content or principles may occur with regard to more specific and detailed knowledge and skills;
  • grade C (3) – good – good level of achievement of learning outcomes characterised by effective usage of knowledge and skills. Insecurity and lack of accuracy occur with regard to more specific and detailed knowledge and skills;
  • grade D (2) – satisfactory – sufficient level of achievement of learning outcomes characterised by usage of knowledge and skills in typical situations; in exceptional situations shortcomings and insecurity occur;
  • grade E (1) – unsatisfactory – achievement of most important learning outcomes on a minimally acceptable level characterised by usage of knowledge and skills in typical situations in limited manners; in exceptional situations significant shortcomings and insecurity occur;
  • grade 0 or F – insufficient – a student has achieved knowledge and skills on a level below the minimum level.
  • Non-achievement of learning outcomes is marked as F or 0.

Other symbols expressing assessment results may not be written on an academic transcript.

Teachers must describe the assessment criteria of all grades of all units of study (subject, module, a set of subjects, parts of individual subjects). Compared to the general learning outcomes of the curriculum, these criteria are much more informative and inform students of the level of knowledge and skills expected for acquisition of any grade.

When taking account of previous study and professional experiences and transferring grades from other higher education institutions (generally from foreign higher education institutions), the following principles apply:

  • previous non-graded (as a rule – non-formal) studies and professional experience is usually taken into account in a non-differentiated scale;
  • when taking account of previously graded subject or modules, a new exam or standard-determining test is not passed; i.e. if the learning outcomes are suitable for transfer but the earlier type of assessment was different (e.g., previously a standard-determining test was passed but now an exam is required), there is no need to make a new assessment and the earlier result should be counted.

The new assessment system was applied to all outcome-based curricula. A diploma issued by a higher education institution is complemented by an academic transcript that includes an explanation about which assessment system has been used in assessing a student’s knowledge and skills. An academic transcript is not an independent document certifying higher education.


Professional higher education study and Bachelor’s study end with the taking of a final examination or the defence of a thesis. The precondition for being allowed to take the final examination or to defend a thesis is generally the fact that the student has passed the other subjects of the curriculum. Final theses are usually assed in a public defence event, a defence can be declared non-public.

The study programme groups in which a university has the right to provide instruction and the academic degrees and diplomas to be awarded upon completion of studies shall be specified by the Government of the Republic in the Higher Education Standard.

After a study programme at the level of Bachelor’s studies or studies in professional higher education has been completed in full, the higher education institution issues to the graduate a diploma along with Estonian and English diploma supplements in proof of the academic degree. Where an institution of higher education decides not to issue an English diploma supplement by default, a graduate needs to apply for one. Since 2019/2020, a bachelor’s degree is conferred upon a student who has completed the study programme in professional higher education in full.

The issued document certifying education includes the contents of the curriculum and the results of its completion (including form of study, conditions for completing the curriculum, names of subjects and their volumes in credit points, as well as grading systems (grade/assessment)), results of the quality assessment of the curriculum, etc. A diploma supplement issued in Estonia follows the instructions of the European Commission, the Council of Europe and UNESCO/CEPES.

A person who has completed Bachelor’s study may, under the conditions established by the Minister of Education and Research, be awarded a diploma cum laude. A diploma cum laude can be awarded to a graduate who has completed a study programme in full, defended their diploma paper or taken the final examination achieving a grade “A” and whose weighted average grade is 4.6 or higher, whereas all grades included in the diploma supplement shall be taken into consideration.