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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Higher education


7.Higher education

Last update: 18 December 2023

The most important objectives in education in the following years are specified in the Estonian Education Strategy 2021–2035. The general objective of the strategy is to equip the population of Estonia with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that prepare people to fulfil their potential in personal, occupational and social life and contribute to promoting the quality of life in Estonia as well as global sustainable development.

To achieve this general objective, the strategy defines three strategic goals, accompanied by specific measures. 

Regarding the availability and accessibility of high-quality learning opportunities, the strategy emphasizes the need for greater recognition of non-formal and informal learning within formal education, incl. opportunities for pursuing education in smaller modules (micro-credentials). It also highlights the need for restructuring the funding system for higher education, ensuring an optimal number of vocational and higher education institutions, and reviewing the learners' responsibility and the conditions for free studies in both vocational and higher education. Additionally, it focuses on support mechanisms to guarantee access to higher education irrespective of learners' socio-economic status.

In terms of learning options responsive to the developmental needs of society and the labor market, the strategy aims to expand learning opportunities in the growth areas of smart specialization, sectors requiring priority development, and the provision of essential public services. It also seeks to enhance and develop the system of work-based learning and internships, and to increase collaboration between educational institutions and the labor market for innovative development.

In Estonia, the higher education system has two branches: study is carried out in the academic and the professional higher education branch.

The general structure of academic study has three levels or cycles:

  • the first level is Bachelor's study;
  • the second level is Master's study;
  • the third level is Doctoral study

Professional higher education is, similarly to Bachelor's study, the first level of higher education, which ensures access to Master’s study. Completion of respective studies at each level of higher education is considered the graduation from an educational institution.

In case of medical training, veterinary training, pharmacist training, dentistry training, architectural studies, civil engineering studies and teachers’ training for general teachers, study is based on integrated curricula of Bachelor's and Master's study and gives the qualification of the second level of academic higher education.

An academic year is divided into two terms – the autumn and the spring term. An academic year begins in September and ends in June. Both the autumn and the spring term generally last for five months, the volume of which in credit points makes one half of the study load of an academic year. The autumn term usually lasts, based on the decision of the educational institution, from September to December; and the examination session is in January. The spring term lasts from the end of January or the beginning of February to the end of May, but examinations often take place until the end of June. Students shall have at least eight weeks of holiday each year.

The study load determined in the curriculum shall be expressed in credit points of European Credit Point Transfer System (ECTS). One credit point corresponds to 26 hours of work used by a student for studying. The study load of one academic year shall be 60 credit points, which is 1,560 hours of student’s work spent on studying.

Two types of institutions operate: universities and institutions of professional higher education

At a university, higher education is acquired at three levels: professional higher education and Bachelor’s study, Master’s study and Doctoral study. 

A professional higher education institution provides professional higher education. In a professional higher education institution, vocational training pursuant to the curriculum leading to the fifth level of the qualification framework may be provided in the same study programme group as the studies in professional higher education. 

Vocational training of the fourth level may be provided in a professional higher education institution for public defence or in a professional higher education institution organising studies in the field of health and well-being. In terms of the form of ownership, educational institutions can be state-owned, public and private.      

General legal bases for higher education

The general legal principles of higher education are determined in the Education Act of the Republic of Estonia, the Higher Education Act and in the Private Schools Act. The Education Act of the Republic of Estonia determines higher education as formal education and describes the types of higher education institutions.

  • The Higher Education Act determines the procedures for the establishment, merger, division and termination of the activities of universities and professional higher education institutions, the bases for the activities, the limits of autonomy, the principles of management, organisation of studies, incl. the principles of compilation of joint curricula, the system of quality assessment, the legal status of assets of universities; the principles of financing, the basic rights and obligations of teaching staff and students, and administrative supervision over the activities of universities.
  • Study Allowances and Study Loans Act provides for the conditions and procedure for granting allowances and study loan to students.

Furthermore, the Vocational Educational Institutions Act and the Adult Education Act and, in case of doctoral studies, the Organisation of Research and Development Act are applied. 

Uniform requirements for higher education studies and objectives of Bachelor’s, professional higher education, Master’s and Doctoral studies shall be established by a regulation of the Government of the Republic in the Standard of Higher Education, which applies to all levels of higher education. The Higher Education Standard forms a basis for granting higher education institutions the right to provide instruction, as well as for institutional accreditation, thematic assessment and organisation of studies. 

For medical training, veterinary training, pharmacist training, dentistry training, midwifery, nursing training, architectural studies or civil engineering studies or teacher training the provisions of higher education standard are applied having regard to differences arising from the framework requirements established by a regulation of the Government of the Republic. The Framework specifies the requirements for both curricula and teaching staff and also the competences to be acquired by completion of a corresponding curriculum. 

The regulation on the types and amounts of student state scholarships and the general terms and conditions for the grant thereof establishes the student state scholarships, the amounts and conditions with which a student must comply upon applying for the scholarship. There are following scholarships:

  • Specialty Scholarship
  • Performance Scholarship
  • scholarship for Doctoral students
  • scholarship for students with special educational needs
  • scholarship supporting the acquisition of higher education by students who have been in residential care or lived in a guardian family