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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
National reforms in higher education


14.Ongoing reforms and policy developments

14.4National reforms in higher education

Last update: 27 November 2023


Annual increase of 15% in higher education funding

In response to the mounting concerns over the organization and financing of higher education in 2022, the state budget strategy for the years 2023-26 has sealed an agreement to bolster operational support for higher education, with an annual increase of 15% starting from 2023. Public universities had refused to enter into administrative agreements with the state since the outset of 2022, citing the critical issue of underfunding in higher education. The additional funds allocated to higher education allow universities to fulfill their contractual obligations.

Recognising the need to ensure a sufficient pool of Estonian-speaking university teachers in the future, the new administrative agreements with universities include a goal that at least 50% of doctoral graduates have a minimum B2-level proficiency in the Estonian language.


Amendments to the Higher Education Act encourage students to choose their programme responsibly

Amendments to the Higher Education Act are currently in the proceedings stage; they are intended to specify the principles for the compensation of study expenses to encourage students to choose their specialisations responsibly and ensure access to higher education to a larger number of upper secondary school graduates. The fundamental principles of higher education will remain the same – full-time studies in study programmes in Estonian are going to remain tuition-free.

The amendments provide universities with some quick options for attracting limited amounts of additional funds as well as improving access to higher education and the efficiency of studies. Nevertheless, the pressure to increase the state funding of higher education is not alleviated.

The amendments include the following:

  • Limiting options to enrol at the same level of higher education. Currently, it is possible to enrol at the same level of higher education without paying tuition once the time that has passed from the admission to the studies is triple the standard duration of the respective programme. The intention behind the draft legislation is to extend this time to five times the standard duration of a programme.
  • The right to study in several programmes simultaneously without tuition is abolished.
  • The draft legislation does not deprive students of the right to terminate their studies twice and then reconsider, but when taking up studies on the same level of education for the third time, they must pay for their studies themselves. The current system allows early leaving and returning to studies before half of the standard duration of a study programme has passed for an unlimited number of times.
  • A student who has participated in studies for most of the semester and leaves before the end of the semester could be required to compensate study expenses. Currently, there is no such option.

The amendments are largely related to preparing a new model of funding for higher education, which would enable to increase the funding of higher education and attract more private funds. Until now, higher education institutions have been able to ask for tuition from students studying in English-language programmes and part-time students as well as offer more in-service training courses and micro-degrees. Currently, it is possible to allow higher education institutions to organise more part-time programmes in administrative agreements concluded between the state and HEIs; additionally, they can include private funds by cooperating with companies.

Amendments to Study Allowances and Study Loans Act and the Higher Education Act establish a framework for the reform of doctoral studies

The reorganisation of doctoral studies is necessary in order to ensure the next generation of researchers both in the academic sector and in society as a whole. Doctoral studies are redesigned in such a way that most doctoral students are guaranteed the position of junior researcher at a university or research and development institution or an employment contract concluded in an institution outside the university in a field related to their doctoral thesis.

 A doctoral degree completed in cooperation with partners outside the university is called a transfer of knowledge doctoral degree. In such a case, the doctoral research is conducted with the needs of the company or the institution in mind, and the doctoral student will continue working in the partner company or institution. The main goal of a transfer of knowledge doctoral degree is to prepare PhD specialists for the job market outside academia and promote cooperation between universities and private companies. The employment contract relationship enables clear fixation and remuneration of the duties related to doctoral studies in order to make doctoral studies more effective. It also ensures social guarantees for PhD students, such as annual paid leave and the possibility of receiving sickness benefits.

The possibility that the PhD student does not enter into an employment contract for carrying out research, completes their studies in addition to other main work and does so without the right to receive the doctoral allowance that has been in force so far will be preserved. With the same amendment to the Act, the terms and conditions of student loans will be made more favourable for students. The loan agency and the applicant can agree on an interest rate no greater than six months Euribor plus 3% a year. The maximum annual interest rate is 5%. Subject to agreement with the loan agency, it is possible to start repaying the loan 18 months after finishing studies. Currently, it should be done 12 months after finishing studies. Instead of two guarantors, one guarantor is now sufficient.

The terms and conditions for needs-based support were also changed. Those arriving to study from third countries on a temporary residence permit will no longer be eligible to apply for funding.

The reform of doctoral studies has been prepared since 2019, involving universities, research and development institutions, entrepreneurs, students, other ministries and other partners. The amendments will enter into force on 1 August 2022, and the transition to the new concept of doctoral studies will take place gradually until 2026.


Estonia joined the UNESCO Global Agreement on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education

Estonia actively participates in EU and international co-operation in the field of higher education, one of the priorities of which is to promote the mutual recognition of qualifications. The Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education facilitates the recognition of higher education qualifications, academic mobility and international cooperation in education and research.

The need for mutual recognition of higher education qualifications has been driven by increasing mobility between regions of the world. Both European learning mobility and Estonia's attractiveness as a study destination for students from outside Europe have increased. The share of foreign students matriculated in Estonian higher education institutions has more than doubled since 2014 (11.6% in 2020). Accession to the convention gives international students the confidence that when returning home or settling in another country, the academic degree obtained in Estonia will be recognized for further study, research and work.

At the national level, Estonia has been working on improving the system of assessment and recognition of foreign qualifications for more than 20 years. Estonian legislation allows the recognition of foreign qualifications on the basis of the same criteria as in other countries.

By the autumn of 2021, seven countries have ratified the Global Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education – Norway, Great Britain, France, Romania, Estonia, Tunisia and Nicaragua. Australia, Lithuania and the Holy See are in the process of completing the ratification process.

Baltic and Benelux countries concluded an agreement on the automatic recognition of higher education qualifications

To promote co-operation and mobility, the Baltic and Benelux countries have signed a six-party agreement on the mutual recognition of higher education qualifications. This bi-regional agreement is unique in the field of higher education in Europe, facilitating and speeding up the recognition of higher education degrees. Automatic recognition facilitates access to master's and doctoral studies in the Netherlands and Belgium, which are the main destination countries for those studying in Estonia in the Baltic and Benelux countries.

Close co-operation between the Academic Recognition Information Centers or ENIC / NARIC centres in both regions was required to achieve automatic recognition. In all six countries, higher education reforms, including quality assurance and transparency in the assessment and recognition of qualifications were analysed. The analysis confirmed that the higher education systems of the Baltic and Benelux countries are in line with the principles of the European Higher Education Area, that the systems are comparable and without any significant differences. Signing the agreement is proof of the quality and reliability of the countries´ higher education systems.

Other countries in the European Higher Education Area will be able to join the agreement if they have ratified the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region, they have a sound quality assurance system and their degrees and diplomas are linked to the European Qualifications Framework.