Why it is not a good thing to have only one law school in Estonia

Posted: July 10th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: education, Estonia, european union, human rights, law, thoughts, university | 1 Comment »

Disclaimer: I am currently employed by Tallinn Law School at Tallinn University of Technology.

Recently, a little fight broke up in the media between the Faculty of Law at University of Tartu (UT) and Tallinn University  (TLU) Law School, in which the Dean of the former claimed that TLU lacks resources and capacity to teach lawyers. The latter of course responded and others have chimed in, including Ministry of Education and my own boss from Tallinn Law School at Tallinn University of Technology (TUT).

The backstory is a bit long and complicated: The Faculty of Law of University of Tartu has enjoyed a dominant position among law schools in Estonia. It used to be the only law school in Estonia before Estonia re-gained its independence, and is still considered by many as the only ‘true’ law school in Estonia. In many ways it is, as although many private law schools were established in the 1990s, these have not survived various financial and administrative challenges (some of which were possibly orchestrated by University of Tartu and Ministry of Education and Research). However, two private ‘new’ law schools merged with the other bigger public universities and thus pose a greater potential challenge for UT. This is the way I ended up working at TUT (the law school was based on the law school at now defunct American-style, international-oriented Concordia International University Estonia). TLU ended up getting merged with Academy Nord, politically well connected more widely oriented law school.

The current higher education policy favors consolidation and avoidance of duplication. After the financing reform of higher education, ‘responsibility’ of teaching law was assigned to UT. TUT and TLU thus were not supposed to teach law in Estonian and tuition-free. Our law school sensibly chose to offer studies in English, with some Estonian law courses in Estonian (which has been the strength of our law school). TLU, however, is admitting 90 students this year to study law tuition-free, which has ticked off both UT and Ministry. Some of their concern regarding capacity and capability of TLU is legitimate, but mostly TLU goes against government policy.

But is it a good policy to have only one strong law school in Estonia? The obvious argument is that Estonia with 1.3 million inhabitants is unable to support more than one high quality law school. Arguments of efficiency and most rational use of public funds are used to argue that only UT should teach law. This is the way it has been previously (and in many fields is still today).

However, what is the impact of the dominance of one law school?

Everyone knows everyone. Estonian legal community is already incredibly small. In a situation where almost all of the practicing lawyers, judges, prosecutors, many politicians and policymakers, know each other from the university, it means that important legal decisions might not be made based on justice, but based on other things such as personal friendships or animosity. Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Märt Rask has stated that there are serious issues regarding the Tartu Court House, into where both judges and prosecutors work. Mr Rask claimed that judges and prosecutors had become so familiarised working in the same building that judges no longer asked prosecutors any questions during trials. Indeed, when one new judge challenged this practice, prosecutors got angry at the judge. Having more than one law school would help to alleviate this problem somewhat (and not putting judges and prosecutors into the same building as well).

All students study under the same faculty members. If there is only one professor of criminal law, or labour law or European law, then this means that students are exposed to only one point of view. Professors and instructors are not machines, they are human beings with specific leanings and understandings. Some are good, some are bad, some emphasise certain things, some other things. Having only one person teaching all lawyers legal principles and approached in any field is a huge incentive for groupthink. This is compounded by the lack of problem-based learning and overreliance on lectures.

Lack of diversity in terms of schools of thought and development directions. There is a difference in what kind of values are instilled into students at law schools. There are law schools that value legal positivism, there are more liberal law schools. There is a difference in how law is taught at different universities as well as what is emphasised. The Estonian educational authorities seem to think that there is only one way and that this role can only be played by UT. This means that the institutional choices made by this one law school apply for all of Estonia. For example, the internationalisation efforts of UT are rather limited in the field of law. They teach exclusively in Estonian and Estonians, their faculty is Estonian (excluding a few visiting scholars). Thus, if they were the only law school in Estonia, Estonia would be rather blank in the international legal space.

Lack of diversity leads to stagnation and poor quality of teaching and learning. So having only one law school would lead to further diminishing of the status of legal education and law in general.

The remedy would be to be more lenient regarding diversity in the area of teaching and research in law in which international competition is limited (it is hardly likely that any other university outside Estonia gets involved with Estonian law), supporting more universities to offer studies in Estonian and about Estonian legal system. This means that state educational policy must change considerably, which is extremely unlikely at the moment. The only other solution is to study abroad and hope that students return to Estonia, but this takes much more resources from the society and skills and knowledge acquired from other jurisdictions can only be applied in Estonia to a limited degree.

It would be interesting to see a more detailed analysis on the impact that havinga domionant law school has for the society in terms of protection of human rights (especially procedural rights), the legal profession in the country and the quality of legal education. Sadly, no-one has looked into this, because there are very few countries in a similar situation.

Estonian Higher Education Reform and EU internal market free movement rules

Posted: November 24th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: education, Estonia, european union, university | No Comments »

There has been a lot of debate in the Estonian society regarding the draft higher education reform proposal which is currently considered by the Parliament. It is based on free education for all competent students, a rather populist election promise of the conservative coalition party. There have been numerous concerns raised regarding the draft, ranging from it actually limiting access to education and hurting quality, but it seems that these arguments do not stand in the face of determination of the current Minister of Education and Research, Jaak Aaviksoo (the same guy who is responsible for the horrible Freedom Monument on Freedom Square).

The basic aspects of the reform are reform of funding of universities by making new result oriented agreements for receiving state funding (which is a good thing) and banning universities from taking any tuition fees from students who complete their studies in due course (which is a bad thing in my opinion unless the state is willing to provide the same amount of financing students paid before). Thus, funding of higher education is decreased.

The issue I wanted to point out regarding the reform relates to the fact that only studies that take place in Estonian are funded by the state. This language based restriction seems to me to be in contradiction to free movement rules of the EU (and I doubt that it could be objectively justified in this scale). The European Court of Justice, while agreeing that every Member State has the right to organise educational system in their countries, has stated that they must observe EU law when doing so:

The Member States are thus free to opt for an education system based on free access – without restriction on the number of students who may register – or for a system based on controlled access in which the students are selected. However, where they opt for one of those systems or for a combination of them, the rules of the chosen system must comply with European Union law and, in particular, the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality. (C-73/08 Bressol, p 29)

In the Bressol case Belgium limited access to medical or paramedical programmes to only residents of Belgium, because a lot of students from other EU countries wanted to study there. The ECJ found that this was indirect discrimination based on nationality and this contrary to the Directive 2004/38/EC guaranteeing free movement rights. The court was presented several justifications for this by Belgium, most notably a justification based on risk for public health, which was ultimately left for the national court to decide.

It is correct that the proposed Estonian system is pretty unique and comparable only to the Czech Republic where free higher education is available if it is in the Czech language (based on studyineurope.eu). Although there currently are no further judgments on this from the ECJ, it is something that should be looked at. Language-based discrimination in tuition fees could be found not justified if the actual content of studies are essentially similar.

Truths and lies

Posted: April 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: education, Estonia, politics, thoughts, university | No Comments »

Two different media stories have almost monopolised Estonian public discussion lately: the opinions of Jaak Aaviksoo regarding the need of the state to hide some truths or even lie for self-preservation purposes and the more recent brouhaha surronding possible doping use by Estonian cross country skiier and two-time olympic medalist Andrus Veerpalu. In addition to that I became aware of how easily malicious rumours can spread, when Tallinn Law School (where I work) became target of misinformation campaign this week. All those seemingly different things have one thing in common: they relate to truth, and acceptability of lying.

Speaking the truth is closely related to trust and transparency. Governance needs trust and transparency to be democratic and legitimate. Professional sports need the same values in order to preserve the notion of fair play and to attract interest of supporters. It would be difficult for me to place trust in an educational institution or people involved in higher education that resort to lies and dirty tricks to achieve their goals.

In the long run honesty is still the best policy, although in the short term some people might think that desperate or extraordinary circumstances merit spreading of lies. These people are wrong, because the short term lies create long term distrust and we need to have a society where there is less distrust and more trustworthiness.

Stable and prosperous democracy can in my opinion be built only based on mutual trust and trust of important state or private institutions. It is a shame that some people in our society still are willing to sacrifice these things for personal short term gains.

On funding of higher education in Estonia

Posted: June 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: education, Estonia, university | No Comments »

One of the reasons for the structural weakness of the Estonian Higher Education system is the way it is financed. There are a number of state-funded places at universities, which are given according to a service contract to be agreed every year based on what the state determines is necessary. This is based purely on the lobby work universities are able to do at the Ministry of Education and Research and on how well they have implemented the directives coming from the Ministry. In that sense the system of higher education in Estonia is based on a model of state planning (just like it was in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic).

Recently the system was modified so that now the state “orders” for example an x number of social sciences (business, law, etc) students from one university and y number of social sciences students from another. Again, these numbers are based purely on favours, ministerial whims and how a given university stands in the eyes of the Ministry officials. Therefore, when before it was purely up to the state to decide how many lawyers it orders, then now it also depends on the position of the law department within the university (if it is powerful it gets more places, if not then not).

There is fierce competition to certain state-funded places (business, law, IT), whereas certain curricula remain unfulfilled (mostly “hard” sciences). All other students pay themselves fully for their studies and there is a lot of them.

Now, these are the consequences of this system:

  1. The students are completely left out of the decision-making on where state funding goes. The students vote with their feet and choose areas of study they think are more benefitial for them in the future. The state funding completely ignores this will of the students and keeps funding areas where no-one wants to study, forcing students to study things they do not want, provided that they cannot afford to pay for the studies themselves.
  2. The universities suffer as poor quality and unnecessary departments and faculties are kept afloat by state financing. There is no incentive for improvement, which results in poor quality graduates.
  3. In departments/faculties where there is interest by the students, but no or little state financing this means also loss of quality as the departments must relay to a large extent on self-financing students, who work at the same time or who have been unable to get to the few state-funded places.

The OECD has recommended already in 2007 in their review of the Tertiary Education in Estonia that student enrollment should be the basis of higher education strategy:

The Review Team is of the view that Estonia should ensure that any new financing arrangements continue to allow student demand to have a significant influence both on the overall size and shape of the higher education system in Estonia and provision at the institution level. This would entail the state financing institutions on the basis of actual enrolments or graduations rather than purchasing, in advance, places in particular fields and levels of study. Following this line of thinking, we believe that the Estonian government should reflect on extending public subsidies to all students in properly accredited courses at private institutions (once the quality assurance arrangements planned by the 2006-2015 Higher Education Strategy are fully operational) as well as allowing the total number of students receiving public support to be driven by demand rather than rationed.


Moving to a system in which student demand is the main driver behind the distribution of students between and within institutions would also necessitate the reconceptualisation of the contract between the government and institutions. In a sense the state would move from being a purchaser of a defined set of services to that of a funding partner with students. The Review Team believes that this role remains compatible with a broadly contractual relationship with institutions in which institutions are expected to meet certain requirements particularly regarding quality and orientation to the labour market. In this context, the focus of the contract should move from the specifics of the places purchased to the broad objectives which the government would like institutions to achieve. The negotiation of the contract could become a process whereby the government as a funding partner engages in a strategic discussion with institutions of higher education about directions and means.

The current system of financing simply reinforces the existing structural faults and keeps the higher education system severly handicapped. The universities remain state-oriented, not student-oriented.

Those students who can afford to do so do not go to study what the state wants them to study in order to sustain certain areas of teaching (certain professors), they will pay themselves or go abroad.

Without excellent and motivated students there is no room for competitive research either, and the more bright people move away and contribute to the research of some other country, the poorer Estonia will remain, both academically and economically.

New Orleans

Posted: January 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: cool, new orleans, united states, university | No Comments »

I have arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, the United States of America. After a gruelling, but quite problem-free 20+ hour flight and 20 hour sleep in the coolest hotel I have ever been to, I must say that I feel great about being here. Yesterday we (I am travelling with a colleague) did nothing except walking around the Vieux Carré a bit and had alligator and shrimp Po-Boys and local beer at the Pierre Maspero’s Restaurant.

We will be in New Orleans until Monday morning, after which we go to Nashville, Tennessee. I will write more soon.

Welcome to our new TUT overlords

Posted: April 23rd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: education, university | No Comments »

It was made public today that International University Audentes is to merge with Tallinn University of Technology, if everything goes according to the plan, then by the end of this academic year. Although I do not really know what will happen, I am cautiously optimistic as having a backing of a larger educational institution allows to develop faster and further. I do not want to say anything bad about Audentes, so I will not say anything.

One thing that irritates me is the constant name changes of this institution I am associated with. Concordia International University Estonia’s assets were bought by Audentes Mainor University (itself a result of several mergers), which was renamed Audentes University, with the international studies institution named International University Concordia Audentes. Then the two institutions were put together under the name International University Audentes, a name which I personally despised. So now a new chapter will begin, if everything goes according to plans.

The draft of the new laws on higher education

Posted: April 3rd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: education, Estonia, university | No Comments »

If anyone is interested, then here is the new draft on the quality reform (in Estonian). Pretty interesting.

Some thoughts about the Estonian Higher Education Quality Reform

Posted: April 3rd, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: education, Estonia, european union, university | No Comments »

It was announced yesterday that there are going to be changes in the accreditation of Estonian higher education institutions, mainly that institutional accreditation is going to be introduced. This means that any university which passes this will be operate with constant fear of losing some of its programmes and can focus on continuous institution-building, rather than worrying only about specific curricula. This also allows the universities to be more efficient, flexible and synergetic.

I do not really know what exactly this means for my current employer, but in any case it is much better to finally have clarity on these issues. Too long has the Estonian higher education system been in legal limbo, and it is too long that certain practices and obviously worthless institutions have been allowed to exist.

In my opinion having a competitive and efficient higher education market is a prerequisite for Estonia’s long term economic development. The stepts announced yesterday will definitely bring us closer to that, but there are also many uncertainties in the application of the quality reform. There is a threat, that could derail the reform, or not bring the desired results.

Although there has been much talk about being internationally competitive, Estonia’s higher education laws do not really allow for meaningful international cooperation to take place (joint degrees and diplomas have still not been allowed for example). This is not a problem only for Estonia, but the whole EU: in a situtation where there is a common market, common laws on commercial activities, movement of goods and provision of services, the higher education market has remained fractured. This is due to lack of coordination: even the much discussed Bologna reform remains to be completed.

Universities are still very national entities: we talk mostly about UK, Belgian, French, German, Finnish, etc universities, but not European universities. Compare this with the US, where location of a university does not really matter that much (Harvard is Harvard, regardless of its location).

For Estonia, the best option would be to be open. Open to students coming in and supportive of students going out. Open to cooperation with other universities in the strive for internationalisation of higher education. This requires a significant shift away from the current local-student-oriented approach, real competitions for staff instructors, and, in most areas, shift away from Estonian as the full language of instruction.

It also requires that universities develop its own niches where they can offer world-class education and research. Estonia is way small for everything under the sun to be taught here, locally. But we can concentrate on a few areas where we can be internationally competitive.

Law School brochure + Teeviit

Posted: November 29th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: university | No Comments »

I made a small brochure on what our Law School has to offer. The main part took ca 1 hour to put together using Apple’s Pages.

Tomorrow I will be at the educational fair Teeviit, representing the Law School (and handing out the brochures).

Human Rights Week at International University Audentes

Posted: November 11th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: education, films, university | No Comments »

The Human Rights Centre at International University Audentes is having a Human Rights Week. More info from www.humanrights.ee.