Educational workers in Estonia demand government funding for research

Dr. Martin Aidnik from the Tallinn University Trade Union speaks about the strike in Estonia calling for increased funds for research

August 18, 2019 by Muhammed Shabeer
Teachers and workers from Estonian universities protest against current government’s refusal to increase funding for research and development.

Teachers and workers at Estonian universities are outraged at the current government’s refusal to increase funding for research and development in its state budget strategy for 2020-2023. The coalition government, consisting of the social-liberal Center Party, the conservative Pro Patria (ISAMAA) and the right-wing Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), had promised in April to increase spending on research sector to 1% of the country’s GDP as there has been a long-pending demand from academics for such an increase in funding.

The Federation of the Estonian Universities, Institutions of Science, Research and Development (UNIVERSITAS), among other academic trade unions, has been at the forefront of protests directed against the negligence of the government towards the academic and scientific sectors. Peoples Dispatch spoke with Dr. Martin Aidnik from Tallinn University Trade Union regarding the ongoing academic protests in Estonia.

Peoples Dispatch: Why is the academic community in Estonia going on strike?

Martin Aidnik: The reason behind the strikes is the long term neglect of universities and the sciences. Different government coalitions that have come to power after the crisis of 2008, have failed to invest in higher education. Austerity has been a constant for at least a decade. Before 2018, this was accepted with resignation as there was not much one could do about it, except make an individual choice and change jobs. Indeed, as the late German sociologist Ulrich Beck put it, academics at Estonian universities have had to find individual solutions to systemic contradictions. This mostly meant writing dozens of project applications in order to secure short term funding (often from European Union schemes). 

An important and eye-opening consequence of such neglect and project based funding arrangements, is the erosion of academic freedom. A study conducted in 2017 at the University of Lincoln, UK, concluded that Estonian universities have the least academic freedom of all EU member states. Academic freedom in research and teaching, institutional autonomy, job security and adherence to international agreements were analyzed in the study. Estonia ranks last in terms of job security and performs poorly in other categories as well, thus the bottom of the table finish. 

In more practical terms, austerity – low wages and job insecurity – is forcing researchers and academics to leave universities and look for more sustainable alternatives either in the private or public sector and, in some cases, abroad. Research teams are disintegrating and continuity of scholarly work is being disrupted. This is, of course, a very serious threat to the future of Estonian higher education and more broadly, the larger Estonian society. The warning strikes in June are the clearest expression of the sentiment, that we cannot go on like this forever.

PD: What are the major demands of the academic community? 

MA: The main demand is that the government should honor the political agreement to raise public funding for research and development to 1% of the GDP in three years. In December 2018, all the parliamentary parties, except for the Estonian Conservative People’s  Party, signed the agreement together with the Estonian Academy of Sciences, the Estonian Employers ́ Confederation and Estonian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Although largely symbolic, the agreement was a source of belief that things are going to take a turn for the better. In May 2019, the new state budget strategy was made public. Once again, universities and the sciences were sidelined by the new government coalition consisting of the centrist Central Party, conservative Fatherland, and the ultra-conservative Estonian Conservative People’s Party (EKRE). This is the first time in Estonian politics that an ultra-conservative party has entered government. Similar to the rest of Europe, we are witnessing a conservative or right wing populist turn in Estonia. 

The focus on increasing funding to 1% of the GDP is because this has been a government commitment since 2014. The research, development and innovation strategy of 2014, titled “Knowledge Based Estonia 2014-2020“, crafted by the Ministry of Education and Research, had stated that the amount of state funding for research and development would be 1% of GDP by 2015. However, in 2017, the percentage of public sector funding for research and development was only 0.53% of the GDP. An increase to 1% is clearly not asking for a lot and under the current situation would represent a considerable improvement. On the contrary, this demand shows the scale of neglect which has befallen research and development in the country.

Academic trade unions approach the 1%, in the form of a sector level collective agreement, as a means for greater changes. It is meant to address the main ills currently plaguing  the higher education sector: low salaries and lack of job security. Its most significant achievement (in addition to pay rise) would be ensuring a basic income for academic staff with limited working hours or short term contracts. Such an income guarantee – 1.5 times the minimum wage – would significantly improve the plight of the marginalized academic staff, employed on precarious terms. It would also make the university, as an institution, a responsible and ethical employer!

PD: What is the response of the government towards the academics’ strike?

MA: The response has been a muted one. The government does not want to proclaim that this is a non-issue, i.e. be explicitly indifferent. We have been told by the government that the while the motivation to honor the agreement is present, the resources necessary to do so are just not available. In order to present a case for the costliness of an increase to 1%, the government claimed that 591 million euros (USD 660 million) would be required to raise research and development investments to the promised level. This, however, is an exaggeration. Honoring the agreement to provide 1% of GDP to science and development would require a modest investment of 47 million euros (USD 53 million) each year, in the time period 2020-2022. In other words, what is missing is the political will. It is also worth pointing out that Estonia stands out in the European Union with its minimal state debt – 8.4% of GDP –  the lowest of the 28 member states. This has been achieved with ruthless fiscal discipline, touted as sound economic rationale or “living within one’s means”. Using debt to invest, for the alleviation of a crisis, is still considered taboo, even with low interest rates.

The new coalition has faced a lot of criticism because of its embrace of ultra-conservative People’s Party of Estonia. The criticism is understandable, as we are dealing with a party which is fueling intolerance towards sexual and ethnic minorities and people of other races. Theirs is a parochial, 19th century vision of a traditional male-centered and family oriented Estonia. There is palpable discontent, with the sidelining of earlier promises and the coarsening of political rhetoric. Disregard shown towards research and higher learning is a symbolic failure for the new coalition – it damaged even the limited credibility that it had previously held.

PD: What were the major events organized by the protesters? Who has been involved in organizing the protests of the academic community?

MA: There have been several important events this year. The first was a Support Day for Science in February. This involved taking – both individual and group – selfies with posters declaring support for greater funding for science. These were then posted on Facebook. The idea was to get students and academic staff to come together and express support for science while drawing attention to the problem of under-funding. Academic trade unions together with the Estonian Trade Union Confederation, were behind organizing this event.

The second big event was a March for Science on May 30, with a goal to show support for (Estonian) science and point out the role of science in society. The March, held in Tartu, included a meet with speeches made in front of the Ministry of Education and Science.

The March for Science was followed by the Funeral of Science on the same day. This remarkable event was a reaction to the sidelining of research and development funding increase, in the new state budget strategy. Candles and wreaths were taken in front of the Ministry of Education Science and affiliated government offices in the Estonian capital. Both the March for Science and the grieving Funeral of Science were organized by the Estonian Young Academy of Science, a recently founded organization which represents the younger generation of Estonian scientists.

The last of the major events organized so far this year, have been the two warning strikes on June 5 in Tallinn and Tartu. In addition to being necessary, the display of collective unity is a remarkable achievement of the highly individualistic Estonian academy. The self-consciousness and assertiveness of the academic staff is increasing. Academic trade unions have become visibly stronger in the last year. Their cooperation has been well mediated by the Estonian Trade Union Confederation. A historical window of opportunity has emerged to challenge the ailing status quo and achieve just working conditions for academics and researchers in Estonia.

PD: What was the response of the general public in the country towards the strike?

MA: According to a survey done in June 2019, 66% of respondents stated that increasing research and development funding is more important than a balanced state budget. In previous years, it has been sometimes argued in upper echelons, that the social standing of higher education is not particularly strong. What this means is that, compared to school teachers or doctors, the significance of universities and the sciences, is less clear for the population. Whilst it may be the case, that more needs to be done by academics to explain the value of these realms to the general public, I do not think that this is a decisive issue, in terms of the current malaise I have described above. When we compare the fields of medicine and education to higher education and science in Estonia, we find that there has been greater organization in these fields, including greater willingness to fight for better working conditions and higher salaries. Unlike academics and researchers, doctors, nurses and teachers have in the past not shied away from declaring a strike. But Estonian universities have in the previous 25 years not even opted for a warning strike!

Having done some media interviews myself this year, I can say that there is considerable understanding of the demands of academics. 

When the warning strikes took place, others sectors also showed solidarity. Fire fighters, doctors and teachers expressed their support for the cause of academics. In addition, students too were present and supportive of demands put forward at the strikes.

PD: What is the general attitude of the current government towards higher education and research?

MA: Good question. A reductive stance towards the sciences and universities prevails in Estonian politics. Their right to exist beyond product and technology development is in doubt. Academics in Estonia are also known for speaking about the economic benefits of research and development. “Knowledge based economy” has become the pragmatic aim with which to legitimize research. One thinks here of the brave new world of start-ups, driverless public transport and incubators. However, such a line of argument risks losing sight of the value of higher education as a public good, i.e something irreducible to economy and indispensable for human flourishing and a fair society. These need to be underscored and preserved as norms.

Estonian sociologist Kadri Aavik argues that the under-funding of science and higher education in Estonia is due to the neo-liberal governance paradigm that continues to be influential in higher education policy. Its point of departure is the self-sufficiency of human beings and institutions. Scientists and universities need to be proactive in finding research funding; the failure to succeed implies that they might not deserve it.

And, finally, the Chairman of the ultra-conservative EKRE, Mart Helme, recently called one of the Estonian universities a “horse thieves ́” university. The university – Tallinn University –  he chose to designate so, is a humanities and social sciences university. What this suggests is that lacking immediate application value and not sharing fervent nationalism gives a university a rogue status. This, in a nutshell, captures the current hostility of a backward mindset. Alas, Tallinn University is doing something right!