Wrote about education a few weeks ago, and of course somebody asked me what we're supposed to do about it. Which is a very good point; it's my job as a blogger to suggest the proper way to do things which I think are broken.
There was a news blurb in the papers yesterday: apparently there is something called an IT Council, and they recommended that the national school-graduation exams include mathematics as a mandatory test. This would produce a lot more youths with aptitude in mathematics, solve Estonia's labour shortage, and generally save the dolphins.
Well, that's a silly idea. It would be valid in India or China, but it's inappropriate for what we are trying to do here. Making maths mandatory is going to produce a large number of people with just enough math knowledge to pass the test, and they will be expected to go into IT, and we will have a workforce of semi-competent code monkeys that are far more expensive than semi-competent code monkeys in Bangalore, and nobody will have any use for them.
Estonia needs to be a knowledge economy. Our marketable skill is competence, and the ability to design and implement the optimal solutions to a problem. Solutions which are remarkably useful, and I mean remarkably - so good that you can't help but remark on it. To sustain this, we need to give our people the opportunity to become really good at what they do, and we can't do that by forcing all of them to learn Java.
Now, I've seen something recently which made me think about these things. It was a list of things you have to do when you're poor. It had really sad and hard-hitting lines like "Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw". It made me think of my own family, back in the early 90s, when often enough my dad would simply not get his salary; he'd do the work, but there would be no money to give him. We were properly poor back then. But these days - I'm not rich, but I've fooled some people. I'm comfortably middle-class, with enough disposable income for a moderate selection of toys. So's the rest of my family. So are my friends, including the ones I grew up with.
And it occured to me that the biggest external contributing factor - other than the fact that I'm just naturally good at something that I've managed to earn money doing - was education. More importantly, the fact that I could go to the best university in the country and pay no tuition at all. I worked through most of my uni days, and my parents helped out, and I took out student loans some of the time (secured by the state - the interest is actually less than inflation now), but I couldn't have done it if I had to pay tuition as well. And yes, I have a BA in English, which is about the most practically useless degree one can have (second only to semiotics and philosophy), but it's still helped to find a good job. It has also given me an excuse to move away from my parents, and get the confidence of being able to take care of myself.
So how do we scale that experience? Keeping in mind that our ultimate goal is to create a steady stream of intelligent, well-trained and highly competent specialists? I don't have a guaranteed solution, but I have an idea on where to start.
1) Money. Estonia's free-market ideology means that the government does not own the companies that provide a government-regulated service. The national universities (like hospitals) are commercial enterprises; and every year, the government calculates how many specialists in a certain field it will be able to use 3 to 5 years down the line. Based on that, it signs a contract with a university, paying it to train the specialists. The university has a certain, significant but limited, number of tuition-free spots, which are assigned to applicants based on academic achievement. Usually, those who didn't make it will have a chance to get a paid spot - a thousand Euro per semester or so. Same curriculum.
Obviously we end up with more specialists than the state ordered. The state is limited by its budget, and relies on the commercial spots and all-private universities to make up the shortfall. The problem is that the all-private universities are generally crap (I think Tallinn's EBS business school might be the only exception). More money for more free spots would allow a concentration of students to the better institutions. We'd be fine with a University of Tartu and a University of Tallinn, and their colleges in Pärnu, Narva, Haapsalu... I have no faith in places like Mainor or Euroülikool.
More opportunities for free tuition will attract more students to the universities that can provide good education. Education from a good university is a useful thing even if the student ends up with a job that has nothing to do with his degree - as a lot of people do.
2) Exams. Currently, there is a single set of exams for high school graduation, and the results of these are used by the universities to generate an average passing grade. The results of all applicants are averaged out, and those who have a grade higher than the threshold, get the free spot.
The problem with this is that the exams cater to the lowest common denominator. Not all the kids who leave high school will go to university. Not all universities are the same in the level of education they offer, and thus the level of student knowledge they require.
The universities need to re-introduce their own entrance exams. This will allow the good colleges to accept good students; or rather, because they will be the ones with an abundance of free-tuition spots, it will motivate more students to study hard and bone up on the subject matter. It should also intrinsically limit the number of kids applying for a major with a low entrance barrier that they have no long-term interest in - just to get that student status.
3) Support. Estonia's tertiary education system has been criticized for mostly being inferior to universities abroad, but that is the wrong approach. Obviously it is not possible for a country of 1.3 million to build up a talent pool as comprehensive, diverse and advanced as a country with thirty or fourty times the population. Fortunately, we don't have to! The fact that it is so easy for our kids to go and study in Oxbridge or the Sorbonne is an advantage, a very significant resource bestowed on us by EU membership, and one that we would be fools to ignore. By the very nature of the Estonian people, they will not stay away forever; even those with an education and a career in the confederacy or further off will still return sooner or later, because of the fundamental Estonian sense of home. EU's best universities should be exploited by Estonia in the same way that EU funds are used to renovate our infrastructure.
Of course any application for EU funds is accompanied by a mandatory self-financing component. The same point applies. The Estonian government needs to dedicate resources - financial, administrative and political - to supporting those of its youths who choose to go abroad and study at the best colleges in Europe, or indeed the world. In the same way that the state secures student loans at a low interest rate, pays for tuition, and ensures discounts on vital goods and services (I'm still convinced that there is a state tender for the 1.90 EEK packets of ramen in the shops near Tartu's dorm cluster), there needs to be an extensive government program of supporting kids that study abroad. Something similar exists in a basic state - you can get your student loans written off if you work for a government agency after graduation - but it needs to be greatly expanded.
So, what do you think? Does any of this make sense?
1 week ago