Vocational education system in need of reform

Prolonged under-financing has adversely affected both the quality and the reputation of vocational education in Estonia. Companies have continually expressed their concern about vocational education and, in September 2005, the Employers’ Confederation, ETTK, delivered an appeal from 16 business organisations to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education and Research concerning its under-financing.

Shortage of skilled workers

Much of Estonia’s workforce lacks the education, skills set, and work experience that the rapidly changing labour market requires. Harri Taliga, chair of the Confederation of Estonian Trade Unions (Eesti Ametiühingute Keskliit, EAKL) (EE0308101F), believes that current societal values are part of the problem with the education system. Society values white-collar work more than blue-collar work, even though employers complain about the lack of skilled blue-collar workers.

The Estonian education system has not been able to adapt sufficiently to the rapid changes in labour demand and to ensure an adequate general education level and vocational skills for all students. Fewer students are entering vocational schools and those who do are generally less able than those pursuing more academic courses.

In April 2005, the President of the Republic and the leaders of the Council of the Estonian Employers’ Confederation (Eesti Tööandjate Keskliit, ETTK) (EE0310102F) discussed labour market problems and gave priority to reforming the vocational education system. The President noted that the Estonian economy could not be built on the import of labour from abroad, and should focus on increasing employment, improving technology and training Estonians in the skills that are lacking. Both parties agreed that using foreign specialists is a temporary measure to relieve the shortage of qualified labour but that the education system should be reformed, starting with the vocational system.

Vocational education system under-financed

Funding for vocational education more than doubled during the last 10 years, from EEK 269 million (EUR 17.2 million) in 1995 to EEK 609 million (EUR 38.9 million) by 2004. However, despite this increase in absolute terms, funding as a share of GDP has steadily decreased, and was only 0.44% in 2004. Funding of vocational education as a proportion of all education costs has also decreased. Budget priorities for education have been out of balance for years so that investment in vocational education was far less than in general education and in applied higher education. Employers urged that per-student investment in vocational education should be increased to at least 1.5-1.8 times that in general education, in order to develop the skills to meet labour market demands.

Underinvestment has meant low salaries (EE0505101N) for vocational teachers, leading to a permanent lack of qualified teaching staff. There are also problems in giving students practical experience because vocational schools cannot afford modern equipment, and relationships with companies that might give students access to on-the-job training are not always well developed.

2005-8 Vocational education development plan

In July 2005, the government approved the Estonian Vocational System Development Plan for 2005-8, designed to set objectives for promoting vocational education until 2008 and to develop the necessary measures, activities and resources to that aim. For example, the plan designates more funds for renovating equipment and workshops, raises vocational teachers’ salaries and changes budget distribution principles. Among other things, the development plan provides for:

  • greater involvement by the social partners;
  • increased investment in vocational education, step by step;
  • abolishing taxes on employers’ costs arising from workers’ formal and informal education and training (EE0501101F, EE0402101N, EE0505102F).

Employers’ view

Throughout 2005, employer organisations have applied to the President, the Prime Minister and various ministries concerned with financing vocational education. Employers believe that the government’s neglect of the problems in vocational education might bring about a crisis in the labour market and that the situation is already very serious because the number of highly skilled employees has been decreasing over the years.

In September 2005, ETTK delivered an appeal from 16 business organisations to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education and Research concerning the under-financing of vocational education. The joint appeal states that, despite some successful schools, the whole vocational education system is in serious crisis. Business leaders are not satisfied with the draft budget because, they assert, the amount budgeted for vocational education in 2006 represents the same percentage of GDP as was spent in 1999. The business organisations demanded, among other things, an additional EEK 191 million (EUR 12.2 million) to cover expenses in vocational schools in 2006, to increase per-student investment, and to raise teachers’ salaries.

ETTK also believes that the implementation of the vocational education development plan for 2005-8 is unrealistic if the planned activities are not funded, and that the planning ignores the need for continual development. Nevertheless, they state that they have contributed to drawing up the development plan and will participate in its implementation. The employers’ group declares that an increase in financing for vocational education will address the currently uneven distribution within the whole education system and the popularity of vocational education will increase.

Government view

At the beginning of August 2005, the Minister of Economic Affairs and Communication, representatives of the Ministry of Education and Research (Haridus- ja Teadusministeerium) and ETTK met to discuss the problems of vocational education. The Ministry of Economics and Communication (Majandus- ja Kommunikatsiooniministeerium) agreed with ETTK that vocational education is under-financed and that, to secure Estonia’s long-term and sustainable development, more attention should be paid to adapting education to workplace needs.

Despite the acknowledged need for change in vocational education, government actions indicate that the resources to be allocated to the plan are not sufficient to make substantial changes. The government also announced that major changes in vocational education financing are not immediately feasible, and suggested that changes should be gradual and should involve the schools and companies. The Prime Minister’s economic adviser, Kalev Kukk, said that companies, as well as the government, should invest substantially more in vocational education to ensure its balanced development.

Commentary

Inadequate funding and the bad reputation of vocational schools mean that less than one third of Estonian primary school graduates opt for the vocational education system, and 20% of those who attend vocational school drop out without graduating. To raise the quality to an internationally comparable level, it is important to improve the standards of both vocational teachers and also their instructors by improving the content, capacity and quality of initial and further training. Moreover, vocational school courses should be updated to match changes in economic activity. The learning environment should correspond to current workplace requirements and should have learning tools that meet the needs of the relevant specialty (textbooks, Internet-based learning tools, etc).

Apprenticeship training and enterprise-based practical training is also important. Individual programmes and other measures, especially opportunities for early vocational education, should be developed to prevent young people from entering the labour market without training, and to decrease the drop-out rate.

The Estonian Vocational System Development Plan for 2005-8 anticipates that the government will substantially increase financing for vocational education. However, because the plan for allocating money is uncertain and subject to political change, companies and vocational schools can plan only a year ahead, thereby decreasing the overall stability of vocational schools.

Changes in the vocational education system are linked to a general restructuring of education. For the past few years, Estonia has had a liberal education policy that produced a boom in private education at all levels. Having a relatively large number of institutions providing university degrees has resulted in vocational school being regarded as the last option for primary school graduates. Unless there is a change in public opinion and as long as a clear financial perspective is lacking for the entire education system, it will not be possible to change the current situation. (Raul Eamets, Kaia Philips, University of Tartu)

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