Aune Valk: What kind of international students we need and why

Foreigners who have obtained a master's degree in Estonia and stay in Estonia are beneficial to the Estonian state and business in any case. The question may be whether our society is ready for them to stay here, writes Aune Valk, Vice Rector for Academic Affairs, University of Tartu.

It is definitely useful for Estonia and Estonia’s business sector if foreigners who have obtained a master’s degree in Estonia stay here to work. The question could be, whether our society is ready for this, Aune Valk writes.

The number and percentage of international students is well known to be on the rise. The growth was the fastest in 2010–2016, when the number of international students tripled (from 1200 to 3600) and the percentage from two to eight percent.

The same period also had the steepest decline in the total number of students, from approx. 70,000 to approx. 50,000; caused by the demographic black hole of the 1990s. This also explains the particularly quick rise in the proportion of international students. Since 2016, the growth in the number of international students has slowed and the percentage has increased by one percent per year, rather than two.

It is understandable that such changes raise questions. Why and for whose money do universities teach foreign citizens, who come here to study and how does it benefit Estonia?

Quality is the most important

I agree with Jaak Valge that we need bright students from other countries. Valge wrote in Postimees on 12 February: “Internationalisation, if it is to mean improving the level of university education through attracting talented young people from abroad, and that a large proportion of top-class professionals or at least highly educated specialists will stay in Estonia, is indeed beneficial for all.”

Valge also sees a problem in that “Tallinn University of Technology and the University of Tartu have deemed it necessary to create a system of tuition waivers that are used to pay for some of the international students’ tuition fees”. He believes that too many international students in Estonia receive free English-taught education, partly at the expense of Estonian taxpayers, and then leave Estonia.

As we develop studies in English at the University of Tartu, we pay particular attention to the three above-mentioned aspects: quality – we take care to teach what we are really good at and what attracts capable students to study here; we consider the needs of the Estonian labour market; and see to it that more and more international students will pay tuition fees.

Following these three goals, however, does not always lead us in the same direction. If we strive for quality, we cannot admit large numbers of fee-paying students to the university. If we care for the needs of the Estonian labour market, perhaps it would be more useful to recruit talents and pay for their studies. The question is, what is more useful for Estonia.

So far, our priority has been quality and we have been selective in recruiting international students rather than attracting large numbers of learners who would bring us money. One of the conditions for attracting young talented students from abroad has been giving them a possibility for free studies, i.e. offering them tuition waivers.

This is no way financially beneficial for the university, but helps to achieve the two other goals: support quality and staying in employment in Estonia, bringing the best graduates to the Estonian labour market. And, for example, this may influence a talented Ukrainian to choose Tartu rather than an American university.

International students come to the University of Tartu from nearly one hundred countries, most of all from Russia, Finland, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. Finnish students mostly pay for their studies themselves.

A young person from the former Soviet Union who would like to study in the European Union looks at the rankings and at the best university in New Europe – the University of Tartu – more or less in the same way as before 2004 (before Estonia joined the EU) Estonian students looked up to the universities of England. Only very few of them could afford to study there for a fee.

We would like to continue in this direction. However, the growth in the number of international students, changes in the predominant politics and rhetoric of the government, and first of all, a very complicated time in the funding of higher education has led us to reduce the number of tuition waivers, i.e. we offer fewer tuition-free places to international students.

We started with this last year and we try to move on step by step, taking care that our English-taught studies which have been developed over years would not collapse overnight.

In three years, one in four international students should get a free student place. This should be a sufficient sales argument to attract talented foreign students here, rather than just those who can afford to pay. Free student places would be partially compensated by the higher fee of paying students.

Last year we also raised the fee for English programmes. From this year, the tuition fee for English-taught curricula at the University of Tartu is €3,800–12,000 per year. This should ensure that the studies need no support from public funding.

Another criticism Jaak Valge aims at universities is that too few international students stay in Estonia after graduating. Valge refers to the 2017 data of the Ministry of Education and Research, which claimed that approximately one in four international students stayed in Estonia.

However, according to new data published by Statistics Estonia in December 2019, 51 percent of international students stay in Estonia after graduation, and even more at higher levels of study: 57% of master’s graduates and 65% of doctoral graduates are employed in Estonia.

Kadri Rootalu wrote on Statistics Estonia’s blog: “Compared to local graduates, international graduates more often work in enterprises operating in information and communication and in the manufacturing industry, but also in companies related to accommodation and food service, and administrative and support service (incl. through employment agencies).”

This means that they work in very professional, high-level jobs. There are, of course, graduates who are still trying to find their place in the Estonian labour market – which is understandable, as most of these people have lived in Estonia just for two years. According to migration studies, it takes at least five years for immigrants to find employment corresponding to their education there.

Is it not useful for Estonia if a person enters the Estonian labour market – a person in whose education generally around €10,000 has been invested over two years, or who paid for their education themselves?

It is not a question of economic gain

We have calculated that when the university pays for the two-year programme with public money, a graduate who is employed in the IT sector and earns a monthly income of about 2,000 euros will bring it back to the state in taxes within about one year. If they get average salary, it will take a few more months. In addition, there is the profit the enterprises gain.

Estonia has not had to invest in the pre-school, basic or secondary education of these people, and in some cases not even in their first-level of higher education, because most of the international students are in master’s studies.

So it is not a question of economic gain – it is definitely useful for Estonia and the Estonian business sector if foreigners who have received a master’s degree in Estonia stay here to work. The question could be: is our society ready to have them stay here. I would like to hope that it is.

It should be kept in mind, however, that we are talking about a very small number. The number of international graduates is around one thousand per year, and half as many stay here.

Another question is whether it is ethical to support the brain drain from countries poorer than ours. But if we look at our own recent history, we can reassure ourselves that at some point at least some of them return home as talents.

The third issue that arises every now and again concerns the Estonian language. This is often mixed with the concern that Estonians’ language use is changing and that English is creeping into the language use of young people, and that part of the studies at the university are in English. The latter cannot be blamed though for our own sloppy language use.

In 2018, a language attitudes survey was conducted among employees of the University of Tartu. The survey was similar in structure to the Language Preferences Survey, carried out among residents of Estonia in 2017. The survey showed that the university employees were more “language aware than an average Estonian – the proportion of those who notice poor or unacceptable Estonian use and are willing to contribute their time and energy into using good language is considerably higher”.

I can assure you that the University of Tartu stands for good use of Estonian, and this does not in any way conflict with the fact that we also conduct studies in English and teach our students about 20 foreign languages.

Naturally, we teach Estonian to international students. This is required by the government in the public law contract, but we would do so even without it. Again, there is the question of money, which the government so far has not allocated to language studies in a considerably bigger amount. From autumn 2020, we will teach more Estonian language and culture courses to students of all English-taught curricula of the University of Tartu, and for this purpose the university will spend €200,000 from its internal sources.


The society’s concern about the rapid increase in the number of international students is understandable. Perhaps it is reassuring to know that currently the growth is not as fast as it was a few years ago. Bringing large numbers of foreigners to study here only for temporary gain would definitely involve risks.

I am confident to say that in internationalisation the University of Tartu is not after profits; our priorities are quality and Estonia’s labour market needs.

In recent years the number of international students who stay in Estonia to work has considerably increased. Also, simple calculations show that the economic benefit of this emerges quite quickly and even if the foreigners have studied here for public money.

Perhaps we should do even more, considering how profitable the investment is? If the government does not, maybe entrepreneurs could see an opportunity here? We are teaching increasingly more Estonian to international students and we hope that their friends and future colleagues will do so, too.