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Finding the right balance: academics discuss role of foreign scientists at Opinion Festival

From left to right: Regina-Nino Mion, Professor Olaf Mertelsmann, Maarja Kruusmaa, Professor Steffen Manfred Noe, Harry Kattai, and Katrin Pihor at Paide Opinion Festival. Photo credit: Estonian Research Council, Karina Auli.
From left to right: Regina-Nino Mion, Professor Olaf Mertelsmann, Maarja Kruusmaa, Professor Steffen Manfred Noe, Harry Kattai, and Katrin Pihor at Paide Opinion Festival. Photo credit: Estonian Research Council, Karina Auli.
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Are there too many foreign scientists in Estonia or not enough? What brings them here and what keeps them? How to retain top international talent without watering down Estonian-language higher education? And doesn’t Estonia, given its history, have a moral duty to help academics coming from developing countries?

These were some of the themes discussed at a panel of experts at the annual Arvamusfestival, or Opinion Festival, held in Paide in central Estonia earlier this month. The festival, held every year since 2013, is a forum where Estonians gather and debate the major issues facing the country. 

The year’s festival hosted several scientific panels, including one called “Coming to Estonia for Science: Why Bother?” The panel moderator was Katrin Pihor, head of the research policy department at the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research. Participants included Olaf Mertelsmann, a historian from the University of Tartu, and Steffen Noe, a professor in the Estonian University of Life Sciences in Tartu, both of whom are German nationals. Regina-Nino Mion, a researcher from the Estonian Academy of Arts who worked abroad and returned to Estonia also took part in the panel, as did Maarja Kruusamaa, vice rector of research at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech). Harry Kattai, an adviser in the department of citizenship and migration policy at the Ministry of the Interior rounded out the panel.

As Pihor noted in her introduction, the number of foreign academics working in Estonia has skyrocketed over the past decade. What was just a few dozen in 2011 has swelled to 770 foreign scientists, making up about a quarter of all academics in the country. This rapid growth has raised questions about sustainability, enticing even better talent, and ensuring instruction in the Estonian language in universities, as most new arrivals are not fluent in the national language.

For TalTech, foreign scientists are a necessity for universities that want to be part of the international scientific network. “Science itself is international,” Kruusmaa said. “There is no such thing as Estonian, or American, or Swedish science.” Ideas have to be mobile, she argued, and new people have to come into universities with new ideas and methods, and combine them. “The question is about finding the right balance, so that we can talk about having our own scientific community, but one that is open enough to participate in the international community.”

Kruusmaa noted that scientists are drawn to Estonia because it is a good place to live, and that they come to Estonia for the same reasons they go to other countries. “There is money, resources, and it is easy to do science here,” she said. “Estonia is stable in a global context,” said Kruusmaa. “Some might debate that at home, but if compared to other countries, it is more or less stable.”

According to Noe, Estonia offers academics some possibilities to advance their careers, rather than moving on to similar positions or projects in other countries, which is one reason he has stayed. Mertelsmann agreed, and said that, as a historian focused on Stalinism and Eastern European history in general, the archives in Estonia offer him access to material that he just cannot come by in Moscow. 

“I have used archives all over the world, but I haven’t seen the kind of speed, comfort, and the friendliness of personnel that exists in Estonia anywhere else,” said Mertelsmann. He added that quality of life, especially in Tartu, was a bonus. 

Salaries, though, could be higher if Estonia wants to attract talent, particularly from elsewhere in Europe. Mertelsman noted that his wife works in the private sector and with a master’s degree earns as much as a university professor. He added that Estonian pensions are currently about half of German social assistance. “When someone from a richer country comes to Estonia and stays, if he is smart, he has to save money, or else he might wind up as a poor Estonian pensioner.”

Noe added here that academics in most countries place somewhere in the middle when it comes to earnings and that academics in Estonia are no different in this regard. “Someone in Helsinki will therefore earn more than in Estonia, and also have a higher standard of living,” Noe said. “This is something that is changing over time.”

The language issue

During the panel, Pihor, the moderator, brought up the issue of Estonian-language higher education. If more and more foreign academics are teaching in Estonian universities, how can Estonian-language higher education be maintained? And what can Estonian society do to make the acclimation of foreign recruits to Estonian universities easier, including language learning?

Kruusmaa said that universities could make Estonian-language learning more attractive by offering potential hires multiyear contracts. A scientist who plans to stay several years in a country is more likely willing to learn the local language, she said. “If you are going to Chile or China, then it doesn’t really make sense to learn a language you won’t use again,” said Kruusmaa. She noted that some people do like learning new languages, but they are few in number.

Mertelsmann said the issue is not so acute. While a quarter of academics may be foreigners, their research is often limited to specific projects, or they are working in senior research positions, rather than undergraduate university lecturers. “The Estonian language isn’t at risk when the laboratory language happens to be English or Russian,” he said.

Mion from the Estonian Academy of Arts said that in her experience, university lecturers are often expected to teach in Estonian immediately. Should contracts be amended that support language acquisition during the contracted period, more lecturers would come. “The Estonian tendency is that these positions are advertised with the condition that you have to teach Estonian from the first day,” Mion remarked. “Well, then foreigners can’t apply.”

Learning Estonian is more difficult though, Mertelsmann pointed out, as the programs for learning it are not as advanced as they are for English, German, or French. He also noted that it is hard to obtain knowledge of technical language, a point that Noe agreed on.  

“The processes for learning Estonian are not fully in place,” said Noe, who said that he learned the language in part on his own initiative, and said that there is a need to better teach Estonian science terminology, as well as the written language, “not just conversational language that you can use to order a beer in a pub.”

Mion pointed out that there should also be more support within universities for assisting new hires with moving to Estonia, including assistance with finding housing, accessing services, and education for family members.

While the language issue poses challenges, both for newcomers as well as the higher education system, bringing in top talent from abroad is worth it, said Kruusmaa, who said that the “real capital” of foreign professors is their international network, which translates into other new hires, funding opportunities, and better results.

A moral duty

Pihor noted that while a decade ago, most foreign academics in Estonia came from neighboring countries like Finland, Sweden, and Russia, today Asian countries like India are closer to the top of the list, as well as Belarus, which she said was understandable, given the political situation. Pihor added that Estonia had a moral duty to assist other countries in difficult circumstances.

Kruusmaa said there was actually a historical precedent for this. Much of the Estonian economic infrastructure was built by Estonian engineers returning from German and other Western European universities, as well as universities in Riga and Saint Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th century, she pointed out. At that time, these were the top universities in Europe, where the language of instruction was typically German or Russian. She said that Estonian universities could now serve as similar hubs for Belarusian, Georgian, or Pakistani researchers who wanted to learn about Estonian e-governance and bring that knowledge back to their home countries. “This is something that could be geopolitically beneficial in the future,” Kruusmaa said.

Kattai, from the Ministry of the Interior, noted that the increase in academics in Estonia who are not from the region obviously garners attention from people who aren’t used to their presence, but underscored that they all come to Estonia to develop themselves and society, to contribute to Estonian science, to network with Estonian scientists, and to bring that experience to their countries. “We have big competitors and we have to be equally willing to move forward, to help other countries develop, and to develop our own networks,” commented Kattai.  

Mertelsmann said the question facing society is not where someone comes from, but who that person is. “An asocial person or an alcoholic person is not welcome, but an Afghani specialist? Why not?” he said. He noted that movement within the EU is free, and that someone who is of Turkish background and has French citizenship should face no impediment to relocating here. The greater migration question for Estonian voters, Mertelsmann added, is actually labor, as Estonian employers would like to hire more workers from Russia and Ukraine, a decision that rests in the hands of the Estonian government and ultimately in the voters themselves. 

“For them, scientists are a much smaller issue,” Mertelsmann said.

Written by: Justin Petrone

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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