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The new reforms that are hollowing out Estonian education

Looking to make education more accountable, Estonia is in fact moving further from the idea that education should serve the common good. 

Wikimedia commons. Public domain.The Estonian Ministy of Science and Education has a new development  plan for Estonian education called “Smart and Productive Nation”. The plan concerns transition to “knowledge based economy” and the emergence of life-long learning. Setting the agenda for Estonian education until the year 2018, it is a key document for understanding the priorities and future tendencies of Estonian education.

What strikes the reader, however, is that upon a closer look, the new education plan comes across as riddled with contradictions between its means and ends. The purpose of this writing is to outline some of the envisioned policies and discuss the negative effects they would have on Estonian education.

The first important concept in the plan is “knowledge based economy”. It is said that transition to this new type of economy means that education and science will have an ever increasing influence on the competitiveness of Estonian economy. The concept is not explained, instead it is treated as a measure to achieve the European Union´s ends. We might say that it is one of the terms alongside “network society” and “knowledge society” that refers to the post-industrial era described by information flows and symbol manipulation. “Knowledge-based Estonia” – for the fields of science and innovation – is another one of our government´s future strategies until 2020.

Despite the claim to a novel synthesis, the relation between knowledge and economy in contemporary societies is rather one-sided.  Knowledge matters for contributing to economic growth and as a means with which to gain the upper hand in competition. One the other hand, knowledge that can´t be integrated into existing system, counts for little. Critique and reconstruction are not among recognized modalities of knowledge.

The last three decades of ramptant economic rationality have more than anything else undermined the notion that a general improvement of life conditions can be achievied by progressive marketization of knowledge. Hence, the prospect that Estonian education faces is losing itself in the unholy alliance between market driven policies and insurgence of private interest. Looking to make education more accountable, Estonia is in fact moving further from the idea that education should serve the common good.

The plan says that education supports the socialization and autonomy of personality. What this requires that is education itself is at least party autonomous from external imperatives. Education supports the student´s autonomy given that it opens up new ways to perceive reality. It is anything but clear if standardized and performance oriented Estonian education supports creativity, which according to the Ministry of Education is one of its values.

We grasp the truth about the Ministry if we look at the depth with which they concentrate on the EU directives, and how little they have say about the autonomy and socialization of the personality. Improving the measurable quality of education and encouraging creativity are far from identical. Standardization is often harmful for the personality. In addition, measurement and competition policies have often increased inequality in education.

Another theme discussed in the plan is digital learning. The goal here is to improve the students´ digital abilities. Digital technology needs to applied in the learning process, instead of only looking for information and communicating online, as it tends to be now in Estonia. It is highlighted that when it comes to using internet in school, Estonia ranks 14th in Europe. 

Teachers need to improve their IT skills as well because their ability to function in technology rich learning environment is well below the European average. Digital learning is one of the few topics that directly concerns the practice of education. One would have expected an explanation about how digital learning is going to make education more meaningful. The risks that come with overdigitalization of learning or the possibilities of Internet as a public space are not discussed either.

Instead, we are told greater competitiveness, and personal well being resulting from smarter consumption, are the desired goals. I would argue that education would have to take into consideration the subject matter and students´ needs when using IT. Greater teacher autonomy would be a welcome education reform, but it is not part of the plan. The IT and webproviders´ lobby seems to have triumphed, and the concern to prepare young citizens for independens lives is not high on the agenda.

The functional and pragmatic aspirations to make education more employer friendly come across as deceptive because of the strong element of indoctrination that they contain. For example, it is claimed that a sustainable society needs a high level level of labour market flexibility from each of its citizens. Education as mere preparation for flexible labour market conduct succumbs to indoctrination.

The idea that education should serve as a means for economic or political goals has never been popular in Estonia, where education has been traditionally conceived in decidedly apolitical terms. It is fair to say that a more political education would less indoctrinating. The more people understand the forces that shape education, the better their ability to choose their course of action.

Dropping out of school and marginalization risk among youth are also addressed in the developmental plan considers. When it comes to the former, we are being told that the measures to counter the problem have been successful. The number has gone down and remains stable among high school students. Poverty and lack of Estonian skills are seen as the main reasons behind marginalization risk. New youth work conception, youth projects and youth self-initiative are the suggested solutions.

Taking into account that dropping out of school and marginalization are seen as relevant issues, it is surprising that school violence is not included among the problems. Estonian education system has only fairly recently started to tackle school violence. The topic can´t be avoided if schools are to become safe and creative environments. The fact that more needs to be done is highlighted by this study undertaken by the Praxis Research Center in Estonia in 2011. In addition,  schools in Estonia lack supporting staff, including school psychologists.

In conclusion, the greatest shortcoming of the development plan “Smart and Productive Nation” is that its means and ends contradict each other. There are no concrete measures in the plan that support time honoured values such as self-realization and creativity – values that the Ministry of Education and Science says it adheres to. European Union scales are disproportionately influential, and education is tendetiously subjected to the needs of the market.

Another important notion – socialization – means first and foremost improved competitiveness. The well known American education critic Henry Giroux uses the term “disimagination zones” for education where possibilities for social change and justice are blocked. Looking at the importance that is attached to reproducing  the existing society and how uncritical it is becoming, the term is apt for Estonian education. 

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About the author

Martin Aidnik is a PhD student in sociology at Tallinn University.

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