Estonia is a Northern European country bordered by the Baltic Sea, Gulf of Finland, Latvia, and Russia. After centuries of Danish, Swedish, German, and Russian rule, Estonia attained independence in 1918. Forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in
1940, Estonia regained its freedom in 1991 at the collapse of the USSR, and has actively pursued economic and political ties with Western Europe. It joined both NATO and the EU in 2004. Literacy is almost universal among Estonia’s 1.3 million
people. The capital is Tallinn, and the official language is Estonian, followed by Russian. Despite 50 years of pressure to adopt the politicized Soviet educational structure and curricula, Estonia maintained most instruction in the Estonian language.
Today some academic subjects are taught in Russian, English, or German. Many Russian-speaking students continue their higher education in Russia.
Currently, the education system in Estonia is overseen by the country's Haridus-ja Teadusministeerium.
Primary and Secondary Education
Education in Estonia is organized into compulsory basic (9 years, ages 7 to 16), secondary (3 years), and higher education. Secondary offers two streams, (1) general school/gymnasium education, and (2) vocational education. The Gumnaasiumi loputunnistus gives access to higher education. Students completing secondary vocational education obtain a separate certificate, Tunnistus pöhihariduse baasil kutsekeskhariduse omandamise kohta.
All Estonian diplomas and degrees are final higher education qualifications; there are no intermediate qualifications. All public and recognized higher education institutions may award state diplomas. Private higher education institutions may award the
state diploma only to graduates who have completed accredited study programs. Since 1991, four higher education credentials are granted: Bachelor, Master, Doctor, Professional Diploma. (Variations before 1991 have been incorporated into the current
four.) In 2002/03 the following modifications were implemented to conform to the Bologna Accord:
From 1995 through 2003 (Pre-Bologna):
Professional higher education institutions offered: Diploms of either 3 or 4 years.
- Bakalaureus (4-year undergraduate or 5-year specialist degree)
- Magister (2-year research degree)
- Doktor (second research degree 4 years beyond the Magister)
Since 2003: (Post-Bologna):
- Professional higher education institutions offer: Diplom (3 or 4 years), at the same level as the Bakalaureus, which may give access to further study in a Magister program offered by a university or professional higher education institution.
- Universities offer: Bakalaureus (3 years), Magister (2 years after Bakalaureus), Long cycle specialist degree (5 years), medicine (6 years), veterinary medicine (6 years), and Doktor (3-4 year research degree)
Currently, there are 6 public universities, 5 private universities, 8 state institutions of professional higher education, 13 private professional higher education institutions, and 7 state vocational institutions. (See Institutions section below.) The
school year runs September to June. Public institutions are overseen by the Ministry of Education and Research. Private higher education institutions are officially recognized after accreditation.
Higher education is given by (1) ülikool (university) and (2) rakenduskörgkool (professional higher education institutions). Estonian universities conduct education and research, and grant academic degrees at the bakalaureus (bachelor's), magister (master’s) and doctor (doctoral) levels in various fields of study. Public universities are relatively autonomous: they manage academic life, open new study programs, establish admission terms and conditions,
approve budgets and develop plans, make structural decisions, and elect rectors.
Parallel to the academic branch, higher education programs with a more practical approach were introduced in Estonia in the 1990s. In 2002 two types of these professional studies—(1) diploma (diplomiõpe) and (2) vocational (kutsekõrgharidus)--were
integrated into one program, “professional higher education” (rakenduskõrgharidus).
Professional higher education is offered by state, municipal, and private institutions, vocational schools, and universities. Depending on the field of study, these facilities are subject to the supervision of the Ministry of Education and Research, the
Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, or the Ministry of Social Affairs.
A diploma in professional higher education corresponds to a Bachelor’s Degree (bakalaureusekraad) awarded by universities in the academic branch. Professional higher education credentials can lead students directly into their professions or into
studies at the master’s level. The nominal length of professional studies is 3 to 4.5 years; the number of credit points is 120 – 180 AP (180 – 270 ECTS). Persons who have completed professional higher education studies are awarded
a diploma (rakenduskõrgharidusõppe diplom) certifying the completion of a specific study program.
Professional (formerly vocational) higher education may also be pursued at universities or other institutions, and shares some elements with academic bachelor programs. A professional higher education “diploma” is equivalent to the bachelor’s
degree, and graduates of professional higher education programs may also go on to Master’s studies. (Primary and secondary school teachers are trained at both universities and professional higher education institutions.) Professional higher
education institutions are legally more restricted in their activities, and require the approval of the Ministry of Education and Research in order to open new study programs and to establish the terms and conditions for admission. Private professional
higher education institutions provide study programs mainly in the fields of social sciences (economics, international relations, and law), business administration and theology, but also fine arts.
Quality assessment/accreditation in Estonian higher education is a continuous process through four levels: self-analyses by universities faculties or departments, a foreign expert evaluation, the decisions of an autonomous body called the Kõrghariduse
Hindamise Nõukogu (Higher Education Quality Assessment Council – HEAC), and self-improvement efforts of individual institutions. The Kõrghariduse Akrediteerimiskeskus (Higher Education Accreditation Centre – HEAC) organizes
Regular assessment of study programs began after the foundation of the HEAC in 1997. HEAC is a member of the European Network of Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and the International Network of Quality Assurance (INQA).
Accreditation is not compulsory in Estonia, but it is the only way for an institution of higher education to acquire the right to issue recognized credentials. As an exception, public universities may issue diplomas to the graduates of non-accredited
study programs that were registered before the beginning of the reform of programs in 2002.
There are three accreditation categories:
- Accredited indicates that the institution or study program meets requirements. The decision may include recommendations for eliminating minor shortcomings. Accreditation is valid for seven years.
- Conditionally accredited indicates that the institution or study program has major shortcomings which need to be eliminated or addressed. Conditional accreditation remains in force for three years from the date of the decision. Credentials issued
two years before a positive accreditation decision are considered to be state recognized.
- Not accredited indicates that the institution or study program has serious shortcomings which jeopardize the quality of the graduates´ knowledge and skills. When accreditation is denied, the institution or study program should stop admission
and instruction, and transfer students to another program or institution, in co-operation with the Ministry of Higher Education and Research.
Alongside accreditation of institutions and programs, evaluation of research started in 2000. The aim is to assess research and development institutions and the completion of research projects in order to ensure state financing, to reveal insufficiencies
in research and development, and to make suggestions concerning research important to the state.