It has now been over 10 years since Estonia first started making concentrated efforts for bringing more internationalization and diversity to the higher education scene. In only a decade, our small country (only 1,324,820 million people as of January 1, 2019) has seen the number of international students in Estonian universities go from 900 to 5000! The PIE news sat down with Eero Loonurm, the head of international marketing at Study in Estonia, to learn more about Estonia's journey and how we managed to make our mark on the international education map. Below is a slightly edited version of the full interview, which you can read here.
How did Study in Estonia start?
Our activities started around 12 or 13 years ago when our Ministry of Education and Research decided the country needed a higher education internationalisation strategy. Officially we started in 2008 and, from national branding to stakeholder management, we built everything from scratch. About 10 years ago we had about 900 international degree students. We started to work to grow the numbers and today in this academic year 2018/19 we have over 5,000. Which means we did something right!
That’s impressive. How did you do it?
Dedicated people and long-term vision, both on the national level and in the universities. And of course, cooperation. We were only two people in the first years of Study in Estonia, so we felt that working really intensively with our institutions brought our universities closer together and created more synergy. We started with the classical marketing approach – market analysis, target group behaviour, positioning, finding our strengths and weaknesses, action plan. For example, Estonia has very few embassies in the world, and we had to take into account that the student journey from the first contact until arrival to Estonia might be very long from most of the countries in the world.
When choosing target countries, we took into account the existing student mobility, consular capability and the education landscape in the respective countries. So the target countries we chose at the beginning were Finland, Russia, Turkey, China, Latvia and Ukraine. Young people from Turkey, for example, were looking for international opportunities because their higher education sector couldn’t cater for all secondary graduates. They were looking at the UK, Germany, US – but we thought ‘why shouldn’t we invite them to study in Estonia?’.
What do you think a bigger “study in” organisation could learn from you?
It seems to me that smaller countries and bigger countries all learn from each other. We have “Study in Europe” meetings with all the national education promotion agencies and we get new ideas every time. But when it comes to Estonia, then I must say that you can do lots of things very quickly if there is engagement between the universities and the organisation. It is possible to build things up in a country where nobody knows you. When I was in recruitment fairs abroad in the early years, the first thing I needed to do was sell the country. [I had to say] ‘Look, this is Estonia: online voting, clean environment, successful start-ups, top 10 position in the world press freedom index, and we have one of the most technologically-developed public sectors in the world’.
Can non-EU students stay and work in Estonia?
Yes they can. When you graduate, you can stay in Estonia for nine months to find a job. This law came into effect a couple of years ago. Together with the universities and other stakeholders we worked a lot in order to lobby for better regulations. And now, it is a selling point for prospective students.
How about during their courses – are there limits?
International students in Estonia don’t need an additional work permit to work while studying full time and they are allowed to work as much as they want on the condition that it does not interfere with their studies. Students have to receive passing grades for full-time courses and finish studies within the nominal time. Our policy is that if local students can work as much as they want during their studies, why can’t international students do the same? What’s the difference?
My colleagues in Archimedes Foundation introduced a report saying that the percentage of discontinued studies among international students is lower, which means international students are very focused on their studies. When they travel so far to study, from China, India, US or other parts of the world, they know they have to commit. Studying is their first priority. And if you work during your studies it might be easier to find work after graduation.
The living costs in Estonia are not so high either compared to Western Europe. And our tuition fees are quite affordable too – so the more affordable the costs, the less students need to worry about surviving. And the less they have to worry, the more they can focus on studying, which is the most important thing.
What is Estonia’s major draw?
Estonia is attractive to different groups of students. Some want to see how we have developed from 1991, when we got our independence back, in such a short time to a country like we are. These might be studying political science, international relations, technology governance, business administration, or education.
Another group would want to learn something new and take it back home. Estonia is very famous right now for its e-development. For example, we can vote online during the political elections – we do it with ID cards, and even if you are abroad you can still vote. We are a paperless government; all the decisions are done with a digital signature. Our PISA results are the best in Europe. We have our e-residency. Our public service is very efficient and more and more students have decided to come to Estonia to learn about this.
The third point of interest is in IT. This is something that attracts many students. We have lots of fantastic start-up companies which are ready to recruit international students. For example Transferwise, Pipedrive, Bolt and Veriff, and, of course, we have many international companies that have recruited international students for decades: Skype, ABB, Ericsson, Swedbank etc.
We also have high-quality programs in specific fields, for example, music, art programs, film studies, landscape architecture, animation, philosophy. Every university has some fascinating and unique programs. And all the courses we promote with Study in Estonia are in English.