Demography, said a 19c French philosopher, is destiny and our population, says the Bank of Estonia, is dropping. There was a mass exodus just after independence in 1992 when 33,700 left, mostly ethnic Russians. Then birth rates, that averaged 22- 25,000 in the 1980s, began to decline, hitting a low of 12,000 in 1998. Figures have started to go up, reaching almost 15,000 in 2006 but despite this the Bank forecasts a basic scenario of a 17% drop by 2051 with a pessimistic scenario of a 34% fall and an optimistic one of a 9% rise.
The Estonian Ministry of Education forecasts that by 2013/15 the number of children graduating from school is expected to be 50% of the number in the early years of Estonian independence. Estonia's native population is only a tiny 1,000,000 at the best of times. But even dramatically smaller class numbers will not offset the shortage of teachers. Many are near retirement age and there are few youngsters coming up to replace them. The Ministry said the impact on universities would be less because intake includes mature students, not just school leavers. Private universities, which rely on overspill from the public system, are likely to be hard hit with drops in rolls of up to 50% and closures are possible.
This is bad news. When it was part of the USSR Tartu was one of 20-odd universities servicing a population of 150 million, thus post independence catchment options have shrunk radically. Concern is expressed not just for the university but also for the city, which bases its economy on academia. Tartu is home to 100,000, 20% of whom are students or staff. One observer said that the population of the university could fall by anything up to 20%.
TÜ faces lowering standards as student numbers are predicted to drop from 65,000 this year to 30,000 in 2015. Languages and arts already struggle and could die out as fees dry up. Rector Alar Karis, a sensible sort, says that more teaching in English is needed. 'We are going to be more international, that's for sure. It's a problem, because we also have to keep [Estonian] going.' But this is only a partial solution. 'TÜ 'can't find 20,000 foreign students to fill the numbers.' The government won't help. It spends 1% of gross national product on education as opposed to an average of 1.5% in OECD countries. This is a pertinent calculation because it comes from the 30 strong OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), one of whose primary aims is to support sustainable economic growth, and who have invited Estonia to join.
Other solutions to dwindling intake include luring academics back from abroad, international conferences, development of new knowledge-competence based business and the sharing of courses and facilities with other Estonian universities to keep minor subjects alive. Some say more must be done to encourage families to expand in order to address a demographic catastrophe. Breeding more Estonians is rather a simplistic response, I fear. Even rabbits would have to go like the clappers to address the imbalances predicted.
Bird Droppings from Estonia: Trouble ahead