The future of IT education: With falling student numbers, can Estonia persuade young people to study tech?

Keeping momentum going is now the challenge facing Estonia's IT education sector.

Over the last few years the number of students in higher education in Estonia has dropped significantly - from 67,600 in 2011 to 55,200 in 2014, according to Statistics Estonia. The fall is largely due to fall in the number of young adults in the country - after the birth boom in the mid to late-1980s, the birth rate dropped drastically in the early 1990s.

The change has put pressure on universities across the country, with competition intensifying for the shrinking student population. ICT, however, has been one of the winners in the fight to attract new students.

In 2010, there were under 4,500 computer science students - less than seven percent all those in higher education. Although the overall number of students in the country showed a steady decrease over the next four years, those taking computer sciences rose to 4,722 - accounting for almost nine percent of all students in 2014.

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The growth in ICT's popularity is down to a number of factors. The positive examples set by international success stories such as Skype or TransferWise and the local startup boom of recent years have certainly played their part, but Estonia's private and public sector have been heavily promoting STEM subjects in recent years too.

Education goals

At the end of 2011, the Estonian government approved a special ICT higher education and research and development program known as IKTP, which set goals for improving ICT education up to 2015.

The program aimed to minimize any decrease in the number of ICT students caused by Estonia's changing demography, and to improve the proportion of students finishing their studies across all levels of higher education by at least 10 percent. The latter was, and still is, a great problem in Estonia. A report from 2011 claimed that more than half of computer science students didn't finish their studies, largely for economic reasons - after starting work in IT during their studies, they subsequently dropped out of their course.

The program had two more goals: to double the number of foreign ICT students compared to 2010 and to increase the attractiveness of ICT lecturer and researcher positions to create significant international competition for them.

Jaak Vilo, the head of the Institute of Computer Science at the oldest university in Estonia, the University of Tartu, is satisfied with recent developments in field of IT education and with the results of the IKTP program.

"In the last seven years, we have almost doubled the number of IT students at the University of Tartu. In 2007 there were perhaps two international students, but there are now well over 100. And all our MSc programmes are taught in English, and open for international admission. The PhD program has been gaining momentum - we have increased the pace from one to two PhDs per year to five or six on average," he said, adding that the proportion of students dropping out has fallen, while the quality of education has increased.

In the last three years, the IKTP program has covered up to 25 percent of the Institute's expenses. These funds have helped to attract students with new scholarships and free laptops for school use, among other perks. Most importantly, it has enabled the institute to employ more staff and pay higher wages for the lecturers, in turn leading to a significant positive impact on the quality of education.

"We have managed to hire international staff, although some positions went unfilled. We opened a position in the data science/big data area, with an internationally competitive annual salary of €60,000. I guess there are two issues - such practically-oriented positions are in high demand everywhere in the world; and secondly, maybe our location is not the most well-known.

"Among the senior staff, like professors and associate professors, over half have been hired internationally now. It would be great to have more domestic applicants as well, of course," said Vilo.

The private sector

The private sector has also shown support for the government initiative. One of the biggest IT employers in the country, Skype Estonia, established a €100,000-a-year scholarship fund a few years ago, giving 15 Master's-level students on the University of Tartu's Informatics curriculum and Tallinn University of Technology's Cyber Defence and Computer Systems curriculum €6,500 per year each.

"It's possible to get very good higher education in Estonia, especially in technical subjects. Almost every university in Estonia offers ICT degrees, as do many vocational institutions. The most important thing is that we can see how ICT knowledge is becoming integrated into different fields, and why IT knowhow is becoming rather more interdisciplinary than ever before," Andrus Järg, the managing director of Skype Estonia, told ZDNet.

Although the last few years have certainly been a success story, there are some darker clouds on the horizon for Estonia's IT education.

The IKTP program, which was financed using millions of euros of European Regional Development Fund money, ended this summer, meaning that further education providers have had to make some significant cuts to their spending. How much those cuts will affect the quality of IT education will become clear in the near future.

The end of the program also means that the additional funding from the private sector is going to suffer at least some amount as well. Skype Estonia may not continue its €100,000 scholarship fund for the current school year, after the IKTP program ended in June.

"We will certainly continue to support Estonian IT education and co-operate with HITSA [the Information Technology Foundation for Education, which coordinated the IKTP program]," Järg said.

Vilo said that the end of the IKTP program will mean a 25 percent cut to the institute's budget, and he hopes to see some replacements kick in.

The politics of education

Future political decisions on Estonia's further eduction sector are likely to be influenced by the government research and development council's report, published in August this year, into potential courses of action for the country's networks of universities, academic centres, and colleges.

The report, which was written by council member and vice president of the Nordic Investment Bank Gunnar Okk, suggested some radical changes to the higher education system, such as merging many academic and scientific institutions to stop unnecessary doubling-up, and turning higher education - currently free in Estonia - into a loan-based system. The latter would see the state offer students a loan to finance their studies which wouldn't have to be paid back by students that finish their studies in a set amount of time and work in Estonia for a given period afterwards.

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It is not clear at the moment to what degree the report will influence the government's future decisions, due to political opposition to some of its core ideas, such as doing away with the free education system. The report has also been also criticized for focusing too much on the quantitative results rather than the qualitative results, but it has certainly started a discussion about a need for a higher education reform in Estonia.

The future

Regardless of these problems, Vilo remains positive about the outlook for ICT education. According to him, the biggest challenge in the field is finding enough high-quality staff and students for the university to keep momentum going, and ensuring academic institutions can match the quality of Estonia's internationally known startups.

"IT education providers have to catch up with the success of the #estonianmafia," he said.

The university's collaboration with the local IT industry is strong across several different domains. "For example, over 50 individuals from various companies have been teaching at our courses annually in different roles and capacities. There are several scholarship schemes with companies like Fortumo and Playtech. We have seen the success stories with our PhD students founding successfully ZeroTurnaround and Plumbr," Vilo said.

The University of Tartu has also decided to build a new ICT competence center, where it seeks to better integrate computer science with computer engineering and robotics.

"Together, it is easier to train next generation of students, and work on the Internet of Things, for example," he said.

In addition, interdisciplinary collaborations are set to be increased, especially with a focus on health and genomics.

"The key aspect of that new center is, however, its focus on entrepreneurship training and opportunity creation, with a spotlight on enabling accelerators and startup development. That center should accommodate up to 1,500 to 2,000 students. Next to the center, we are also planning another building for companies - R&D units and development centers. That has to be built using some PPP [public-private partnership] scheme. We don't yet have the financing commitments, but the momentum is high and the plans are timely," said Vilo.

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