The Future of Higher Education

Report: Less than one third of students focus exclusively on their studies

Estonia boasts a higher percentage of university graduates than most Central and Eastern European countries, yet compared to other OECD members, our students work more while studying and also drop out more often, shows the Foresight Centre brief report “Higher Education in Estonia: Situation and Challenges”.


“Higher education in Estonia is facing three major challenges from the students’ point of view: the dropout rate is high, few are able to focus exclusively on their studies, and many graduates are forced to settle for jobs that require much lower qualifications,” said the Foresight Centre expert Uku Varblane.

In 2020, Estonia with its 43.1% of university graduates among the 25–34 year olds ranked below the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average of 45.6% but did outrank Austria, Germany, and Italy, as well as most Central and Eastern European countries. “Meanwhile, the 33% dropout rate from bachelor’s studies is one of the highest in the OECD countries. By the second year of studies, the dropout rate was only 11%, which is a testament to the universities’ ability to select students and keep them in the initial stages of their studies,” Varblane said.

In 2018–2020, more than half of students were working regularly, while less than one third of students focused exclusively on their studies. “Indeed, students in Estonia self-identify as employees rather than students more strongly than the European students on average,” Varblane explained. “One the one hand, they work to cover their living costs, but the importance granted to prior working experience on the labour market is an equally strong argument. At the same time, one in three students see work as an obstacle to their studies. This number is almost double the European average.”

In Estonia, many more individuals with tertiary education are doing less qualified jobs than in the EU on average. “This might be linked to decades old degrees. Especially people with secondary vocational or technical education diplomas find that their skills are outdated and do not guarantee them a job in their field,” Uku Varblane explained.

In 2020, 4,000 people with a bachelor’s, master’s, or a doctoral degree were employed in menial jobs. Along with people with a secondary vocational degree, a total of 9,300 people were employed in work with lower qualifications. “In total, 16.5% of menial workers had a tertiary diploma in 2020, which exceeds the EU average of 6.5% three times,” Varblane said. 

In the international ranking, Estonia stands out with its relatively low pay bonus for tertiary diploma, which is mostly explained by the relatively large proportion of people with a secondary vocational diploma and their moderate pay rates. “The increase in pay rates for bachelor’s and master’s degrees actually tends to be rather large in Estonia compared with secondary education graduates,” Varblane said.

You can download the brief report “Higher Education in Estonia: Situation and Challenges” HERE (in Estonian).

In 2021/22, the Foresight Centre is doing a research into the Future of Higher Education in Estonia, to identify the development trends and opportunities in higher education over the next 15 years.

The Foresight Centre is a think tank at the Chancellery of the Riigikogu that analyses long-term developments in society and economy. The Centre conducts research projects to analyse the long-term developments in the Estonian society, and to identify new trends and development directions.

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