The PIE: How did Study in Estonia start?
Eero Loonurm: 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. They involved lots of stakeholders and then produced a strategy.
Of course, most people don’t like strategies as there might be a lot of bureaucracy behind, but for us, it was something really important – because we could develop long-term focus and justify our plan as we were following the 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!
The PIE: That’s impressive. How did you do it?
“Sometimes we even had to explain that yes, we are a democratic country”
EL: 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.
Together with the universities (especially admissions and marketing people), we decided what would be the best and realistic ways to attract international students to Estonia. Looking back at the last 10 years, I can say that education marketing in Estonia has had really passionate people and everybody has given their part to our success.
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?’.
We participated in B2B fairs and recruitment fairs, we built up our digital and social media channels, we started to cooperate with the embassies and student organisations. We had training sessions and workshops for our universities and we also cooperated with other national initiatives with global ambitions. And stakeholder management was important: to involve different counterparts who would care about internationalisation.
The PIE: What do you think a bigger “study in” organisation could learn from you?
EL: It seems to me that smaller countries and bigger countries all learn from each other. We have learned a lot from other countries. We also 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.
“One of the things bigger countries can learn from us is that everything is possible”
[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’.
Sometimes we even had to explain that yes, we are a democratic country – everything from zero. This is something the bigger countries never have to do. They have more famous products or services on the global stage.
In that sense, one of the things bigger countries can learn from us is that everything is possible. But I think the keyword is ‘engagement.’ We discussed and planned everything with our universities.
The PIE: What plans does Study in Estonia have for the future?
EL: We have a lot of plans! Our universities are really innovative and I already look forward to our next two-day meeting somewhere in a creative place in Estonia to make plans for the new period. There are many topics up in the air: employability of university graduates, alumni engagement, teaching Estonian to international students. It very much depends on what we expect from international students after they graduate.
The PIE: Can non-EU students stay and work in Estonia?
EL: 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.
The PIE: How about during their courses – are there limits?
EL: 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.
“If local students can work as much as they want during their studies, why can’t international students?”
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.
The PIE: What is Estonia’s major draw?
EL: 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.
“Our public service is very efficient and students have decided to come to Estonia learn about this”
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.
And again, when it comes to marketing, it’s all about positioning. We know that every country in the world has great universities, so we give our best to make our universities more visible in every corner of the world.