3 Visions for the Future of Universitas Tartuensis

On May 31 the university will elect a new rector to lead the way in the following five years.

The University of Tartu is facing many external changes and challenges: higher education reform is underway, universities will lose the option of charging tuition, the principles for research funding will be altered, and the demographic gap in the student-aged population is approaching.

Under these circumstances, three candidates are running for the position of rector: Professor of Applied Geology Volli Kalm, Professor of Cell Biology Toivo Maimets and Professor of Biomedical Technology, academician Mart Ustav.

Toivo Maimets, Mart Ustav, Volli Kalm

UT Rector candidates in 2012, from left to right: professors Toivo Maimets, Mart Ustav and Volli Kalm. Photos by Andres Tennus.

All three candidates were nominated by the UT Faculty of Science and Technology, and were officially supported by a number of university professors. Volli Kalm has the backing of 36, Mart Ustav 26, and Toivo Maimets 22 professors at the University of Tartu.

The rector will be elected by 347-member electoral body, which includes members of the university council and senate, members of all faculty councils, and professors and senior researchers.

Rector candidates have published their election programmes (in Estonian) and gave interviews to the university journal and other public media. The following is a summary of the candidates’ views on a number of key issues, based on these texts.

1. People vs. Buildings

All candidates agree that people are the most important university resource. So far a lot of EU funds have been invested into state-of-the-art buildings and infrastructure at the expense of human resources; however, that’s what these funds were meant for. In 2014 a new funding period will start, and the candidates hope that new rules will be more flexible in this respect and will allow for more investments in human resources.

Mart Ustav’s programme foresees “fair pay”, whereas lecturing and writing original textbooks, in his view, should be valued as much as scientific work is.

Volli Kalm calls for a “specific plan to achieve more competitive salaries for university staff”, and he also mentions that the funding of research and teaching is equally important.

Toivo Maimets goes into detail, saying that the average salary of a lecturer, assistant professor and professor should comprise 2, 3 and 4 average Estonian salaries accordingly.

He also makes use of the “academic lifecycle” concept, meaning that efforts should be made to give young researchers confidence in their career prospects, while normal living standards should be ensured for senior staff after retirement. Along these lines, Maimets proposes to consider introducing a university retirement pension.

2. Universitas and humanities

All three candidates have placed the universitas principle, where very different and diverse university units cooperate, integrate and create synergy, at the core of their programmes. Kalm and Maimets specify that different units have to be evaluated differently, based on their particularities.

Again, all candidates address humanities and the problem of the so-called ‘small disciplines’ where expenses are high, such as in teaching languages. While the current financing model undermines humanities except for the more generously funded 10 national professorships, the candidates believe that these problems should and can be solved.

 3. Financing

The contenders stress the importance of bringing in more external funding. Maimets says that the university should help find specific projects, compile applications, and acknowledge successful applicants. Kalm and Ustav also mention the private sector as an important resource.

Ustav goes into more specifics, saying that the university needs to establish a service that would deal with project development, negotiation, and project management. His specific goal is to double the external funding for research and development in the next five years.

Kalm also aims for reorganising the administrative work in a way that “supports and motivates fundraising in areas where there is growth, primarily in the private sector and EU funds”.

Backed by extensive experience in the private sector, Ustav gives much attention and detail to cooperation with businesses both locally and internationally, fostering entrepreneurship among university students and staff, fundraising for professorships in business related fields, and acting as a valuable partner in the country’s innovation programmes.

Kalm also mentions a centre for cooperation with businesses in his election programme.

4. Academic republic vs. boot factory

As Toivo Maimets has phrased it, the question is whether our ideal university is functioning similarly to a business enterprise or an academic republic. He refers to ex-Rector Jaak Aaviksoo who used to claim that managing a university is no different from managing a boot factory: the council sets strategic goals, and the units fulfill their tasks and do the reporting.

According to Maimets, in an ideal university the initiative comes from academic staff who formulate tasks, and the management fulfils them. In an academic republic, staff is broadly involved in decision-making.

In their election programmes, Kalm and Ustav support the management model that involves university people into decision-making processes on different levels and on a larger scale than the current, recently introduced management model suggests.

When asked whether being in the shoes of the rector in office Alar Karis they would have introduced the new management model, Maimets said no, Ustav replied that he probably wouldn’t see a reason for this change, and Kalm, while not willing to criticise the current rector, questioned the role of external members on the university council, as to whether their role was restricted to giving advice to the university, or also to representing the university’s needs and interests in society, the parliament, and the government.

5. The international position of the Alma Mater

According to Mart Ustav, the university’s sphere of influence should cover, besides Estonia, also Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden and the southwestern part of Russia.

Volli Kalm notes that the “university should act strategically to bring in the necessary people,  students and professors alike, from Estonia and abroad”. In his view, the university should work to increase the range of internationally competitive study programmes and modules.

Similarly to Ustav, Kalm also uses the term ‘sphere of influence’, stating that the university’s social and economic sphere of influence should extend significantly beyond Estonian borders; however, it has to be defined in terms of each particular field, discipline, and faculty.

Maimets focuses on the university’s influence within Estonia. In his view, the university should act as an opinion leader and change initiator in society, and speak up on broader issues like school reform, ACTA and intellectual property, not just higher education and science.

5. Administration, teacher training, Open Access

Maimets has offered that the university’s administration should undergo international evaluation in the same way as teaching and science regularly do. This would give professional arguments for judging the administration’s efficiency and reduce tensions between the academic and administrative units.

All candidates agreed that a solution has to be found for the burning issue of teacher training, ensuring effective cooperation within the university.

Volli Kalm would develop the university’s career service into an active unit seeking and negotiating opportunities for student internships and jobs. Also, Kalm is supportive of the Open Access to improve visibility in research and innovation.

Rector candidates will debate on these and other issues on May 24 starting at 4 pm. UT Student Council is organising a debate with the rector candidates on May 22 at 6 pm. Both events will take place in the university Assembly Hall and will be in Estonian.

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