Keegan McBride: Why has TalTech chosen money over students?

Tallinn University of Technology’s (TalTech) policy to ban foreign students was more about saving money than protecting public health, argues Dr Keegan McBride, a researcher at the university; the university has not communicated the policy or the reasons behind it transparently or accurately and the students deserve clarity, he writes.

TalTech has made the decision to ban foreign students from countries with high risk of coronavirus or those with inaccurate statistics. The ban affects a few hundred international students, both those who are coming to Estonia for the first time to study, and those who left home for summer vacation and now wish to return to their studies.

There is currently a lot of ambiguity in the air about why this decision was made, who is responsible, what the ramifications will be and why TalTech has made this decision alone amongst Estonian universities.

TalTech is not honest and transparent in this decision

TalTech tries to pass off the blame for this decision to the Estonian government, but let’s be clear – this was a choice. The university could have decided to trust their students and risk some sort of financial penalties (although these were not guaranteed) or they could take the choice to ruin the academic year and, potentially, the future, for hundreds of foreign students to save the university money.

The university chose the latter and now tries to pass it off under the guise of protecting public health. While this argument could be convincing, for reasons I will explain later, their current narrative falls short. No matter how hard the PR teams try to say that this is the government’s fault or that they had no choice, know that this is not true; other universities decided to make the hard choice, and arguably the more ethical choice at that.

Thus, this current drama surrounding the admission and matriculation of foreign students to TalTech demonstrates, once again, that for this university, if something goes wrong or there is a crisis – blame somebody else; do whatever you can to protect the university’s money, and if someone offers an alternative viewpoint publicly, hide or deny it (e.g. via deleting or hiding social media comments that disagree with them).

TalTech’s decision has caused suffering for hundreds of foreign students and is potentially damaging for Estonia’s reputation as a study destination. Image: TalTech’s sign. Photo by TalTech.

Discriminatory ban

Of course, I am not so naive to deny that there is indeed a public health risk associated with the introduction of hundreds of students from high risk coronavirus countries to Estonia. However, although this is a legitimate concern, there is a fundamental disconnect between the public messaging of TalTech and the real reasons behind their decisions.

In order to understand this disconnect, we can first look at to what the actual ban implies.

Students who come from countries who either have unreliable coronavirus statistics or have a rate of infection higher than 16 per 100,000 residents will be denied admission to TalTech. If this ban were to be applied uniformly, then it would be quite understandable to all parties involved that this was definitively done to protect the Estonian public’s health.

However, this is not the case, exceptions are made. Students from Europe can still come, as can PhD students, but at the time of writing this, the European countries of Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Spain, Croatia, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Portugal, France, Sweden, Romania, Switzerland, and Czechia all have rates that should, if the rule was to be applied in a non-discriminatory manner, exclude students from admission to TalTech.

It is hard to reconcile this with the public statements that this policy is not discriminatory. Are PhD students and Europeans somehow less likely to pass on the coronavirus? Are they more likely to comply with Estonia’s self-isolation or quarantine rules? Does the leadership of TalTech trust them more? How is it that other universities are able to admit foreign students?

As we have seen from the most recent case in Tartu, and has been seen across countries around the world, it only takes one person to cause an outbreak via a “super spreader” event, thus banning some students from high risk countries but allowing others in is just illogical.

It is about money, not public health

So, if it is not about public health, then the argument is that this is only happening because the government has made the restrictions “too hard” to comply with. However, as already noted, other Estonian universities have found a way to do it (eg the University of Tartu). TalTech could have made a different choice, but they did not, and the reason is quite clear – they wanted to save money and they did not trust incoming students.

To give an example, we can look to a recent Facebook post, where a commenter asked, “Why don’t you issue students offer letter and let them handle the situation by themselves. I believe they are mature enough to understand the situation and respect [the rules]”. The university’s response was that “the university is, in terms of obligations and responsibilities, liable for the fulfilment of the epidemiological requirements applicable to international students” – in other words, if students do not comply with the rules, the university will be potentially fined.

However, the university started with the view that a majority of these students would not comply with these regulations, or that it would be too hard to enforce them. Or, in other words, the university did not trust a majority of the students coming from these countries. While they won’t say this publicly, it is possible to see this from conversations behind the scenes.

The university has estimated that they could be fined potentially thousands of euros per violation, and that the total cost of these violations could cost the university up to or more than €1 million, which is a figure much larger than the expected tuition income (€300,000) these students would bring. It also would imply that somewhere between 10 and 30% of these students would cause some sort of financial damage to the university – which is quite a large number of students.

So, in this case, what we can say is that this policy is not about public health, it is not about being “forced” by the Estonian government into this position, it is not about regulatory compliance, it is simply about saving the university money. Now, this may well be a valid reason for this policy – I do not aim to make a judgement about it here in this opinion.

The core issue here arises from the fact that the university made a choice, tried to blame this choice on the government, and tries to shift the narrative about the policy being about public health or regulatory compliance rather than cost savings. Furthermore, the assertion that European students and doctoral students are somehow either a) less likely to bring corona or b) more likely to follow the rules is at best laughable and at worst discriminatory.

Open questions

I would call on TalTech here to be up front about how much this policy was about saving money, rather than public health, and pose the following questions to them:

•            Why are other universities able to find a solution to the problem while you are not?

•            How can you reconcile your concern with public health with the admission of PhD students and European students from high risk countries?

 •           If you do trust incoming students, why not work out a solution with them to this problem?

I hope an amicable solution can be found moving forward between TalTech and the potential and returning students. The university has made progress from its initial blanket ban to now offering delayed admission, but this is not enough, and the students and the university body deserve clearer communication and transparency, both of which are missing currently.

Read also: Elvin Abbasli: TalTech needs to reassess its decision on foreign students.

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: TalTech’s main campus in Tallinn. Photo by TalTech.

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