Teaching and learning of international students in the Estonian Higher Education Institutions

The evaluation was conducted 2018-2019, the full results are available in Estonian and summary report in English.

Please find some background information on the evaluation below.

Grounds for the choice of the theme: Over the past decade the number and share of international students have rapidly increased while their share in the light of the shrinking number of local students even more so. The choices that international students make and their learning behaviour vary from averages in many aspects.

Overall, the number and share of international students in private HEIs have grown more than in public HEIs. Although students enrolled in foreign-language study programmes can be obliged to pay for their tuition, a third of international students study at state-financed study places. While 80% of the students enrolled in academic year 2016/2017 started on fields of study in the area of responsibility of universities that receive support for activities from the state, 76% of international students starting their studies, enrolled at these study programmes. The withdrawal rate among international students is considerably lower (2016: 9.9%) compared to the average in higher education (2016: 16.1%) (Kreegipuu 2017).

Also, the needs and expectations of international students towards the education system are different. International students must have the opportunity to smoothly adapt to the Estonian education system and way of life. What international students are not satisfied with, is the availability of the information in English; the set-up and quality of learning guidance; also, services supporting the overall adaptation often do not meet their expectations (Ernst & Young 2017). The feedback international students give to the quality of studies is controversial, leading to the conclusion that the academic level is somewhat uneven and not meeting their expectations. Another important fact is that international students are not satisfied with the opportunities for practical training and supervision (Ernst & Young 2017).

The issue of practical training of international students is repeated through the assessment reports of study programme groups: international students do not receive enough support in finding practical training opportunities, the HEIs fail to take the unique situation of international students into account in their practical training agreements. There are also problems with integrating international students in extracurricular academic and other activities since very few information is available in English. English skills of the teaching staff is another theme that undoubtedly influences the academic quality. The third significant problem that emerges from the quality evaluation concerns the quality and volume of learning materials. Fourth, is the varied level of English skills of students, which sometimes is an obstacle in smooth and meaningful teaching.

International students can to some degree help to compensate for the lack of a highly qualified workforce in the Estonian labour market, but the majority of international students study business, administration and law. Practical training in local organisations would facilitate international students to stay and work in Estonia, but the HEIs are not quite ready to support international students’ local employment. Since insufficient knowledge of Estonian is regarded as the main obstacle to staying to work in Estonia, it is necessary to include more Estonian language training within curricula (Ernst & Young 2017).

Objective of the evaluation: To analyse the best practices and shortcomings related to learning, teaching, supervising, counselling and integrating of international students in the first and second level of study across HEIs mostly on the basis of existing analysis, reports, evaluation reports and other (public) materials and to give thematic recommendations to the HEIs and policymakers.

The result of the evaluation: An overview of the best practices and shortcomings in learning and teaching of international students and recommendation to the HEIs, including academic units, institutions responsible for working with international students and policymakers. Also, the results of the pilot project contribute to analysing the set-up and methodology of the thematic evaluation and give input for preparing a new thematic evaluation regulation based on the new Higher Education Act.

Participating HEIs: HEIs take part in the pilot on a voluntary basis. First and foremost, we welcome HEIs having at least one foreign-language study programme and at least ten international students enrolled in a foreign-language study programme to participate. The analysis does not include study programmes implemented on the basis of a collaboration agreement with a foreign HEI and that includes compulsory mobility.

Themes of the thematic assessment:

1. The opening of the study programme and the admission of students. HEI’s strategy in launching foreign-language based study programmes and admitting international students (objectives, marketing, target countries, etc.). Admission of international students including requirements for previous education (e.g. average grade, completed subjects) and for language skills; collaboration with the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board and ENIC/NARIC; relevance and availability of information about admission, including visa and residence permit information, for the applicants. Procedures for establishing the expectations, motivation, academic capability and language skills of the student applicants, also in comparison to the local student applicants.

2. Paying for the studies, including the tuition fees in foreign-language based study programmes, terms, conditions, opportunities and share of studying for free; scholarship targeted to cover the tuition fee. Dealing with unpaid tuition fees of international students, including debt prevention.

3. Learning and teaching, including:
– learning environment considers cultural diversity
– teaching methods
– monitoring of academic progress
– student mobility (including in comparison to local students)
– availability and quality of learning materials
– development of language skills of teaching staff and students

4. Practical training and employment of international students

5. Support systems for students and teaching staff, including:
– language learning (target group: teaching staff and students, both Estonian as a foreign language and non-native language of instruction)
– foreign language support for learning (in the language of instruction; study information system ÕIS, documents)
– preparatory courses; orientation courses organised by the Ministry of the Interior for those with a residence permit
– compensatory learning for students with different basic academic knowledge; uptake of these opportunities
– academic, psychological and career counselling
– cultural and social integration (target group: teaching staff and students)
– availability of information on health services, etc.
– HEI’s support to international students regarding accommodation

Evaluation experts:

Estonian teaching staff/researchers/people responsible for the support services for international students; local students (preferably an active student with international experience) and an expert from outside the HEI. At least one member of the committee has the knowledge about support services to international students, and at least one member of the committee has experience with sociological research.

Tasks of the evaluation committee:

– analysing the documents, analysing previous surveys
– conducting additional written interviews if needed
– conducting focus group interviews
– drafting the evaluation report
– introducing the evaluation results at a seminar


A written report and a seminar focusing on the key results and best practices introduced in the report.

Learning and Teaching of International Students in Estonian Higher Education Institutions (Summary report)