Author(s):Meril Ümarik (presenting), Krista Loogma (presenting)

Conference:ECER 2016, Leading Education: The Distinct Contributions of Educational Research and Researchers

Network:02. Vocational Education and Training (VETNET)


Session Information

02 SES 14 A, Diverse Perspectives on VET

Paper Session


Room:Vet-Theatre 116

Chair:Margaret Eleanor Malloch


The Meaning of Soviet Legacies on the Contemporary Status of VET in Estonia

In re-independent Estonia during the last 25 years multiple parallel reform policies has been introduced – national curricula development, introduction of professional qualification system, re-organisation of the network of schools etc. Nevertheless, despite to the reform initiatives the major challenges as the low standing/prestige of vocational education in the educational hierarchy in Estonia (Pärtel & Petti, 2013) and the decoupling between the VET and labour market (Ümarik, Loogma & Hinno, 2010), also suffered by many other European countries (CEDEFOP, 2013) has remained. In this paper we analyse the changes and continuities, brought about by the main reforms in the historical development course of vocational education and training. We are arguing that historical perspective enables to reveal certain historical moments or turning points, marking the changes towards emerging and widening the gap between VET supply and labour market demands and low standing of the VET we can witness today.

Our paper focuses on the institutional design of Estonian VET system under the Soviet rule and in post-Soviet Estonia, as one of the specific cases of post-Communist countries. We agree with authors (e.g. Đurić, 2012) arguing that many studies have failed to pay adequate attention to the impact of the past legacies and institutions in explaining the present institutional setup in post-Soviet countries. The main aim of this paper is to provide a systemic narrative of the historical development of the VET system in Estonia (1944-2015) and outline the major reforms leading to certain turning points in frame of the historical timeline.

In our theoretical framework the concepts of path dependency has been used in explaining the institutional changes or rather hindrance to changes on the field of VET in post-Soviet Estonia. Concept of path dependency refers to an adherence to a certain direction or structural characteristic, while adopted, by generating institutional inflexibility and resistance to change. (Đurić, 2012)

On the other hand, our focus of analysis is on the role of the international actors (donors, experts) and globalization tendencies in the frame of the VET reform process during the last 25 years. Therefore we have applied the policy transfer / policy learning approach in order to conceptualise the reform processes on the field of VET after the re-independence.

The fundamental societal and educational changes, taking place in Estonia like other post-socialist countries in the 1990s and later, can be considered not only the consequence of the post-socialist political regime change and transition to democratic society and market economy. With the opening up to the rest of the world, globalization processes, including  globally “travelling” neoliberal education reform ideas and policies (e.g Seddon, Ozga, Levin, 2013; Sahlberg, 2011 etc) affecting the education systems internationally, started to inform the  education reform processes in Estonia very quickly (even in time of perestroika) via different policy arenas as neighbouring countries, like Finland (see Toots, 2012), EU educational agencies (ETF), and other transnational agencies (IMF, WB). Since mid-1990s the neoliberal standardization policy has become more and more influential in VET.  Although the two transitions happened in parallel for newly independent countries, they had principally different nature and different drivers and thus, influenced differently on education and labour market structures (Loogma, 2004).  


The historical analysis is based on the literature review covering period of 1944 (beginning of Stalins´ time) till the present. Moreover, expert interviews have been carried out (with senior teachers and functionaries in the Ministry of Education and vocational education agencies as well as interviewees previously worked as trainers of VET teachers) in order to fill in the “white spots” in the literature review. Additionally content of policy documents of different era, like all-Soviet programme documents and official statements of Communist Party up to European Commission guiding documents, mainly those, related to the Copenhagen process and national strategies of VET have been analysed.

In the frame of the each societal period the analysis was carried out and presented by following the 3-layered model, including: 1) wider societal, political and economic context of the period; 2) main reform policies in vocational education and training followed by systemic changes in VET; 3) central institutions and actors (incl. international donors and experts) involved and policy instruments used.

Expected Outcomes

In our analysis 7 periods with different societal climate were identified having impact on developments and status of VET:
• The period of Stalinism (1944-1953)
• Khrushchev’s thaw (mid1950s - beginning of the 1960s)
• The stagnation period (frost): (late 1960s – mid1980s)
• “Perestroika” (smelt): (mid1980s – 1990/1991), time of Gorbachev
• the period of „cowboy capitalismi (1991-1996)
• the pre-accession period (establishment of the neo-liberal development path) 1997-2004
• the post-accession period (“the end of the history”) from the 2004 onwards.

In the period of Khrushchev’s smelt the education expansion, transition to the secondary vocational education and to the comprehensive secondary education begun. The transition culminated in the 70s and resulted in the differentiation of the secondary education (vocational vs general secondary).
This can be regarded as the turning point towards the emerging structural conflict between the general and vocational tracks, negative selection to vocational track and resulting lower esteem and status of VET in Estonian society. The vocational secondary education became the educational “dead end” for students and seriously damaged the reputation of vocational education. Acquiring the general and vocational training at the same time was difficult, and resulted in the growing drop-out rates (25-30%). By the Perestroika time (1987-1991) the vocational education track (vs general secondary education track) had become as the second choice option after the basic school. The fact that the reputation of vocational education and training among students, parents and the general public in Estonia remains relatively poor at the moment can partly be explained by the historical burden from Soviet times, when vocational education served as a lower-status career option (Helemäe, Saar, & Vöörmann, 2000). At the same time, the “new” VET policy, much influenced by the neoliberal standardization trends, has not been able to change this structural gap, which has become culturally embedded feature of the VET system until now.


CEDEFOP (2013). Quantifying skill needs in Europe. Occupational skills profiles: methodology and application. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
Đurić, I. (2012). The New Institutionalism(s): A Framework for Study of Public Policy in Post-conflict and Post-Communist Countries. Politička misao, 48 (5), 85-105.
Helemäe, J., Saar, E., & Vöörmann, R. (2000). Kas haridusse tasus investeerida?: hariduse selekteerivast ja stratifitseerivast rollist kahe põlvkonna kogemusel [Was it worth investing into education?: the selective and stratifying role of education based on the experience of two generations]. Tallinn : Teaduste Akadeemia Kirjastus.
Loogma, K. (2004). Töökeskkonnas õppimise tähendus töötajate kohanemisel töömuutustega [The meaning of workplace-learning in the context of labour force adaptation with work changes], PhD diss. Tallinn: TPÜ kirjastus.
Pärtel, K., & Petti, K. (2013). Kutseharidus 2013. Elanikkonna teadlikkus kutseõppes toimuvast ja kutsehariduse maine aastal 2013 [Vocational education 2013. Public awareness of vocational education field and the image of vocational education in 2013], Tallinn: Faktum & Ariko.
Sahlberg, P. (2010). Rethinking accountability in a knowledge society. Journal of Educational Change, 11, 45–61.
Seddon, T., Ozga, J. and Levin, J. S. (2013). Global Transition and Teacher Professionalism. In T. Seddon, John S. Levin (Eds). Educators, Professionalism and Politics. Global Transitions, National Spaces and Professional Projects (pp. 3–24). London and New York: Routledge.
Toots, A. (2009). “Brussels Comes via Helsinki: The Role of Finland in Europeanization of Estonian Education Policy”. Halduskultuur, Vol. 10, 58-73.
Ümarik, M., Loogma, K., & Hinno, K. (2010). Structural decoupling between the VET and the employment systems: challenges manifested in assessment of practical training. Journal of Education and Work, 23(2), 145 - 160.

Author Information

Meril Ümarik (presenting)
Tallinn University
School of Educational Sciences
Krista Loogma (presenting)
Tallinn University
School of Educational Science