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Estonian Educational Landscape

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The education system is divided into the following parts:

  • Pre-school (pre-primary) education
  • Basic education
  • General Upper Secondary Education
  • Vocational Education (incl. Vocational Upper Secondary Education)
  • Higher education
  • Adult education

The principal objective of Estonia's educational system is to develop Estonian society into an open learning society, where every person is a lifelong learner.

The Education Act, adopted in 1992, states the following as the general goals of education: to create favourable conditions for the development of personality, family and the Estonian nation; to promote the development of ethnic minorities, economic, political and cultural life in Estonia and the preservation of nature in the global economic and cultural context; to teach the values of citizenship; and to set up the prerequisites for creating a tradition of lifelong learning nation-wide.

The most relevant trend during the recent years has been the growth in the number of students pursuing higher education due to the large share (over 50%) of students paying directly for their studies.

Number of Students by educational level

2007/ 2008 2008/ 2009 2009/ 2010 2010/2011
Basic education 121 405 116 254 113 083 111 455
Upper secondary education 33 666 31 265 28 719 26 993
Vocational education on the basis of basic education 18 454 18 567 18 645 17 832
Vocational education on the basis of secondary education 8 620 8 672 9 718 10 180
Higher education 68 168 68 399 68 985 69 113

Source: The Ministry of Education and Research


The state and local governments are responsible for children's education and studies in pre-school institutions. Pre-school education is acquired at a child care institution or at home. Child care institutions are: crèches – for children of up to 3 years of age; nursery schools – for children of up to 7 years of age; nursery schools for children with special needs – for children with special needs who are of up to 7 years of age. A nursery school may be combined with a primary school. A rural municipality or city government shall provide all children permanently residing in their administrative territory whose parents so wish with the opportunity to attend a child care institution in the catchment area. Participation in a child care institution is voluntary; a child may start school straight from home as well.

According to the Pre-School Childcare Institutions Act, education and schooling in a pre-primary institution should be based on the curriculum of the pre-primary institution, which complies with the national curriculum for pre-school child care institutions approved by the regulation of the Government of the Republic (2008).


Viimsi School is the biggest secondary school in EstoniaViimsi School is the biggest secondary school in EstoniaCompulsory school attendance generally begins at the age of 7 and lasts until completion of basic education or up to the age of 17. Basic education is acquired in basic schools, or in general upper secondary schools which have basic school classes and which cover the grades 1-9. Basic education is funded by the state budget and the local government. An academic year must include no less than 175 days and lasts from September 1st until June.

In lower secondary and secondary schools, there is a uniform grading system with a range from one to five, where "5" represents the best result and "1" the worst result.

For children with special needs compulsory school attendance may be fulfilled at mainstream schools or in special educational institutions.

Children of foreign citizens or stateless people who are residents of Estonia must fulfil the requirement of compulsory school attendance, except the children of official representatives of foreign countries.


Secondary education is a level of education that is based on basic education. Secondary education is divided into general secondary education and vocational secondary education. The acquisition of secondary education is a necessary prerequisite for continuing studies in institutions of higher education.

In order to complete a general upper secondary education, a three-year study period has to be completed. Like basic education, general secondary education is funded by the state and the local government.

The number of private general schools has increased after the regaining of independence. The state curriculum requirements are compulsory for all schools. In addition to these requirements, schools can teach extracurricular subjects or teach curricular subjects intensively. A student must pass at least three state examinations in addition to school examinations in order to receive a general secondary education certificate.


The main emphasis in vocational education lies in acquiring professional skills and practical experience. Vocational education institutions are primarily funded by the state. Vocational education may be acquired either after graduation from basic school or after graduation from upper secondary school. Since 2006 it can also be acquired by people who have not obtained their basic education. Studies in the vocational secondary education curricula on the basis of basic education last at least 3 years. The duration of studies in the post-secondary vocational education curricula on the basis of secondary education is from 0.5 to 2.5 years.

In the academic year 2010/2011 there were altogether 43 vocational education institutions in Estonia, 3 of which were owned by municipalities and 10 by the private sector. In addition, there were 8 applied higher education institutions which also provide vocational education curricula.

The network of vocational education institutions has been reorganized over the last 10 years. Several small vocational education schools have been merged to become regional vocational education centres who serve as a bridge between VET education and labour market.

Students can acquire either vocational secondary or vocational post-secondary non-tertiary educations in vocational education institutions. In 2000, the Estonian Parliament passed the Act of Recognition of Foreign Professional Qualifications.


education_tartu_universityThe University of Tartu was founded already in 1632The provision of higher education in Estonia began in 1632 with the establishment of the University of Tartu. Today, there are 33 institutions that provide higher education curriculums in Estonia; 15 of them are based on private capital. There are 9 universities, including 3 private universities, 22 institutions of professional higher education, and 2 vocational schools offering higher education programmes.

Higher education may be acquired as professional higher education or academic higher education. All persons with secondary education or foreign qualifications equal to that have an equal right to apply for a place in a higher education institution.

Professional higher education is provided in institutions of professional higher education or at universities' colleges. Two vocational schools also offer professional higher education programs. The standard period of study in professional higher education is three to four years (180-240 ECTS). A person who has completed professional higher education shall be awarded with a diploma. A professional higher education diploma enables access to Master's study.

At a university, higher education can be acquired at three levels: Bachelor's Study, Master's study and Doctoral study. The nominal duration of Bachelor's study is three to four years (180-240 ECTS), Master's study one to two years (60-120 ECTS), and Doctoral study three to four years (180-240 ECTS). The standard period of Bachelor's and Master's study is at least five years in total. Medical training, veterinary training, pharmacist training, dentistry training, architectural studies, civil engineering studies and teacher training are based on integrated curricula of Bachelor's and Master's study, the nominal duration of which is five to six years (300-360 ECTS).

Until 31.12.2011, state recognition of diplomas is based on the positive accreditation decision of the study programme. Since 2009 the right to hold studies in a study programme group and to issue the corresponding academic degrees and diplomas was given to higher educational institutions. In the years 2009-2011 both regulations are valid for issuing state-recognized diplomas. Starting in January 2012, an educational institution may issue only state-recognized graduation documents if the right to hold studies has been granted to the study programme group.

Estonia was a signatory country of the Bologna declaration in 1999 and has actively implemented most of its core instruments. A development strategy for higher education was approved by the Estonian Parliament in November 2006 in order to enhance the capacity for sustainable development of diverse Estonian-language higher education. The keywords are quality assurance, internationalisation, and doctoral studies.

In addition to academic studies, research is also carried out intensively at higher education institutions. Estonia has achieved world-class results in pharmacology-toxicology, environmental sciences, material technology, biomedicine, and semiotics.


Hobby education is an area of youth work that provides young people with knowledge and skills outside formal education. Hobby education is organised by local governments and legal persons. The local government budget has funding for cultural and youth issues, which is also used for financing hobby education.

The Hobby Schools Act (2007) sets the basis for the activities of hobby schools and centers. There are more than 300 sports, music, art, dance, language and drama schools, as well as culture and science centers in Estonia that provide young people with quality non-formal learning opportunities.


In 2009 the Development Plan for Estonian Adult Education 2009-2013 was accepted by the Government. The development plan aims to create possibilities for lifelong learning for the adult population and help to raise the competition abilities of Estonian society and enterprises.

The Adult Education Act is being renewed during 2010 and 2011. With this renewal the main aim is to increase the quality of adult education through clarified legal base and requirements for adult education institutions.

More information:

Estonian Ministry of Education and Research
Estonian Institute
Archimedes Foundation
INNOVE Foundation for Lifelong Learning Development
Estonian Science Foundation
Pathfinder: a comprehensive source of information about education, career planning, labour market, life and culture in Estonia
Statistical Office of Estonia
Language Immersion Centre