Refugees who have been granted temporary protection are entitled to the same benefits and allowances as Estonian residents, and enjoy the same rights, including the right to study and work. However, as long as there is uncertainty about the course and duration of the war, it is not possible to predict how many refugees will remain in Estonia and for how long; this makes the challenge of integrating them into the Estonian education system and labour market even greater. Understandably, refugees are not prepared to make long-term decisions about their careers and their children’s education.
To provide refugees with timely and consistent information about the necessary administrative procedures, services (health care, labour market services), education and employment opportunities, regular information events have been organised centrally for local governments and education institutions. Among VET institutions, in addition to dedicated information events, existing and well-functioning networks have been used for regular information exchange (e.g. the network of heads of studies). Dedicated web pages in English, Russian, and Ukrainian have been created on the websites of relevant institutions (the Ministry of Education, Unemployment Insurance Fund, etc.), where supporting information is compiled. However, based on feedback from local governments and the local offices of the Unemployment Insurance Fund, direct contact and face-to-face communication have proved to be most effective in building mutual understanding. Estonian volunteers have made an invaluable contribution to supporting refugees, both with vital information and necessities for life.
Estonia is committed to offering children and young people from Ukraine the opportunity to pursue education at all levels, starting from early childhood education to vocational and higher education, while respecting Ukraine’s request to maintain their connection with the Ukrainian language and culture. Although more and more Estonian schools are recruiting Ukrainian educators, there is a growing need for e-courses on the Ukrainian language and culture for all ages, which could be used even if a school does not have qualified Ukrainian teachers.
A supplementary budget has been approved by the Parliament, which will provide, inter alia, EUR 76.7 million for the education of war refugees. EUR 6.2 million will be allocated to funding additional training places in VET. Extra opportunities will be created to learn the Estonian language, including extension of language immersion programmes in schools, summer camps for children and the young, training of Estonian language teachers for adults, and the adaptation of the popular e-language learning environment Keeleklikk to Ukrainian learners. In the long run, when planning the training offer, the aim is to develop the skills that Ukrainians need to rebuild their country (construction, technical systems, etc.).
Although a large share of refugees are highly qualified ‒ of those who have registered as unemployed, 63% have completed higher education and 10% vocational education ‒ their access to most higher-skilled jobs is limited without knowledge of the Estonian language. The adult education offer is channelled through State-commissioned training courses. During the next uptake rounds, VET institutions can apply for funding to provide retraining or continuing training courses that flexibly help refugees match their skills with job opportunities on the labour market. If necessary, such courses can be organised in Russian (generally, a quarter of State-commissioned courses have been held in Russian), and in case of more hands-on courses, many trainers are ready to work in parallel in both Estonian and Russian.
Although most Ukrainian refugees speak Russian and there are still many Russian speakers among Estonians, insufficient Estonian/Russian/English language skills pose a number of limitations. Estonian VET schools have accepted students from Ukraine whose first foreign language is, surprisingly, neither Russian nor English, but Polish. In 2020, the former Russian language groups in upper secondary VET transitioned to Estonian as the language of instruction. This means that they can still conduct up to 40% of studies in Russian, but the number of these curricula is limited and may not correspond to the preferences or previous training of Ukrainian students. However, both feedback from schools and statistics on the use of labour market services show that refugees are very motivated to learn Estonian. From the whole range of labour market services, refugees have so far registered the most for labour market training for the unemployed and jobseekers, and Estonian language courses.
In the field of VET, measures to ensure educational continuity of Ukrainian students build on the features of the Estonian VET system: high autonomy of VET institutions, free access to all VET programmes for all target groups, including adult learners, and close cooperation with employers in planning the training according to the needs of the labour market. VET institutions are in the best position for identifying and recognising students’ prior learning experiences and providing them with suitable learning opportunities.
VET students are most often enrolled in vocational orientation programmes. These 6-month to 1-year programmes allow for a high degree of individualisation of studies and are intended, inter alia, for students with migrant background to support them in choosing a suitable learning path, learning the language of instruction, and adapting to vocational training in the Estonian VET system. By the beginning of the next academic year, it will hopefully be clear how many of the students registered in VET schools will continue their studies in Estonia and how many will return to their homeland. Now that the first Ukrainian students have been studying in Estonian VET institutions for some time, the first challenges have emerged: recognition of previous studies can be complicated due to the differences between Estonian and Ukrainian VET curricula, schools need to recruit more Ukrainian teachers and support specialists and require additional training to identify the psycho-emotional problems of refugee students and support them.
Regarding the integration of Ukrainian adults through continuing VET, two large professional groups of refugees ‒ educators and medical professionals ‒ are offered opportunities for both employment and professional development. As of 23 May, 135 Ukrainian refugees have been recruited in two VET institutions and 89 general education schools. Most of them work as teachers or teacher assistants, but also as psychologists, speech therapists, support staff, supervisors, and study coordinators facilitating the adaptation of Ukrainian students. There are plans to arrange in-service training for Ukrainian education and youth workers to help them qualify for work in the Estonian education system (including language requirements). Currently, alternative ways are used to recruit them (temporary contracts or assistant teacher positions that do not require full qualification).
Health care colleges prepare to offer a continuing education programme to Ukrainian nurses, so that they can bring their VET qualifications in line with EU requirements for nurses (a regulated profession requiring applied higher education). The 3-year programme includes integrated language training and professional studies. Retraining and in-service training of care workers is also supported. Many Ukrainian nurses have already been employed as care workers in Estonian hospitals where Estonian language courses are provided for them in parallel.
As refugees are eager to work, many highly educated people have agreed to low-skilled jobs in the retail and service sector. The longer their stay in Estonia, the more important it becomes to offer them opportunities to improve their language skills and, if necessary, retrain. In addition to training courses, work-based learning has a great re- and upskilling potential that still needs to be explored.
As of 23 May, 4 716 children and young people from Ukraine have been registered in the Estonian Education Information System: 1 231 children in pre-primary education, 3 114 in basic education, 191 in general upper secondary education, and 180 in vocational education. Most refugees have settled in larger centres in the capital region of Tallinn and Harju County, and in Tartu, where the variety of the employment and training opportunities is the largest.
Compared to the number of refugees who have arrived in Estonia, many have still not been registered in schools. Based on the data of the Estonian Education Information System, about 39% of 14-year-olds and only 11.5% of 17-year-olds have joined the education system. There might be various reasons for that: young people continue their studies in Ukrainian schools remotely and/or support their parents in taking care of younger siblings. The challenge is to prevent older Ukrainian pupils from staying off the radar. Lack of information about their previous education history and preferences complicates longer-term planning to ensure suitable education and training opportunities for all.
The Estonian VET system is ready to offer flexible initial and continuous training opportunities for Ukrainian young people and adults. Further efforts are needed to inform the target group about the variety of programmes, sometimes dispel doubts about VET being a competitive and high-quality educational path, and match the expectations of Ukrainian learners and employees with the needs of the Estonian (and in the future, Ukrainian) labour market. This is only possible in close cooperation with education officials, VET schools, labour market services, and employers, in view of the rapidly changing situation in Ukraine and the world, and the resulting needs of the Ukrainian people.