Time to invest in the internationalisation of ICT higher education
HEI 7(16): Regardless of the fact that the importance of information and communications technology (ICT) sector in Estonia's economy is relatively modest, the role of ICT can be regarded as fundamental to the development of the economy. The vast potential of information and communications technologies in supporting economic growth is expressed by the simple fact that, during the period preceding the recent property price bubble, 50% of the increase in the productivity of the economies in the OECD countries originated from nothing more than the efficient use of ICT and related organisational rearrangements which have been carried out in various other spheres of life.
However, far more important than the relative importance of the ICT sector in the GNP or export volumes is how cleverly information and communications technologies are used in other branches of the economy.
In Estonia, the past ten to fifteen years have seen the implementation of ICT for the first time and the development of a modern infrastructure. However, the potential of information and communications technologies is far from being fully exhausted. In the next few decades we will witness the continuous rapid growth of computing technology and communications networks. ICT systems will become smaller and more useful, and will be integrated more dynamically into the everyday objects that surround us.
However, progress in technology is not something that can be taken for granted. The economic growth of Estonia that until now has been based on the twin fundamentals of a rapid growth in the burden of debt in the private sector, and on domestic consumption during the past few years, is clearly a thing of the past. The stabilisation and future growth of the Estonian economy can only happen through an increase in export volumes - but the situation in the main export markets of Estonia is anything but favourable for a rapid increase in sales. Therefore, in addition to increasing its export volumes, Estonia needs to use every opportunity as its disposal to increase the efficiency of those branches of the economy that provide services for the country's domestic market.
What to focus on in the process of the smart application of ICT?
The deceleration of economic growth puts strong pressure on Estonia to terminate activities that have become unpractical and to modernise the organisation of work. It must also be noted that the potential of ICT in supporting such rearrangements is substantial. In the next stage of economic growth the winners will be those who remembered to invest in innovative development trends with a growing market demand during the hard times.
The decreasing number of students forces us to modernise Estonian's educational system, and the aging population in Estonia and Europe generates the need to make substantial changes to a number of spheres of life such as modernising the medical care system. For that reason, each step taken with the help of ICT towards making the educational or health care systems more efficient is worth millions.
In the next few years, when looking for new opportunities for increasing the country's export volumes, the most rational choice for Estonia would be to focus first and foremost on those branches of the economy that have so far made up the majority of Estonian export volumes. In these areas, even a relatively small growth will have a remarkable impact on the economy as a whole. Therefore, every opportunity to raise the additional value of the exporting industry is crucial for the development of Estonia's economy. What is more, Estonia needs to use every opportunity to apply ICT in order to make the consumption of energy as efficient as possible.
In Estonia, there is one very good example illustrating how economic challenges can be transformed into future strengths. Some years ago, Estonian banks needed to reach their customers without having to make substantial additions to their network of offices, which forced them to start applying ICT solutions before such solutions were used in other countries, and this decision turned Estonia into a country that had one of the most efficient e-banking systems. Similarly to e-banking, the ID-card and the e-elections have a decisive role to play among the ICT-related accomplishments of Estonia, and the country's strength in developing ICT solutions and ICT security systems for the financial sector needs to be retained and developed even further.
In all the spheres of life given above the needs of Estonia correspond more or less to the increase in the global demand for corresponding ICT solutions. Therefore, by approaching the issue skilfully, Estonian entrepreneurs have good chances of exporting ICT solutions created and already applied in Estonia to other countries of the world.
Strengthening the offer of the ICT workforce
For the ICT sector, the current adjustment period of the economy signifies an increase in market demand. However, at present the lack of qualified workforce can be felt very clearly, and this prevents Estonia from making the most of the smart application of ICT systems. The lack of international business management skills and experience and insufficient knowledge of foreign markets is a hindrance to the product development and export activities of ICT companies.
Despite the downturn in the economy, companies still do not have enough ICT specialists but, at the same time, every third ICT student leaves university during the first year of his or her studies. In the next four to five years, the number of students accepted to universities is expected to decrease twofold. Unfortunately, the current ICT higher education in Estonia is not particularly popular among foreign students. Should things continue developing in the same way that they have been so far, in a few years' time the situation regarding the available ICT workforce in Estonia will become even more critical than it is now.
There are good ICT professors in Estonia but there are simply too few of them. In order to breathe new life into ICT, and for the corresponding curricula of various universities to appeal to the brightest students of our neighbouring countries and to the future workforce of Estonia, six to eight more ICT professors with strong knowledge in the field need to be brought to Estonia, just as was done in Ireland and Singapore. In addition to "importing" foreign lecturers, investments in the strengthening of international technology and business management should be made as well.
It is time to get on with it!
There is nothing particularly novel about admitting that in order to sustain and raise the quality of Estonian higher education it needs to become much more international than it is now. Now it is time to get on with it!
The decisive internationalisation of ICT higher education will not only relieve the shortage of the ICT workforce but will also help Estonia to use the opportunities of new technology to enhance the country's export activities and cut down on expenses during difficult economic times.
This is the only way for us to maintain our place among the top smart users of ICT.
This article is based on EST_IT@2018, a project monitoring the future of information and communications technology carried out by the Estonian Development Fund during this year (the year 2008).