PIAAC challenges Estonia

Estonian participation in the PIAAC programme put to the test the expertise of the survey’s conductors and the competence of its analysts.


13,000 Estonian people were given an opportunity to test their readiness to share their skills with others – that is the number of letters sent out, asking the addressee to first contact the organisers of the inquiry.

The PIAAC survey in Estonia was carried out by the Ministry of Education and Research in cooperation with Statistics Estonia. The survey was financed by the programme PIAAC Estonia of the European Social Fund.

Unique study for Estonia

During 2011 and 2012, more than 165,000 people aged 16 to 65 in twenty-four countries took part in the study. The Estonian sample was large, and the number of people who filled in the questionnaire was also unexpectedly high in comparison to previous surveys: 7,632 filled in the questionnaire.

The uniqueness of the PIAAC survey Tean ja oskan was emphasised by the then (2012) Minister of Education Jaak Aaviksoo, who noted in the Introduction that the information processing skills of Estonian adults have not been measured on such a large scale before. “The number of people taking part in the PIAAC is impressive considering the Estonian context – the data gathered from more than 7,600 people enables analysing the skills of rather diverse groups of adults and provides an invaluable source for scientists and analysts from different fields.”

Minister Aaviksoo also pointed out another aspect relevant for Estonia: the programme has provided an opportunity to get involved in the Nordic PIAAC Network, which has as one of its main goals the creation of a common database along with Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The database would, in addition to the collected data, also contain the data from various registries. “It’s delightful to be among the Nordic countries in that respect and contribute to the cooperation between state agencies on centralising registry data. To do it along with the countries possessing the best registries in the world is certainly proving to be an excellent learning experience.”

Preliminary results

In the PIIAC survey Tean ja oskan, literacy, numeracy and problem solving in the context of technology-rich environments were measured. The first results were published on October 8, 2013. Reports on various topics will be published in the course of the next two years: reports about Estonia on the initiative of the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research of Estonia; reports about Nordic countries on the initiative of five countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Estonia); and reports on the international scale on the initiative of the OECD. The results provided by the PIAAC surveys have contributed to the creation of the Estonian Lifelong Learning Strategy and the programmes connected to it.


We know from the student assessment survey PISA that Estonian youngsters’ general knowledge ranks above the average in Europe and the OECD countries (with 521 points, Estonia belongs to the countries whose score remains above the OECD average of 494). Estonian people have no reason to feel ashamed of their general level of education, but until now there was no information as to whether the PISA results reflect the situation among Estonian adults, many of whom received their education during the Soviet era.

Literacy and numeracy are well developed, but computer skills are surprisingly low

The level of literacy and numeracy in Estonia allows us to conclude that the quality of education in Estonia withstands global competition. Estonian young people below 30 with elementary and secondary education are among the best in the world – in only a few countries did the corresponding groups show better results. The skills of Estonian young people with higher education are at the average level.

The scores for computer skills, courage to use computers and problem solving in the context of technology-rich environments are lower than expected. Only one in four adults has good or very good problem solving skills. 30% of adults cannot or dare not use new technology. 10% of Estonian working-age people have never used computers, and almost 16% feel clearly insecure using computers. Practical computer skills are lower among the elderly less-educated men; insecurity is more common among women above middle age.

Low problem solving skills, especially among people with higher education, and insecurity in using computers were the most surprising results of the preliminary analysis.

With regard to skills, Estonian society seems to be rather egalitarian: discrepancies between people with different education levels and marital status, as well as gender differences, are relatively small in comparison with other countries. This is good from a democratic point of view, but it comes at a price. More attention should be paid to the differences caused by geopolitical aspects, mother tongue and the lack of exceptional talents.

It is worth mentioning that the principle “use it or lose it” applies well to skills: acquired skills are easily lost if they are not put into use in everyday life or work.

The topic of skills is elaborated in the general report “Skills and lifelong. learning: who could Estonia learn from, what could Estonia learn” („Oskused ja elukestev õpe: kellelt ja mida on Eestil õppida“ (by Ellu Saar, Marge Unt, Kristina Lindemann, Epp Reiska, Auni Tamm), in which participation in lifelong learning in Estonia is compared to that in five other countries (Finland, Germany, Great Britain, Czech Republic and Russia) and to the average result of 21 OECD countries who took part in the PIAAC survey.

The authors point out that adult participation in formal and non-formal learning in Estonia remains at the average level of the OECD countries. Inequality between sociodemographic groups is at the average level, too. Finland stands out as a country with a high percentage of participation in adult education and a low degree of inequality between participants. At the same time, the level of participation in formal learning among Estonian elderly people is significantly below the respective indicators for Finland and Great Britain.

Representatives of the sociodemographic groups in most acute need of both formal and non-formal education are often excluded from education. In Estonia, intergroup differences in participation rates are in line with the OECD average. Individuals’ education levels and information processing skills have an impact on whether they participate in formal or non-formal learning. In Estonia, as in the other OECD countries, people who actually take part in formal learning have very good skills.

The most important result of the analysis is the conclusion that the content of work and specific features of the work environment have a stronger impact on participation in formal or non-formal learning than the features of a person (including the level of education and skills). Half of the adults participate in learning because they want to enhance their work performance. The second reason for getting involved is the desire to gather more knowledge and skills in an interesting field.

Better provision of formal or non-formal learning requires more thorough co-ordination and cooperation between the parties involved (e.g. the formal education system, agencies of non-formal learning, Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund, employers, etc.) in order to guarantee the relevant content of courses and pathways from non-formal to formal learning.

Estonian employers support their employees’ participation in formal education in fewer cases than employers in the other OECD countries. In the case of non-formal learning the discrepancy is smaller. Employers’ support evades groups needing it the most (e.g. employees with part-time jobs).

Obstacles on the way of attending lifelong learning in Estonia are more or less similar as in other OECD countries. The most frequent impediments are a heavy work load, the cost of courses and family commitments. Women consider the responsibility towards their family and the cost of education as the biggest impediments.

Acquiring new skills is more important than improving the existing skills

The survey’s authors suggest that in planning specific programmes, the focus should not be placed solely on skills enhancement; instead, the demand for skills should also be taken into account. Skills enhancement does not necessarily bring along better opportunities on the job market if the skills in question are not needed or if the economic situation favours less skilled workers with a lower salary. Therefore enhancing the skills of people with more modest skills and knowledge should be connected to programmes directed to workplace innovation (work culture, organisation of work, etc.).

In addition to the preliminary report concerning the lifelong learning, the Ministry of Education and Research will publish seven exhaustive reports on specific topics.


Tiina Jääger

Estonian Non-formal Adult Education Association, programme manager

PIAAC results for Estonia were remarkable in several aspects.

  • Information-processing skills among people with higher education are relatively poor in Estonia. When it comes to problem solving skills, Estonian people with higher education come bottom in comparison to adults with similar education levels in other countries;
  • Our people's information-processing skills start to deteriorate at an earlier age than in many other countries.
  • Demand for skills in the Estonian job market is low;
  • A good education does not equal good skills in Estonia. Almost a quarter of people with very poor skills have higher education; at the same time, 8.1% of participants with excellent skills have only basic education.

The priority target group in adult education for the next seven years are the people with lower education and qualification levels. Considering the PIAAC results I would not exclude the adults with higher education, but rather base the planning process on the participants’ needs. More attention must be paid to enhancing the key competences of the elderly learners.

Aune Valk

PIAAC Estonia programme coordinator

Considering the complexity of filling in the questionnaire, the sample size and the number of participants we can say that a survey of this kind has never been carried out in Estonia.

Yes, this was the first time in Estonia. According to Statistics Estonia, who collected the data, they have never conducted a survey on personal data with such a large sample before.

What kind of challenges did the organisers of the survey face during the preparation and implementation process?

There were many challenges, including those common to every questionnaire-based survey: e.g. how to find people whose postal address differs from their actual place of residence; the need to organise proper computers within a limited period of time; problems with software during the test survey; the need to hire new interviewers; how to reach the desired response rate – 70%. We worked intensively on the last issue and achieved 63%, which is good in comparison with many other surveys, but still below our requested margin.

Did the results for Estonia look similar to other countries, including the Nordic countries? What kind of differences and similarities stood out?

In general, the Estonian results were similar to those of other countries. Exchange of experiences was very helpful and we practiced it with the Nordic countries throughout the whole process. Discrepancies between the postal address and actual place of residence is a problem uniquely symptomatic of Estonia; it does not occur in the Nordic countries. The response rate proved to be problematic in all countries; in Finland it was higher than in Estonia, in Denmark and Sweden lower, and in Norway similar.  

Written by Eeva Kumberg for DialogWeb