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The story of the birth of EBS, or how Estonia’s first private school got its start

1988. This year marks a number of important events in Estonia’s history, the recounting of which would take a great deal more time than a student is given to complete a macroeconomics exam. The Singing Revolution, the declaration of Estonian as the national language, the acceptance of Estonia’s declaration of sovereignty from the USSR – these are only a few of the most important events that took place in 1988.

In December of that year an event took place in Estonia’s academic life, one that failed to garner much attention in a society that was already brimming with changes, although it did play a significant role later on in the development of Estonia’s higher education system. Namely, Professor Madis Habakuk established a cooperative with American Peter Marshal Fitzgerald and Estonian-Canadian Ilmar Martens, which was supposed to begin teaching Estonia’s leaders English and how to run a business. The cooperative was given a grand English language name – Estonian Business School (EBS) – and Estonia’s first private educational institution was born. But how was this even possible in Soviet Estonia, which was located firmly behind the Iron Curtain?

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev had risen to power three years earlier in the Soviet Union, which covered 1/6 of the surface of the Earth. He caught the eye of people not only with his youth – in 1985, Gorbachev General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was but 54 years old – but also with his innovative ideas. Gorbachev’s ideas were supposed to lift up a country that had fallen into an ever deepening economic and social crisis.

Residents of the Soviet Union heard words like perestroika, meaning reconstruction, and glasnost, meaning openness. In addition, under the leadership of Moscow, economic reform was also placed under the microscope in order to add free market economy elements to what had thus far been a planned economy. One of those elements was permission to engage in private enterprise. This was a big deal, since private enterprise had, until now, been a criminal offence in the Soviet Union.

Private enterprises were given the green light in 1987, when the more active citizens of the Soviet Union, with permission from Moscow, began to create joint undertakings with western investors. Joint companies were formed in Estonia, primarily with Finnish and Swedish partners, and in 1990 there more than 80 joint undertakings registered. The founding of the first cooperatives in Estonia also began in 1987; that is, people began to get involved in small businesses. Cotton candy that was as fluffy as a cloud and sweet waffles, video bars and other heretofore unseen things probably come to mind for everyone who was already wearing a collar at the end of the 1980s.

However, running a business required knowledge, found through foreign partners, which Estonians in the Soviet Union simply didn’t have. At the time, economics was taught at Tartu State University (currently the University of Tartu) and the Tallinn Polytechnic Institute (currently TalTech), although there was little to be done with the truths of a socialist economy in the face of awakening free market conditions. Entrepreneurship, finances, sales, marketing, foreign trade, the English language – all of these, and a lot of additional knowledge required for managing a business, would have to begin to be acquired from somewhere.