Admissions should never be a conveyor belt

Paula Karhunen describes an emerging battle over the Finnish admissions system between those who want to speed up and slow down progression to HE.

Paula Karhunen is a board member at SYL, the Finnish National Union of Students

Back in the summer here in Finland, social media was once again swamped with screenshots of students’ admissions results.

But for more than half the applicants who wanted to get in, the doors to higher education did not open this year.

Don’t worry, try again next year.”

Most applicants get into university within a few years of their first application.”

These were phrases that students heard but that did not necessarily give any comfort. Being rejected at the door to higher education can cause strong feelings of failure – the situation is likely crushing for many people. At SYL, our version of the National Union of Students, we try to stress that students are not alone, and that that can get help. Not getting into university does not mean they have failed – the system also failed on their behalf.

A decade of policy change

Traditionally in Finland we take transition to higher education slowly. Not everyone knows exactly what they want to do or what they want to study at 16 or 18, so rather than a “conveyor belt”, systems and structures have grown up to help students find their passion and talent.

But maybe we take it too slowly. For more than 10 years now, attempts have been made in Finland to move young people from secondary education into higher education and therefore the labour market faster – here tertiary education usually begins at a later age (24 years old) than the OECD average (22 years old) and the UK average (even younger) – and to increase overall the number of young people that become graduates.

But the fact that policy makers have gone to a lot of trouble to achieve these things does not mean that they have completed the goal. Changes have been piecemeal, and no-one has had a proper overall picture of how constant changes impact young people and applicants in general. Instead, an applicant gridlock is still a reality.

One of the main ways that policy makers have tried to do all this is through what is called “First timer’s quotas”. Universities and other higher education institutions have to reserve study places for applicants who have not accepted a study place in a degree programme or completed a degree in a Finnish higher education institution before – all to free up capacity.

Tight squeeze

The question of capacity is important because Finland has a very selective university admission system in comparison to many other countries. Over the past ten years institutions have accepted only a third of those who apply, through a system based on secondary school results plus an entrance exam for fields in high demand. This year to add to the “first timer’s” quotas, before Covid-19 universities agreed to increase the share of the student intake based just on secondary education exams.

So this spring would have been problematic even without the coronavirus. But then the pandemic meant that entrance exams could not be held safely – and one of the solutions was to increase even further the share of students admitted on the basis of secondary school records.

Impacts

First timer’s quotas have not been the right way to speed up the transition into higher education. Because the quotas are different on different courses in different universities, they cause people to try to apply tactically and put applicants in an unequal position.

There are fears that admissions based on exam results alone break down the “all-round” education of upper secondary school and universities’ autonomy to choose their students – as well as putting even more pressure on young people when they are making their choices. A combination of grade-based admissions and the first timers’ quota might push a young person into a field that does not feel right for them and lose them their “first timer’s place”.

University entrance exams are not without their problems either. They do make it possible to get into university regardless of the choices that an applicant might have made in secondary school. But it is nerve-racking to potentially spend hundreds of hours reading exam materials under pressure, while being aware that it might all be for nothing. Improvements have been made to the entrance exam process with the aim to shorten the study times and make the entrance exams independent from prep courses, but there is still some way to go.

Overall it is still the case that for the majority of applicants, those who did well in their school exams are also more likely to do well in an entrance exam. Those with good grades in long maths and their mother tongue often do well in their university studies. In a way it is understandable to try to move these applicants straight into university without forcing them to go through a tough entrance exam process. But the various calculations, trade offs and tactics that students have to make are not ideal.

Understanding impacts

It will be interesting to see what impact all this is having on the access to education when the VATT Institute for Economic Research and the Labour Institute for Economic Research publish their work on the impact of admissions reform at the end of this year. Will it be the case that those who know what they want and are successful in their studies will find it even easier to get into university? Or will it be the case that those who are still trying to find their place and who do not get the top grades in their exams will do worse than ever?

The sad aspect of the reforms overall is that every year they increase the proportion of applicants that feel they have failed when they do not get into university at the first attempt.

Our message at SYL is – not getting into university does not mean you have failed, and we want to influence admissions reforms to address this.

For those that have got in, our message to new students is keep your heart and mind open – to new adventures, strange minor subjects, and new acquaintances. Economists may be angry with us when we encourage students to drift a bit and search for their own thing, but students should! I drifted straight into the students’ union and on to the Board of SYL. You never know what you will find or where you will end up, and surely that is the best part of being a student?

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