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The Ministry of Education and Culture is swiftly pushing forward with the reform of student admissions to higher education institutions (http://minedu.fi/opiskelijavalinnat-ja-yhteistyo). The reform would mean that over half of all study places would be determined based on the certificate of matriculation from 2020 onwards. The Ministry’s aim with the reform is to achieve faster transitions from general upper secondary schools (lukio) to higher education institutions.

In this text, I will highlight three crucial observations on the realisation of the student admissions reform.

1) The schedule is too tight

The general upper secondary school students who the reform concerns have already begun their studies and made choices on which subjects to study that affect their matriculation examination. A reform that is implemented on such a tight schedule does not treat general upper secondary school students fairly or give the institutions sufficient time to be reformed.

Universities face challenges with reconciling certificate-based admissions with admissions based on entrance exams, which would remain as an option. The problem arises from the schedule: applicants who are not selected in certificate-based admissions must be able to sign up for entrance exams, but the results of the entrance exams must be available early enough for students to be able to get an apartment and participate in the orientation weeks of the programmes they are accepted into at the University. A highly automated admissions process based on data systems could help, but developing such systems will take time.

2) General upper secondary schools are changing and must change

The all-round education given by general upper secondary schools will decrease, as students will face pressure to only study subjects that are useful in the higher education application process. At the same time, preparatory courses might move into general upper secondary schools and studies in the schools stretch to four years for an increasing number of students. If this happens, the aim to make the transition from secondary to higher education faster would come to nothing.

It is unreasonable to assume that a 16-year-old from Hylkysyrjä could anticipate the discipline they will study in the future with any certainty. It is important to both retain the possibility to make mistakes on educational paths and retain a route to higher education for late bloomers in the future, too.

We do not have to look far for examples of people who fared poorly in general upper secondary school but still succeeded adequately in life: President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö, who was just elected for his second term, had an average grade of 6,5 (on a scale of 4 to 10) from theoretical subjects in general upper secondary school (https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-6140770).

Whatever you think of the reform, if it were realised, general upper secondary education would have to be reanalysed and the contents of the matriculation examination reconsidered to better correspond to the needs of admissions to higher education institutions. At the same time, the need for quality study counselling would increase: the career plans of general upper secondary school students must become clearer than before during their second year at the latest.

3) The new scoring model is the least of our worries

As part of the certificate-based admissions, a new scoring tool that considers the different grades in a matriculation examination in relation to each other will be taken into use. The programmes that students apply to at the University would be able to choose one out of three scoring tables: i) a basic table, ii) language table or iii) mathematical table, with each table featuring a different composition of subjects from the matriculation examination. Universities could also decide not to apply any table, but there would be a strong pressure for a nationally uniform model. A draft for the scoring model is a good start, but it still has some faults in it.

The scoring tool does not take into consideration the two lowest grades that result in a pass in the matriculation examination (B and A), which creates an incentive to play it safe when choosing which subjects to include in the exam – which in turn decreases the aspect of all-round education. The grouping of the general studies subjects into different baskets is based too strongly on the perspective of the median student. The grouping does not recognise the diverse spectrum of different combinations of subjects that could be useful in university studies.

The tool is not developed by the Ministry of Education and Culture itself – it is the creation of a key project coordinated by the University of Helsinki (http://oha-forum.fi/hankkeet/karkihanke/). If we will actually move to national cooperation on admissions and to certificate-based admissions as per the Ministry’s goals, it would be sensible for the scoring to be as transparent and logical from the applicant’s perspective as possible.

The Student Union of the University of Helsinki commented on the scoring tool in January during the University’s internal round of comments. Other universities have also made statements on the details of the model. Currently, it seems that the worst problems of the model could still be fixed. After this, the tool would bring some clarity to the entire reform of student admissions from the applicant’s perspective.

Unless the Ministry of Education and Culture takes its foot off the gas, the problems concerning general upper secondary schools will remain unsolved.

Heikki Isotalo
Specialist, educational policy