Revamping student admissions to raise national education levels

Following a 2019 OECD report recommending that Finland revamp its university admission system “to prevent youth marginalisation”, the government of Sanna Marin has introduced changes to student intake regulations for higher education. The aim is to ease the transition from secondary to tertiary education and thereby to boost national education levels.

While most applicants in the past had to submit their high school diplomas and sit for a department-specific entrance exam, the reform allows some applicants with good school-leaving certificate grades to be admitted directly to some study fields, with no entrance exam.

Sliding behind other countries

The OECD found that at 41%, the ratio of highly educated people in Finland aged 25 to 34 years remains below the average among similar groups in European Union and OECD countries. The OECD average is 44% educated at university level.

The study revealed that while Finland's proportion of tertiary educated citizens rose between 2008 and 2018, along with other countries, Finnish higher education has been lagging behind most of the other 35 member states of the OECD. Countries with the same proportion of highly educated citizens as Finland include Latvia, Austria and Slovenia.

But in 2008, Finland topped the charts counting proportions of degreed people. During the past 10 years, other countries have expanded their higher education systems while Finland’s has remained largely the same.

Finland's long-term goal is to have about 50% of the population educated at university or technical college level by 2030. To reach that objective, it must increase the number of university-level graduates by 9% over a decade. The growth rate of Finland's tertiary graduates from 2008 to 2018 was three percentage points.

The Ministry of Education and Culture said that Finland's low score was due to the fact that tertiary education usually begins at a later age (24 years old) than the OECD average (22 years old).

Two rounds of joint applications

Starting from 2020, the joint application to higher education has been divided into two separate joint applications. In the first, one can apply to degree programmes offered in English as well as courses offered by the University of Arts, starting in the autumn term. In the second round, one can apply to degree programmes offered in Swedish and Finnish.

There have been two processes regarding student admission.

1) Reform in the student admission process was launched by universities, supported by the Ministry of Education and Culture. In the reform, universities increased the share of the student intake based on results in upper secondary education.

2) In spring 2020, large-scale entrance exams could not be held safely due to COVID-19. Universities were forced to develop admission processes at very short notice. One of the solutions was to increase the student intake share based on secondary school records.

Likewise, there have been two separate processes regarding increasing student numbers.

1) The vision for Finnish higher education and research in 2030 was prepared by the Ministry of Education and Culture together with universities and universities of applied sciences. It sets the target of 50% of people with degrees, and accordingly universities have raised the number of students admitted for 2020 and in plans for the following year.

2) Sanna Marin’s government introduced remarkable additional funding to the higher education sector in 2020 to further increase the number of new students admitted. This was done to help young people and society recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

Record student intake

In 2020, a total of 151,700 people applied for admission to universities and universities of applied sciences. When the selection was published in mid-July, 29,000 were admitted to universities of applied sciences and 23,000 to universities – 4,000 more students than in 2019.

Finland has one of the most selective university admission systems in the world. Over the past decade institutions have accepted only a third of those who applied.

The admission system is based on secondary school results plus an entrance exam for fields in high demand, with a proportion of available study places awarded to students who were not successful in the first intake. But the proportions of the two groups have changed significantly.

For instance, this year 75% of study places in medicine were awarded based on the secondary school certificate, while 93% of study places in psychology were allocated on this basis, making it increasingly difficult to achieve a study place based on entrance exams.

Some 7,300 people took the online test to enter medicine; only 10% of those applying succeeded. In the social sciences the success rate was 13%. Technology fields were the easiest to get into – 41% of those who applied, succeeded in securing a study place.

By mid-July the Finnish National for Education Agency said that 80% of first-time applicants and half of all students admitted were accepted on the basis of the secondary school certificate, 40% via entrance exams and the rest using other selection criteria.

How universities compare

In total 5,043 students were accepted to English taught study programmes out of 20,094 applicants or 29%, and 40% of applicants were accepted for masters degree studies. Most of the students accepted were Finnish and the next most represented nationalities were Vietnamese and Russian, the Finnish National Agency for Education reported.

Traditionally, universities with Swedish language tuition are the easiest to get admitted to, such as Åbo Akademi University located mainly in Turku and Novia University of Applied Sciences, which has campuses in Vaasa, Turku, Raseborg and Jakobstad.

Most difficult to get into are the University of the Arts in Helsinki – which specialises in fine arts, music and theatre – and Laurea University of Applied Sciences, which has six campuses in the Helsinki-Uusimaa.

At the University of the Arts, 3,689 people applied for 266 study places, with an acceptance rate of 7%. The acceptance rate at Laurea University of Applied Sciences was 8% and at Diaconia University of Applied Science it was 9%.

The university that receives the most applications each year is the University of Helsinki, where number of applicants to bachelor courses was 31,192, of whom 3,866 were admitted – a 12.4% admission rate.

When comparing the number of applicants to available student places, the most popular degree programmes at the University of Helsinki this year are in law, psychology and medicine. The number of applicants to bachelor degrees grew the most in the faculty of social sciences and the faculty of arts, as well as in forestry and teacher education.

Some responses

There are some concerns about the ability of the post-COVID economy to absorb a growing number of graduates.

Due to the coronavirus crisis the number of young people without work in spring increased from 30,000 to 40,000. In June some 45,000 students were graduating from universities, entering the job market and adding to a difficult situation for youth.

Dr Tanja Risikko, executive director of the rectors’ organisation Universities Finland or UNIFI, told University World News: “The 50% goal by 2030 is realistic. The goal can be achieved, provided that the universities are adequately resourced and can thus maintain high quality in education.”

SYL – the National Union of University Students in Finland – which represents 132,000 students, believes the admission system still needs improving. On the day that university acceptance results were published, SYL board member Paula Karhunen wrote in a SYL blog:

“For more than 10 years, attempts have been made in Finland to move young people from secondary education into higher education faster. The fact that people have gone [on] to achieve this does not mean that they have completed the process. No one has had a proper overall picture of how these constant changes impact on young people and applicants in general. Instead, the applicant gridlock is still a reality.”

“There are fears that admissions based on exam results will 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,” Karhunen wrote.