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Incentive to boost first-time university enrolment backfires as 1/3 of graduates opt for gap year

Last year only 250 secondary-school graduates benefited from a new quota designed to reserve more university places for first-time applicants, and the scheme appears to have backfired as even more prospective students have elected to postpone their university careers. Over 40,000 upper secondary students will graduate this spring – and a recent survey suggests that one in three plans to take a year off before starting tertiary education.

Ylioppilaskirjoitukset koulun jumppasalissa.
The spring 2017 matriculation exams started in February. Image: Heikki Saukkomaa / Lehtikuva

A new policy has made Finnish upper secondary students think twice about what university they will apply to, so as not to lose their favoured first-time applicant status.

If students fail to be accepted into their first-choice study programmes, they will have to re-apply for admission into a different programme and will lose their first applicant status, prompting one-third of this spring's graduates to plan to take a gap year.

Last spring was the first time the joint application process for tertiary education included a new first-time applicant quota. The quota required academic and applied sciences universities to reserve a certain number of starting places for students applying for the first time.

A key initiative of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä's government has been to get young people into the job market faster, but the first-time applicant quota was already decided by previous administrations led by PMs Jyrki Katainen and Alexander Stubb.

Average starting age: 24

Compared to figures from other countries, Finnish students begin their university studies when they are quite a bit older, at an average age of around 24.

Only 250 students benefited from the quota in its first year, however, meaning that they were admitted for further studies with a lower grade point total than applicants who didn't meet qualify for the quota.

Last autumn 45 percent (22,600) of the study places available were reserved for first-time applicants, with more than 36,000 deciding to accept enrolment. In other words, the vast majority of first-time applicants received a study place without the quota. A total of 47,500 university study places were on offer.

Kela: Students cannot refuse study places

The quota has spurred many students to be more tactical about their applications. Young people interested in a doctor's profession, for example, might apply to study medicine as a first choice, but forgo applying to study chemistry as a second choice – as was common in the past – to avoid losing the first-time applicant advantage.

"You could look at this from another perspective: now students who are accepted to study chemistry really want to be there and are very motivated. We should also remember that only accepting a study place leads to a loss of first-time applicant status, not the act of applying," says Ilmari Hyvönen of the Ministry of Culture and Education.

The state-owned benefits administrator, the Social Insurance Institution (Kela) nevertheless requires that applicants apply for and accept any study places that are offered to them if they are to be eligible for labour market benefits, for example. This is important because many young people plan to move away from home, even if a study place can't be found. If no job can be found, some kind of financial support might prove necessary.

"Current generation doesn't take risks"

Many guidance counsellors that work in Finnish schools say the quota has only had a negative effect.

"The quota seems to have lost its original meaning, as it only brought more uncertainty. There are many other factors associated with the phenomenon. It looks as if this generation is adverse to risks. Especially young women appear to want to make sure they don't make the wrong decision under any circumstances," says Jukka Vuorinen, chair of the national guidance counsellor association.

He says studies worldwide have confirmed that today's generation of young people experience fear of career planning, which has been dubbed "zeteophobia" by psychologist John Krumboltz.

"During uncertain times, avoiding risks is popular. Our society is plagued with uncertainty because we don't know which professions will persevere," says Vuorinen.

He blames the media for touting stories about redundancies and bankruptcies over good news on the economy. 

"This is probably due to the work situation of the journalists. But isn't not all bits and bobs, there are still stable careers and jobs that people enjoy. Things on the work-front are much better than they are projected to be."

Universities in Finland can decide for themselves how many of their starting positions they will reserve for first-time applicants. The Medical Studies Department of the University of Helsinki, for example, decided to hold 100 study places for newcomers this spring out of 150 available.

A year to recover

The 'When School Ends' report published two days ago suggests that close to a third of upper secondary school students, 29 percent, plan to take a gap year between the Finnish version of high school and further studies. Close to 38 percent of the female students planned to take a year off from studies and do something else.

Economic Information Office director Liisa Tenhunen-Ruotsalainen, who commissioned the study, said young peoples' exhaustion after their demanding matriculation exam study regime is also a reason many people need to take a break.

"The programmes people are applying for are changing. I have tried sell young people the new more comprehensive Bachelor's degree options in Helsinki and Tampere, in which students don't have to choose a major subject until they are in university," says Vuorinen.

The number of Finnish students electing to start their higher education in a different country has been growing steadily since 2006, Vuorinen says. The most popular countries for Finns to study in 2015-2016 were Sweden, the UK and Estonia.

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