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Minister: Growing demand for costly uni exam prep courses "alarming"

Prep course firms say sales have increased across all subjects and predict that younger pupils may begin prepping too.

Vasemmistoliiton puheenjohtaja Li Andersson.
File photo of education minister Li Andersson. Image: Yle

Education minister Li Andersson says she's concerned about the growing trend for young people to pay for prep courses to ensure good grades in high school matriculation exams. Responding to reports about the increasing popularity of the exam prep programmes, Andersson said that the main idea of Finland's public secondary education system is to offer everyone equal opportunities to learn.

"From an educational point of view this is an alarming trend. I hope that the demand [for such courses] does not increase because the whole point of high school education is to equally prepare students for matriculation exams," Andsersson told Yle's radio breakfast programme Ykkösaamu.

The minister also said she sees the price private prep courses cost as an issue of equality, because not all students have the means to pay for the extra help, adding that the best way to solve the issue would be to secure adequate funding for secondary education.

"Students should feel that they have adequate support from their teachers, without having to reach out to commercial entities. But if someone wants to [take a course], of course I can't stop them," Andersson said.

Securing a university place

For years now, students in Finland have increasingly been taking private courses to prepare themselves for university entrance exams. Traditionally, it has been upper secondary school pupils nearing university and college age.

However new and stricter admissions criteria at colleges and universities have led to dramatic increases in students wanting to take exam prep courses. Some companies are offering courses to students who aren't even in high school yet, according to the CEO of prep course firm Eximia, Pasi Petäjä.

"We see a clear development, in the future students will be taking prep courses as early as the ninth grade," Petäjä said.

Eximia has offered prep courses for years and their popularity has grown. For example, more than three quarters of students enrolled in law school have taken a prep course at least once, he said.

The cost of a prep course can reach up to thousands of euros.

Effects of the reforms

Due to education reforms carried out during the Juha Sipilä administration, the way young students are accepted into colleges and universities has changed.

These days around half of uni students are accepted to the institutions based solely on their high school grade point averages. Students with enough of the highest marks (laudatur and eximia cum laude approbatur) are able to skip college entrance exams entirely, and in turn don't even need to consider paying for pricey prep courses.

But this development has not appeared to hurt the bottom lines of Finland's main prep course firms.

Some exam prep companies have begun offering so called high school preparation "abitreenit" courses to ninth graders to help them do better on their matriculation exams.

The number of younger students taking courses like these increased this year, according to Petäjä, who added that he thinks these types of classes will increase in number by three or four times over the next few years.

A similar trend is being seen at Eximia's competitor, Valmennuskeskus, according to the firm's managing director Janne Nousiainen.

"Sales of high school prep courses have increased across all subjects of study. The largest growth was seen in native language courses, which have quintupled compared to last year. The number of youths taking mathematics courses has quadrupled," Nousiainen said.

Early start to university

The aim of the school admissions reforms was to encourage students to begin university sooner, as well as to reduce the influence that the prep courses were having on the process.

However, it appears the reforms have had the opposite effect. The heads of the prep course firms said they think that young people are staying in high school longer in order to improve their final grades.

"Youths in Norway are increasingly staying put in high school to get better marks. This [has the effect of] lengthening the timeline of final exams and has led to more people taking gap years," Eximia's CEO Petäjä said, referring to the increasing practice of young people taking time off from school before starting college or university.

Targeting younger students

The prep firm chiefs both said their companies are preparing to coach primary school students aiming to get into the high school of their choice.

"This will unavoidably lead to a situation where increasingly younger students will be competing with each other. Pupils in primary school will compete for spots at secondary education schools with students having the most laudatur grades," Nousiainen explained.

However, even though the interest in prep courses by increasingly younger students is good for business, the development is not entirely positive, Nousiainen said.

"This is a free country where people will continue to be able to get coaching services. But we don't think the competition between increasingly young pupils is a good thing," he said, noting that the firm tried to warn officials of possible downsides of the reforms when the Sipilä administration was developing them.

"But our views were not heard," Nousiainen said.

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