Move to scrap university entrance exams gains speed

The hectic rush every spring as thousands of frazzled university applicants attend entrance exams has engendered even more talk than usual this year, as several fronts are pressing for dropping the demanding tests all together. The problem is finding a suitable replacement that would still be a fair determinant of applicant merits.

Opiskelijoita pääsykokeessa.
Over 800 individuals sat for a Helsinki University entrance exam to study computer science on Monday. Image: Mikko Koski / Yle

Finland has come a long way from the day when the upper secondary school matriculation exams served as the entrance exams to the country’s only university in Turku. Today’s upper secondary students barely finish cramming for their final school exams when they have to start in again with a frantic burst of study for a complicated round of university entrance exams.

“Young people who have completed their secondary education are immediately caught up in a new storm of entrance exams and testing. It is challenge to have to turn around and gear up for another major effort after they have just finished the other exams,” says Riitta Rissanen, CEO of the Rector`s Conference of Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences Arene.

Some argue the system as it is now places the university admissions threshold too high for many recent graduates. Figures from Statistics Finland show that in 2014, for example, only one-third of the graduates applying to higher education were accepted into programmes.

The problem has been debated for years, but now the Ministry of Education has shown an interest, too. Education Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen has recently founded a working group to examine how university admission standards could better incorporate earlier degrees and grades.

How to put everyone on the same foot?

Contemporary entrance exams often require months of preparation, and paid preparation courses are growing increasingly popular. This scenario puts some applicants at a disadvantage, as the courses are naturally dependent on money supply and location.

The VATT Institute for Economic Research is just one of the bodies that have assessed the problem, and their results released this spring recommend that the simplest way to replace the current system would be to create an admissions system based on the matriculation exams. Unfortunately, this would entail another inequality issue. 

“A good 40 percent of students that enter universities of applied sciences come straight from vocational study programmes. A matriculation exam-based system would pose the danger of favouring upper secondary school graduates,” says Vellu Taskinen, a specialist with the vocational schools’ union.

Students that complete vocation school in Finland may not receive the same grades in the same subjects as upper secondary school graduates, but they currently stand on equal ground with them when it comes to university admissions. The Education Ministry is now saddled with the task of creating a more streamlined entrance track that would place applications from different backgrounds on equal footing. A new system that relies on matriculation exams alone would not do the trick.

Others have floated the notion of amending or even doing away with the matriculation exams, but this is not likely, as it would also eliminate a long academic history in Finland, not to mention a major cohort measure of how schools and students are performing nationwide each year.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story

Finnish law grants its academic and applied science universities the right to choose their students. This right has been used to justify the complex entrance exams as the only way to pinpoint the most motivated individuals. The expensive and sprawling process is however seen as a burden by the many of the learning institutions, too.

“Certainly there are areas in which we could focus on the matriculation exam results more, in order to speed up the admissions process. But there are other areas in which the entrance exam will have to be preserved,” says Jouko Niinimäki of the UNIFI Federation of Finnish Universities.

Suitability for studies in social and health studies cannot be assessed solely on the basis of exam grades, for example. For many graduates who for one reason or another did not do as well as they would have liked on their matriculation exams, the entrance exams also present a second chance.

“A subject-specific entrance examination provides everyone with an equal opportunity, regardless of their background. Even so, the applicant’s motivation and interest could be even more strongly emphasized,” Rissanen says.

The ministerial working group has until next autumn to come up with a solution to the problem.

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