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University applicant interest in hard sciences plummets

Universities have noted a severe drop in students applying to study mathematics, physics and chemistry in Finland this year, as hard sciences continue to lose their appeal. Many degree programmes also require applicants to have studied long maths, an upper secondary school course option that more and more youth are rejecting in favour of a shorter course of studies. Some feel the dearth of such students could come back to haunt Finland’s export industries some day.

Oppilaita matematiikan tunnilla.
Image: Yle

Applicants to Finland’s hard science university studies have taken a sharp dive, according to university application figures from this spring. The number of students applying to study mathematics, for example, has almost halved at some academic institutions in the last six years.

Part of the phenomenon can be attributed to smaller age group populations.

But a second contributing factor is the first-time applicant quota system adopted in Finland in 2016. In an effort to cut down on students applying to several different universities and degree programmes consecutively, the government has created a rule that gives first-time applicants preference. This has led to a situation where a student that wishes to eventually study medicine cannot start by studying chemistry at the university – a  foot in the door tactic widely used in the past – in the hopes of later gaining entrance to the medicine faculty, because they would be penalized as a second-time applicant. 

A third reason can be found in the secondary schools. Many upper secondary school students are rejecting the long course of math studies for the shorter alternative. Attendance in the long course of study in mathematics has more or less steadily eroded since the year 2000. The bottom line: too few students are studying advanced maths.

16-year-olds changing the economy

Many upper secondary students choose not to study advanced maths, or physics or chemistry because they don’t think they will ever need them. This could be a false assumption. Jouni Pursiainen is director of the Oulu University’s LUMA Centre, a nationwide organization working to encourage young people to study science, technology, engineering and maths.

Pursiainen says a good performance in advanced maths is a real leg up for anyone, opening doors to study many other subjects beyond the hard sciences specifically, such as the natural sciences, technology, economics and agriculture and forestry. He has calculated that a long course of study in mathematics is a prerequisite for 93 percent of the degree programmes at Oulu University.

He says the problem is that the upper secondary schools don’t do enough to prepare the students for higher education.

“Asking 15 and 16-year-olds to decide on their careers basically puts them in charge of the future direction of our economy,” Pursiainen said. 

Oulu University services director Kimmo Kuortti says that the more freedom students are given to choose their own course content, the more they will reject hard science.

Lack of persistence

Juha Sola, director of the Finnish Association for Teachers of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Informatics, has made the same observation. He says not near enough students are choosing to study the long course of mathematics. 

He says some of today’s students don’t have the tenacity to stick with studies that require more long-term investment. Although there will never be a shortage of good committed students in Finland, Sola says, there should be plenty more students that should be willing to give long maths a try.

“Many of them don’t want to do the work, to take the time and make the effort,” he says.

The business world is also growing concerned about a potential loss in scientific literacy in Finland’s future.

Mika Anttonen, Chairman of St1, a biofuels energy company with over 600 service stations in four countries, says Finland’s upper secondary schools are dropping the ball by introducing more selectivity in their core curriculum. He says it is a direct threat to Finland’s commercial success.

“If you give a teenager a choice: to work hard or not work hard and still have a decent diploma to show for it, you can guess what choice they will make, as least when it comes to the big picture.”

Anttonen asks upper secondary schools to consider what they can do to inspire students to study the hard sciences. He cites integral algebra as an example: a handy method for calculating the strength of bridges that he didn’t learn of until he was in university.

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