Potential Changes to the Finnish Education System is Risky Business

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Last week the the Government Institute for Economic Research (VATT) proposed that the entrance examinations be replaced with an admission system based upon performance in the matriculation exam, a centralised register, and some clever algorithms to simplify the process. So how does this exactly change the process?

The National Board of Education in Finland has a motto of “equal opportunities to high-quality education.” Therefore, the system is highly permeable in that there are no dead-ends preventing progression to higher levels of education. There is an emphasis on pedagogy, and not testing. Thankfully, they have created a diagram to illustrate this.

 

The path of Finnish education - Finnish National Board of Education

The path of Finnish education – Finnish National Board of Education


The selection of students for upper secondary school is based on their grade point average for the theoretical subjects in the basic education certificate. Entrance and aptitude tests may also be used, and students may be awarded points for hobbies and other relevant activities. There are no national examinations, except for the matriculation examination, held at the end of upper secondary education. Admission to higher education is based on the results of this examination and entrance tests. Most students continue their studies after basic education – more than 90 per cent start general or vocational upper secondary studies immediately after basic education.  Vocational education and training is popular in Finland – more than 40 per cent start vocational upper secondary studies immediately after basic education.

Sanni Grahn-Laasonen, the minister of education and culture, is open to changes in the system. “The proposal makes a lot of sense. I am in favour of abolishing the strenuous entrance examinations,” Grahn-Laasonen wrote last Thursday on on her website. The VATT report aims to promote a general rule, that leaves the higher education’s autonomy to decide on selection criteria, and a central register that allocates places based on these ranks. Furthermore, the report argues that the current system limits people applying to more than one sector, and that the time required to prepare for entrance exams is restricting. Only a quarter of candidates participate in more than one entrance examination, and it’s argued that the new system would allow people to focus and learn what they like, as opposed to making specific choices regarding exams. “Society is wasting resources by forcing young people to read for the entrance exams. Changes would make sense for both efficiency and fairness, “Matti Sarvimäki notes in the report.

Speaking to Li Andersson, an MP for the Left Alliance, city councillor of Turku, and former chair of the party’s youth organisation, she was openly critical of Grahn-Laasonen’s response. “I think it is quite interesting that you have a minister of educational affairs which would express her support for a suggestion that is so poorly done.” There is a glaring omission in her view, “The researchers forgot that we have 50,000 students studying at the secondary level vocational schools. They just made this proposal based on the idea that you would give more emphasis to the matriculation exam done in the gymnasium, but forgot completely about the vocational school system. At the moment we have a good system, in the sense that you can continue on the higher education of any form, no matter if you took the matriculation exam or the vocational exam when you were young. I think it’s a good thing, because not everyone wants to know what they want to do at that age.” If you refer to the diagram above, you’ll notice that whichever path you take, you can cross to the other path, and in essence, this is Andersson’s largest concern.

 

“I think it is quite interesting that you have a minister of educational affairs which would express her support for a suggestion that is so poorly done.”

 

She continues, “I think that it is more equal, and from an educational point of view I think it’s better. I don’t want to give the matriculation exam any more emphasis than it already has. You can already feel this development in Finland, that the matriculation exam is given so much emphasis in the gymnasium that it starts affecting your whole education there. People start taking courses at a very early stage, depending on what exam they are doing in three years. It affects the whole pedagogy of the gymnasium. I think it would lead to a development where young kids would need to start focusing already when they start the gymnasium (15/16), so you will have an even stronger development of specialisation (at an early stage). I think it would be more important that we have a system that gives every kid quite broad knowledge of different subjects, so you would have a good common educational foundation to stand on, no matter how you continue your studies when you’re older.”

ft-study-exams

Picture: Steven S.

 

 

I think it would be more important that we have a system that gives every kid quite broad knowledge of different subjects, so you would have a good common educational foundation to stand on, no matter how you continue your studies when you’re older.”

 

Given that the New South Wales (N.S.W) educational framework sounds a lot like the proposal that VATT made, I thought it would be a useful to consider the Australian state’s framework, and my experience of going through it. When I was 14, I could make my first subject selections and I was presented with three elective choices. Even at this stage, I was acutely aware of the final two years of school, and thus, I wanted to select subjects that would prepare me best for that time, rather than courses selected on pure interest. Already at this age, the looming pressure of those final two years didn’t seem so far away. Instead of choosing something I was interested in, I chose technical drawing and commerce, with electronics being my “interest” choice. The first two I selected on appearing as a serious student and laying the foundations for my entrance to university. When I think of the imagined seriousness under which I made these decisions, it’s a little baffling. Of course, those grades and subjects did not matter in the slightest, and after exiting school, I realised I probably should have done something a little more fun. But things were only warming up.

When I was 16, I had to select the courses that would ultimately dictate the next two years of my student life, while also impacting on my final grade, and potential future trajectory. The subjects I chose were those that I would take in to the Higher School Certificate, the N.S.W equivalent to Finland’s matriculation exam. Depending on which courses were selected, it could have a strong influence on your final, singular number that ranked you against other students in that state (called a universities admission index, UAI). This was the magical number that represented what you could study in tertiary education, and there were no chances for entrance examinations to compensate for it. 

 

This was the magical number that represented what you could study in tertiary education, and there were no chances for entrance examinations to compensate for it.


The system got a little confusing; depending on your subject choice, and the agreed difficulty of that subject decided on by the bureaucracy, your final marks for that course would be weighted. For example, physics and chemistry were more heavily weighted than drama or fine arts, so that an average mark in science would achieve a better result in your UAI, rather than an exemplary mark in drama or art. To clarify, a decent mark in the hard sciences would outperform the same mark in something considered ‘easier’, so that to get the same influence on your final mark, you would need to be exemplary in drama, as opposed to being just average or good in chemistry.

This got even more complicated when you factored in different tools to weight marks depending on your school and its resources, how it compared to other schools in the state, and your particular combination of courses. The method of calculation was mind boggling to even my teachers, who each year guided students carefully, balancing their natural skills and preferences to courses that would fulfil their desires. If university was your aspiration, you’d have to think carefully about which courses you picked, and align that with your strengths, how much each course was valued, and how easy it was to extract a good mark from that course that increased your UAI.

The final two years (upper secondary school) was a complete emphasis on your final year. Everything in Year 11 was preparation for Year 12. When that final year started, every assessment you completed would affect your overall mark. Every, single, assessment. Needless to say, that year had a lot of pressure: I became a competitor with every other student in my class and the whole state in the climb to “academic excellence.” Fifty percent of your final grade was calculated by that prolonged year of nail-biting assessment against your peers and the rest of the state. The other 50% was calculated from your performance in the final exam. Combining those, you got your final result. As the teachers had been through this cycle numerous times, there was a method to their teaching. I would argue that they even prepared us to answer the exams in a way that markers would understand and receive it well. I’m sure that my peers would agree.

 

I became a competitor with every other student in my class and the whole state in the climb to “academic excellence.” Fifty percent of your final grade was calculated by that prolonged year of nail-biting assessment against your peers and the rest of the state.

 

Although the curriculum changed frequently enough to prevent students recycling old methods and notes, the teachers knew exactly what to feed the examiners. We did learn a lot of good information in the spirit of pedagogy, but we also spent a lot of time learning how to answer exams, balance ourselves across an exam evenly, and what were the most common areas they assessed knowledge on. We rehearsed essays in English. We continually sculpted them to cover all the areas that the examiners might ask, memorising the text so we could pick and choose what answered the question best. We had to be able to write quickly, as there was significant time pressure. That was also the reason for understanding time distribution in an exam –  if you only had two hours to write three essays, it wouldn’t matter if one was excellent and the other two pathetic… average across all three would yield a better result.

Australian students have it comparatively easy to many other nations, but the process by which people’s lives were determined comes at an arbitrarily young age. If you just missed out on the score you wanted, there were other ways to enter the university system. Further vocational education could supplement your marks, or you could start in a less-desired course at university and transfer later while you were studying, mind you, paying the entire time. However, it was well known that your performance in that final school year would either make your life easier in the future, or you’d have to work extremely hard to get around that final mark, because it was impossible to change it once received. I won’t even get started on the divide between private and public schools (largely socioeconomic) and the many variables that could affect you in those two final years. It’s also important to realise that unlike the Finnish education system, vocational training was not really considered a parallel path: it is a fork at the end of a road that you choose, knowing full well that is takes you in a different direction. When you made the choice of either wanting to attend university or not, at 16, it would have implications for your future. If your path was vocational, there was no need to receive a UAI, and thus, university entrance was made extremely difficult. The magical number that was never received is hard to compensate.

To be clear, these suggestions by VATT are merely that: it’s early days in the debate of education reform, and it’s not a subject that has even graced parliamentary floors. I expect and hope that when it does, it will be a subject that is heavily debated and carefully considered. But the report by the Government Institute for Economic Research certainly carries weight, and in a time of economic focus, its simplification of the system is an attractive option, but a risky one. It’s difficult to compare the two extremes that I have presented: on one hand you have the Finnish system, that stands for flexibility and education for all. On the other, you have the Australian system that places more pressure on students at a younger age, and gives rise to differences in socio-economic status, exacerbated by the divide between private and public education. There is no entrance exam that can compensate for which school you are placed in, and that is a deeply problematic equation. However, comparing these two is not so straightforward: no doubt a larger emphasis on the matriculation exam would be different in Finland, given the different structure of the system and underlying equality. I have not had first-hand experience in the Finnish system, and I acknowledge that their lofty ideals may not always be realised. 

I have always viewed the entrance exams in Finland as a great equaliser, and as a sign of the discipline that people muster well before they starting studying in tertiary education. I have been amazed to hear that people have attempted the exam year after year after year, finally getting their preferred place. I am grateful that I didn’t have to do any entrance examinations, because I am not sure that I would have made it through the threshold. Yet, one of the major appeals of entrance exams, in my opinion, is that it allows you to dig in to the subject before you begin, and requires a lot of drive to be in that field … it is a trial period before you commit to studying full-time. It is a useful indication of what is to come in university studies, and prepares students at a base level of understanding, regardless of their school curriculum, which in turn helps the process of education for university lecturers.

Echoing Andersson, I agree that the idea of an entrance examination provides a great deal of flexibility, and that is crucially important. No one should have to make such important decisions at the age of 16, and certainly, the shift of the system to favouring the matriculation exam would be problematic for vocational students. It may interrupt the ability to flow between the two streams, and that is something that is taken for granted in Finland. I also believe that if you fail to enter, people can benefit from restructuring their ideas and thoughts in the somewhat natural process of disappointment. It can allow for some soul searching, and further consideration of what truly appeals to you. It may spur on a year of working, travel, both, or just contemplation of other projects in your life that could take you down various paths, for better or for worse. Yet, this flexibility and openness is one of the strengths of the system, and something that I envy, coming from a place where your future is decided on all too early, with a tinge of bitter class divide.

Pedagogy is an important emphasis in the Finnish system, and one that has been well regarded worldwide. As I mentioned above, there was a distinct emphasis on the final examinations at my high school, years before they due to be taken. Even at 15, I was hearing the bells of the final examination, and the majority of my final two years at school was preparation for it. In an educational sense, it is disappointing. In retrospect, I think I missed out on a lot of the joy of learning, with the constant knowledge that results matter, tests matter, and my performance matters, and has large consequences on my future. I imagine that in Finland there is still a large amount of preparation for the final examinations. However, it is not as ‘career-defining’ as it is elsewhere, and it allows for mistakes. It allows for the fact that your parents may divorce at 16. It allows for life, and just because someone was disinterested in education at that age, or circumstances prevented them from giving their best, it will not necessarily define their path in the future, nor will it cost them an arm and a leg to make those changes if they so desire.

Education in Finland is a universal, basic, and equal right. It is something to be envied, it is something to cherished, for education in many parts of the world separates people based on class at ages far too young. It becomes the determining factor of your future, and such rigidity undermines the important pedagogical aspects of learning that seems so valued in the system that Finland benefits from. I understand that revisions to the system can be important, and should be considered. However, it should be something that is considered carefully and over a long period of time. The education system of Finland is the backbone of its ideals of equality, and as a foreigner, it is painfully obvious how such an emphasis can change a society for the better. Changes to the existing framework based purely on economic rationale or a streamlining of the system only serve to undermine the complexity and choices that people have, and that is a slippery slope. In my experience, it has the potential to increase social inequality and can fundamentally shift the perception of the society, where loosening the notion of equality at this fundamental stage only serves to warp people’s perception of what they and others are entitled to later in life. It’s not a pretty scene.