Keijo Hämäläinen: A call for autonomous self-regulation at the university

There are two things that matter at universities: teachers and students. That’s why it is easy to understand that each discipline wants to select its students carefully – and autonomously.

Unfortunately, this leads to a structural problem throughout the whole education system. The problem is perpetuated by those fields of study that attract the most applicants, because they can then select the best of the best. The target of fine-tuned admission processes is, at its base, good. In other words, we should encourage the equal placement of students in the selection queue. However, I would argue that there are easier ways to select students who would succeed equally well.

Ostensibly, there is a national abundance of applicants, with the same students applying for the same positions over and over again. An unfortunate result is that new upper secondary school graduates lose out in the entrance examinations to the one third of applicants who have already studied at universities. Yet should we be surprised? In youth sports, the older players don’t play with the younger ones. However, the price tags of even the most expensive prep courses are small in comparison to the cost of this university-level training for entrance examinations.

The problem has been known at universities for decades and many attempts have been made to solve it, with only limited success. It is downright embarrassing that the ministry must intervene in the situation and drive through an entrance examination reform with such strong strategic guidance that it rattles the autonomy of universities. I tip my hat to the minister who doggedly advances the reform under intense political and public pressure.

The entrance examination reform is not a perfect solution to the problem, but it can be one element in a chain reaction that may result in a much needed greater change. In the public debate over more extensive utilisation of the matriculation examination, preventing dead ends and the need for a backdoor are brought up continuously, just as they should be. But it is wrong to prioritise a backdoor when the main entrance is closed to those it is intended for in the first place.

Maybe the university community as a whole should adapt to the situation and solve our problems ourselves – autonomously. Let’s make our own decisions to create more flexible transition paths within the university, to recognise prior learning better and to utilise admission through the Open University more. This way the main admission process is naturally left for new upper secondary school graduates without artificial quotas for first-time applicants.

We should also make a persistent effort to decrease the amount of interrupted studies. In many fields of study, the level of competition is high during the first years but it decreases as one gets closer to a master’s degree. Could this be reversed? Should we ensure that students first learn how to learn, along with acquiring the requisite basic methodological skills and knowledge in their discipline, and then they can dig more deeply into their field-specific studies?

Should we focus more on these topics instead of discussing entrance examinations? Or should we maybe ask upper secondary school graduates, who have just completed an electronic matriculation examination, what they think about the state of digitalisation in university teaching when we hand them paper and a pencil in the entrance examination?

Rector Keijo Hämäläinen 8.11.2017

This text is the first in a series of columns in which the Rector, vice rectors and deans will share their views on different aspects of academic leadership.