Blog: The Whole Student Movement Needs to Take Part in Improving the Equity of Access for Higher Education

Nikolas Bursiewicz. Picture: Teemu Rahikka

The student movement has sought to introduce a national access plan for higher education to Finnish politics for years now, and a plan has finally been introduced in Rinne’s government programme. The aim is to examine social, regional, and linguistic equity in higher education  as well as possible obstacles certain minority groups may encounter. The National Access Plan encompasses all of Finnish higher education, and it is important for SYL to have an active role in the development process.

The Irish national access plan, National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015–2019 (link), serves as inspiration for the government’s new plan. The Irish plan’s purpose was to improve access to higher education for minority groups and through this increase the amount of total university graduates in the workforce. It is important that groups underrepresented  in higher education are present in developing Finland’s National Access Plan. This ensures the effectiveness of the plan.

It is especially important to take immigrants and non-Finnish speakers into account in the National Access plan. The composition of Finland’s population is changing, and the education opportunities of immigrants must be improved. Otherwise, structural barriers preventing access to higher education for Finns with immigrant backgrounds may lead to increasing income inequality.

Although the welfare state improves equity in society, higher education is often inherited in Finland as it is in many countries. A sufficient student income enables students to study in university regardless of their own socioeconomic background. This is why we need to move away from a loan-based student income system and move a toward a grant-based system. In the long run, we need to move toward a basic income in order to enable access to higher education regardless of one’s background.

Regional access is also a key issue in ensuring equity in the access to higher education. No one should have to move unreasonable distances in order to study.

Access to higher education also plays an important role in student admission reform. Diverse paths to university ensure access for different kinds of learners. As of right now, three different paths are planned. In the future, students will be admitted on the basis of their matriculation exam grades, an entrance exam, or through open university. Admittance on the basis of matriculation exam grades may lead to faster transitions from secondary to higher education, but it may also increase the number of students switching degree programs as well as pressure to succeed in secondary education. It also does not help applicants who have repeatedly failed to gain admission to higher education for years.

Admission through open university requires the completion of paid courses in open university, and this advantages potential applicants on the basis of wealth. Moderate open university admissions can, however, improve access to higher education for those who would not otherwise be eligible. It can also improve access for applicants who struggle with exams because of learning disabilities. Although it can improve access for certain groups, open university admission must be kept to a moderate level. Otherwise it may become a paid fast track to degree studies.

Different applicant profiles must taken into account when discussing access to higher education. Above all, different paths to admission must be viewed as a whole in order to ensure that structural barriers are not created. Examples of structural barriers have already been found in degree programs that admit students on the basis of matriculation exam grades or through open university only. This means that the only way an applicant with a vocational training can gain admittance is by paying for open university, which is an unacceptable situation.

Solutions for improving access to higher education focus largely on earlier grades, since prior experience with education affects one’s opportunities to apply for higher education. No one applies to university from a vacuum. Many societal issues affect one’s path toward higher education. This is why the accessibility of higher education must be viewed from a number of different perspectives.

The national access plan deals with broad societal issues, and SYL has a role in its creation. However, we cannot demand student involvement alone in this process. The National Access Plan chiefly affects those groups who are already underrepresented in higher education, and it is crucial that these people’s voices are heard. In addition to student involvement, we must ensure that we hear those who are affected most by the National Access plan.

Nikolas Bursiewicz
The author is a member of the Student Union’s board and a candidate for the 2020 board of the National Union of University Students