Equality and high demand for mathematical skills challenging university admissions

On Tuesday 7 November, new information was published on a national student admissions project and the scoring models of matriculation examination grades used in university admissions. The extensive data set compiled by researchers at the University of Oulu shows what kinds of students were admitted to universities using the current system in 2013–2015. Development should be focused on the question: what kind of skills should university students learn in upper secondary school?

The current university student admissions place value on completing advanced mathematics in upper secondary school. Often, the students who take advanced mathematics are also likely to take physics and chemistry in the matriculation examination, which further increases their chances of being admitted to university. A comparison of the figures shows that nearly all students (80–90%) who take advanced mathematics, physics and chemistry in the matriculation examination are admitted to university. Another indicator for a good chance of admission is opting to take the matriculation examination in a less-popular foreign language. Conversely, fewer students who take non-advanced mathematics and health education in the matriculation examination are admitted to university.

These are some of the results of a long-term, extensive study conducted at the University of Oulu on the effect that subject choices in upper secondary school have on university admissions. The study focused on students who graduated upper secondary school in 2013–2015 (93,955 people) and a nearly comprehensive sample of students admitted to Finnish universities in these years (46,280 people). All Finnish universities were included in the study.

Gender equality is a key issue

Subject selection carries a significant equality aspect. The subjects in upper secondary school are strongly gendered, and the gender distributions are carried nearly identically over to universities.

“The segregation of educational fields is created as upper secondary school students are choosing their subjects, even though women do better than men in the matriculation examination in nearly all subjects,” says Jouni Pursiainen, Professor at the University of Oulu.

Advanced mathematics and physics are male-dominated, which improves men's position, since there is a shortage of people in these fields, and weakens women's position, especially in the extensive fields of engineering, economics and natural sciences. 55% of students taking advanced mathematics and 72% of students taking physics in the matriculation examination are men. The field of economics is made more male-dominated by the fact that 60% of students taking history and 53% of students taking social studies in the matriculation examination are men. These subjects are important in business and economics.

In upper secondary school, 57% of students taking non-advanced mathematics in the matriculation examination are women. For psychology, the percentage is 81%, for health education it is 72%, for religion it is 74% and for biology it is 68%. Students who chose these subjects mainly end up in humanistic fields and educational sciences. In these fields, there is a great female-dominated majority of students who did not take mathematics in the matriculation examination.

Upper secondary school builds skills in selected fields

With student admissions, universities take into account the needs of the university, but societal needs are also considered. For example, competence in mathematics and natural sciences is particularly sought after in the labour market. The skills accumulated during upper secondary school do matter.

“If a student lacks knowledge in subjects that are central in their degree programme, upper secondary education gets transferred to university,” states Jouni Pursiainen.

The AVAIN group at the University of Oulu studies what kind of effect subject choices made in upper secondary school have on university admissions. The study is headed by Professors Jouni Pursiainen (chemistry), Hanni Muukkonen (educational psychology) and Jarmo Rusanen (geography). The research is topical, and it provides information for the development of university admissions and upper secondary education. At the same time, students making subject choices can get information on what kind of effect their choices will have in the future.

Further information: University student admissions reform project

Last updated: 15.11.2017