on February 3, 2013 by Irena Smith in Uncategorized, Comments (2)

Matriculation Exam

Moi Moi! That means hello in Finnish. In fact, its a little bit like “Aloha,” because it also means good bye. Okay, there’s my Finnish anecdote out of the way for this week.

I’d like to discuss the interesting phenomenon of matriculation exams. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people from all over the world while I’m here… in fact, I’ve met more people from all over the world than I have Finnish people, considering I live in an international residence, and quiet and privacy are national virtues in Finland. As a result of this, I’ve had the chance to learn about all sorts of education systems. One thing that keeps coming up, particularly amongst students who live in countries where education is free, is a very difficult and stressful exam to get into University – also known as a matriculation exam.

Personally, my friends and I were always quite confident that, with our high school grades, we would get in to the University of Saskatchewan. Of course, this situation might have changed if we applied to a more prestigious University (now PLEASE don’t think I’m knocking the U of S – I think we have a great school, but its just a fact that entry into Arts and Science is not all that competitive), but my impression is that in Canada, if you keep your high school grades at any kind of respectable level, you will be able to get in to some University. My personal, anti-capitalist analysis of this phenomenon is that Universities in Canada are a business, so they naturally want as many customers as possible, but I’ll try to maintain a higher degree of objectivity than that, and would appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

In other countries, your entrance into University is not such an assured thing. As I said, the entrance exam seems to hold more weight in countries where University is free. Again, if we analyze this like a business model, if the government is going to pay your way through school, they want to be sure that you’re a serious investment. I have friends from Greece, Northern Ireland (because University is only free in the North) and Slovakia, who all describe huge amounts of stress and work in their last year (or even two) of high school. Indeed, your last year is essentially one long, long study period for the big exam. Your grade decides what programs you can apply for, and failure means another year of high school. One friend went so far as to say “you know that this is the exam that is going to decide the rest of your life.”

In Finland, the system is similar, but slightly more laid back. You take standardized tests at the end of each of the three years of high school, and the results from all tests are weighted in your application to University. Like all tests in Finland, you have the opportunity to re-take each test up to 3 times. If you choose to take this option and re-take the test, it’s like the previous tests never happened, they disappear off your record. The feelings of stress surrounding the test are definitely evident, however not as pronounced as in students from other countries. Unless you are applying for something very difficult and competitive – law and medicine, basically – there seems to be the overall feeling that if you work very, very hard, you will achieve your goal. However, failures do happen, and above all else, it seems that these failures result in a sense of embarrassment. These attitudes (hard work, embarrassment at failure) may speak more to the Finnish ethos than to the education system… Hopefully I’ll be able to write more on that later – the Finnish ethos is a tough nut to crack.

So I want to know – was there ever fear amongst you and your friends that you wouldn’t be admitted to University? If your experience was similar to mine, and there was relatively little stress, do you think our system is better? Essentially, we allow almost everyone a chance to “better themselves through higher education” – a very liberal-minded, Western idea. But is this a good thing? I consistently hear profs complaining about first year students who cannot write an essay – should we be demanding more from our high school education system, and from high school students? Or do you find the idea of a test that “decides the rest of your life” problematic, and kind of a twisted thing to do to an 18 year old?

Finally, this is a question for myself, but hopefully a preview of a post-to-come: do the Finns have something really special figured out with their education system, considering they have matriculation exams, education is free, and there aren’t clinically stressed 18 year olds throughout the country? Or, as I alluded to earlier, is it just part of the “Finnish way” to work hard and not show stress? Of course, it would be very difficult for you to answer these last questions, but hopefully I will be able to in the weeks to come!


  1. Elana

    February 8, 2013 @ 11:20 am          

    Before I comment on this post I would like to say that I love your blog and your very well thought out and thought-provoking posts.

    I find the issue of matriculation very interesting. I have known a few people from China who have had difficulty with matriculation and it sounds like a very similar system to those you’ve mentioned, at least in so far as matriculation was concerned. I also know some universities in Britain have entrance exams but not all (most notably Oxford and Cambridge — at least that was the case 10 years ago).

    I was surprised to see that you thought the Canadian system was possibly Capitalistic, especially given your further comments regarding accessibility. While Canadians do have to pay for university, tuition is heavily subsidized by government funding. This is evident when you look at the cost of tuition at for-profit institutions, e.g., University Canada West or the non-state universities in the US.

    The issue of wide acceptance into universities is said to be a matter of accessibility. The U of S and the University of Manitoba, to name two, have mandates about accessibility that have led to policy resulting in lower entrance averages. The thought behind this sort of accessibility policy has something to do with the beliefs that everyone should have a chance at university and that how one performs in high school and/or on standardized tests is not necessarily reflective of how well they will do in university. I for one did not perform as well in high school as my grades in university might indicate. But due to the permissive entrance policies I was able to get into university and flourish.

    One thing that may fall out of this, however, is that if universities in Canada were truly trying to be accessible they would be free. The cost of an education (which is often much more than tuition) is often prohibitive. While Canadian students have access to student loans, these student loans may lead to years of poverty for some. An interesting question that has been flying around is how to measure accessibility.

  2. Irena Smith

    February 11, 2013 @ 3:01 am          

    Hi Elana – thanks for your comment! It’s nice to know someone is reading my blog. I agree that this issue really does come down to the question of accessibility, which is complex and fascinating. My assertion that the Canadian system is capitalistic was admittedly simplistic, and you’re right to point out that the government heavily subsidizes our Universities. I guess I’m displaying my frustration at our consistently rising tuition fees paired with program cuts – its making me feel like an unsatisfied customer. Plus, in terms of accessibility, groups like the CFS (who are, admittedly, biased) cite tuition costs as the number one deterrent from pursuing a post-secondary education. These sorts of stats lead me to think that Universities aren’t necessarily made up of the brightest minds, but rather by those who can afford it – education to the highest bidder. However, I’ll once again admit that there are many factors at work in terms of accessibility to education, and a simple anti-capitalist analysis doesn’t cover everything.