Nurmi Jouni

Keiden koulutusväylät? Laveneva korkeakoulutus ja valikoituminen.

Tracks to Whom? Selection into Expanding Higher Education

English summary

During the first half of the 1990s, the field of Finnish higher education expanded dramatically. A selected group of upper secondary level vocational institutions was given the task to raise their standards and to develop a new type of vocational higher education beside the traditional university. These two types of institutions of higher education are supposed to be formally equal but different in their educational purposes. The function attributed to the new AMK-institutions (the Finnish ammattikorkeakoulu literally means vocational higher education) is practical occupational schooling in accordance with the needs of the labour market, while the universities would offer a more widely applicable theoretical basis for professional careers.

This expansion of the field of higher education raises the question of selection. In this study, it is examined whether the distribution of applicants between the two types of higher education is in fact based on the kind of vocational orientation meant by the planners of education, or whether the choice of educational route depends more heavily on other factors. My theoretical starting point is a model of social reproduction. According to this model, it is expected that the selection in the new system would take place much like in the old one. In this respect, the most important factors are family background and the traditional connection of university education to high status occupations.

Since the 1950s, many European countries have carried out comparable structural changes. Germany and Great Britain, for example, have established occupationally oriented sectors of higher education which were meant to be alternatives to traditional universities. From my point of view, the main reason for reforms of this kind is the growing demand for higher education. In industrial societies, this demand has been increasing steadily due to social processes mostly independent of the 'needs' of the economy. The overflow of applicants for higher education and, in turn, the surplus of graduates in the labour market make institutional differentiation necessary.

The Finnish reform and the comparable European cases can be examined as responses to the same kinds of structural problems. Experiences of German Fachhochschulen and British polytechnics are being used here as a basis for evaluating the prospects and future alternatives of the Finnish AMK-sector. The cases are, naturally, different in many respects. First of all, the structural reform of Finnish higher education is taking place relatively late. The Finnish university system has for years been in the phase of mass higher education and has, in fact, undergone substantial modifications especially in the field of vocational education. On the other hand, the AMK is being grounded on the ready-made basis of formal education in the secondary level. The tradition of systematized vocational education is quite long and well-established. In any case, the comparison is supposed to help foresee the possibilities of the AMK to fulfil its objective and consolidate its position in the field of Finnish higher education.

The data used in this study was gathered from a survey of nearly 4000 applicants for a field of higher education in one Finnish province. The field was composed of university and AMK-institutions in technology, economy, and social work.

Educational selection was examined in two separate phases. First, it was assumed that young people who wanted to take an examination in some of the branches mentioned were in a situation where they have to choose their favourite education between the university and the AMK. And second, after this 'voluntary' distribution, there were entrance examinations of different kinds in each institution to further select the applicants.

In general, the selection of students between these two types of higher education occurred for the most part in accordance with the reproduction model. Thus, the findings seem to contradict those expectations according to which the divide of the field would be found on the dimension of vocationalism. The main reason for this could be the strength of vocationalism in university education, too, or at least in its labour market connections.

The applicants for higher education seemed to choose their educational goal mainly under the influence of 'traditional' factors. Middle-class family background, attending the upper secondary school (lukio) instead of vocational training, and success in matriculation examination, in addition to status-orientation, were likely to direct applicants towards the university routes. Even an independent effect of family background (education of the parents) on setting the aim could be seen. The main impact of family was, however, mediated through other factors. Children to most educated parents usually choose the lukio route and do well at school.

Approximately the same factors were at work in the second phase, too. After the spontaneous distribution in the first phase, the groups of applicants for university and AMK differed quite remarkably from each other in their social and educational background. However, the selection of future students favoured same kinds of applicants in both routes. Because of the significance of school certificates in the selection, the AMK was a socially selective route in the same way and to the same extent as the comparable branches of university.

There is still one important factor in the second phase of selection. It is composed of private preparation courses for university entrance examinations. Along with the school certificates, they form a central mediating link between the family background and admittance to higher education. Those applicants from middle-class families with good certificates, who had good opportunities anyway, were likely to invest their (parents') money in preparation courses so as to assure their success in entrance examination. It may well be said that the preparation courses as an established part of admittance are a kind of countermove by market forces against the principle of equality of opportunity adapted by the Finnish educational system.

The relationship between applicants' vocational orientation and selection was quite complex. Orientation towards future occupation was measured on the basis of applicants' own reasoning for choosing their favourite education routes. Those who chose a particular education because of the salary and organizational position of future occupation were called status-oriented. Task-oriented applicants, in turn, were interested in the substance and significance of their future occupation and in their own opportunities for using their abilities.

In the first phase of selection, status-orientation was an important factor in explaining the distribution of applicants into two groups preferring the different types of education. Task-orientation, in turn, had no significance. Applicants in the whole field were quite task-oriented on the average. Thus, the distribution among them occurred mostly on the basis of the advantageous labour market situation traditionally associated with university education.

Vocational orientation was a notable factor in admittance, too. Task- oriented applicants who also attached weight to status factors - they were called professionally proud - seemed to do quite well in entrance examinations. However, this kind of effect was only visible in the university sector. In admittance to the AMK, vocational orientation did not seem to play any specific role.

The Finnish AMK may be regarded as an effort to raise the educational level and, in turn, the status of lower white collar jobs in general. As such, it continues the longstanding development in which many vocational trainings, one by one, have reached the status of university education without any remarkable change in substances of specific occupations. The marketing of the AMK explicitly as higher education, however, leads one to expect something more about the new type of education in the labour market, too. And, in fact, many students of the AMK seem to have these kinds of expectations. The future will show how well they can compete with university graduates in the labour market.

In Germany, the graduates of the Fachhochschule have done quite well. There are many factors in the German educational field and labour market which support the vocationally-oriented alternative in higher education. The German secondary education has sustained a vertically structured system with differently oriented routes towards tertiary education. And, in the labour market, it is important that the qualifications achieved through education correspond to those needed in jobs, and some kind of practical vocational training is regarded a necessity. Yet the Fachhochschule was at first in danger of remaining a kind of intermediate grade of higher education through which many students aimed at a university degree.

The model for higher education in British polytechnics was the academic degree, but the courses were meant to be practical in their orientation. What, in fact, made the difference, was the traditional status of the institution offering the degree. The British labour market for graduates seems to be differentiated in accordance to applicants' branch of education only to a minimal extent. When the contents of education did not matter much, the dominant factor was the idea of the specific 'quality' produced by university education.

If a non-university sector of higher education is supposed to offer a real alternative to traditional university, practicality is just one of the prerequisites. The second one is avoiding the traps of academic drift. The vocational orientation expressed by British polytechnics did not help them in the competition determined by academic values.

In Finland, the strength of the AMK no doubt lies on practical orientation and on close connections with work life. If the AMK graduates will be well employed in the future, many applicants for higher education will turn to the shorter and less theoretical alternative offered by the AMK. So far, the traditional forces of reproduction are much more forceful than those factors connected with practical orientation. The new institutions of higher education do not seem to do very well either in taking care of practicality or in avoiding academic drift. The AMK education is still offered for academically-oriented applicants from lukio, because the planned structural change in secondary education originally meant to be connected with the establishment of the AMK was not realized.

Certain future changes in work life have, however, been discussed a lot. It is too easy to say that much depends on these developments. They seem, however, to be the only way to affect the traditional value-laden distinction between the theoretical and the practical, the mental and the physical, which still lies between the sectors of higher education.