The system of university entrance: a European view - Ferran Ferrer
The topic with which we are concerned is of monumental importance to our societies. One need only scan the main daily papers of any European country at the time when the secondary school-leaving or university entrance examinations are in progress to observe their social impact. In fact, entering university is one of the most problematic and significant transitions in an individual's personal, professional and working life, underscoring the need for the transition between those two stages to be viewed from a European perspective. To that end, this article will begin by offering a few general thoughts to place the topic in a theoretical framework, then go on to describe the most salient trends observed in Europe and, lastly, highlight a few experiences that may be useful for the reform of both those levels of education.
Thoughts on entrance systems
The following paragraphs contain some reflections on the path followed by students on their journey from secondary to university education and the content of the examinations they sit.
REFLECTIONS ON THE TRANSITION PROCESS
Experts and education policy-makers in developed countries are virtually agreed on the need for a selection procedure in the transition from one educational level to the next. The following are among the arguments most commonly cited:
The foregoing notwithstanding, the establishment of a selection procedure for the transition does not in itself explain the disparities in higher education enrolment rates.
Ultimately, the number of students entering university is influenced in no small measure by the characteristics of an education system, its selectivity, its relative diversification, the availability of non-university post-secondary education, the public and private systems' level of institutional development and the supply of university places, to name but a few. Hence, we find that countries where the students who have passed the secondary school-leaving examination enjoy fairly direct access to the university (that is, countries with low selectivity) have a lower enrolment rate than one would normally expect. This fact is best explained by, inter alia, more selective secondary education that steers students towards non-university options during the course of their studies.
It is also interesting to note that a university's autonomy is sometimes equated with its capacity to select students on the basis of school-leaving examination marks. Surely, this is a somewhat restrictive view of university autonomy, using only a handful of known results and disregarding everything that goes before and after. The university could not therefore be involved in determining criteria, preparing and correcting tests or setting pass marks.
Research that has been in progress for some time shows that access to higher education institutions should combine students' secondary-school performance (grades) with external examination marks. The problem posed by the comparative assessment of the academic records of students wishing to enter university is offset by the fact that it views the student's education as a continuum, as a cumulative process, and not as a series of piecemeal actions.
The idea that particular aptitudes and motivations—transcending the knowledge needed for pursuing higher education studies—are closely linked to subsequent academic success or failure is supported by international studies. As UNESCO rightly points out (1995, p. 41):
It must be realized in this connection that the level of knowledge acquired is quite possibly a necessary but insufficient requirement for university entrance.
THOUGHTS ON GRADUATION AND TRANSITION EXAMINATIONS
The transition from secondary to higher education culminates in the secondary school-leaving examinations or in the attempt to gain access to higher education. Given their special importance, some of the aspects we consider essential will be developed in the following paragraphs.
First and foremost, the role of the secondary school-leaving examination—common to many countries—has been changing with time. Initially intended to attest to the acquisition of the basic knowledge required for the baccalaureate and as a prerequisite for university entrance, this intermediate test between the two stages has been turned into an entrance requirement due to soaring secondary education enrolment rates and increased demand for higher education places. More specifically, school-leaving examination results are used to determine which studies a student will pursue and in which institution. This expansion of the examination's original purpose signified that evaluation for university entrance was made solely on the basis of the knowledge acquired for the baccalaureate. Hence, the more developed countries were constrained to amend their legislation to incorporate other systems and criteria more consistent with the university requirements of academic maturity, motivation, attitude towards study and so on.
As Keeves (1994, p. 15) points out with regard to this type of examination:
European countries have endeavoured to separate the two functions through reform of their systems of access to higher education. Certain countries have chosen to distinguish between the two types of test, using the former to measure knowledge and cognitive skills and the latter to evaluate the individual's capacity to learn in the particular conditions that prevail at a university.
Research conducted in countries with extensive experience in these matters shows that neither test on its own is a useful indicator of a prospective student's likely academic performance, whereas this is reliably predicted by a combination of the two.
There are two distinct positions on the question of secondary school-leaving examinations. On the one hand, there are countries that prefer to accord priority to the objective evaluation criterion and devise standard tests that permit unanimous marking (that is, not leaving the result to one examiner's personal discretion); on the other hand, there are those inclined towards the overall learning criterion and that therefore devise tests for measuring the more qualitative aspects of education.
It would be foolhardy to establish a clear dichotomy between the two options, hence the attempt by countries with a long tradition of certification examinations to combine both types in a single test.
Another significant aspect of these examinations lies in the uses that can be made of the students' results. More particularly, in the social sphere these may be as follows:
At the same time, the test can have an important social value at the personal level as a passport to the labour market or other non-university studies and as a signpost to future academic and professional life.
Lastly, it would be a serious mistake to ignore the examination's impact on certain aspects of the teaching-learning process in schools, mainly student motivation, pre-examination tension, attitudes to the various subjects of the secondary education curriculum, students' gender-related skills and so on. This last aspect calls for extreme caution in an examination setting, systematically avoiding models that favour or penalize one gender, which would indubitably undermine the principle of equal opportunity.
The following paragraphs describe international trends, grouped into three broad categories: trends in the higher education model; trends in the transition from secondary to higher education; and trends in school-leaving and transition examinations.
TRENDS IN THE HIGHER EDUCATION MODEL
In recent years, higher education in developed countries has been undergoing a thorough transformation that not only affects its structure and internal functioning, but takes a new look at the wisdom of abiding by the rules traditionally laid down for it by society. Whether for external reasons (demographic evolution, economic crisis, etc.) or internal factors specific to the institutions themselves (assumption of new functions, diversified supply, growing competitiveness), the fact remains that we are passing through a key historic period for the future of this level of education.
There is, however, some diversity in international situations. Judge (1994, p. 262-63) aptly describes the way in which these situations are interpreted depending on the country of origin:
In any event, despite this diversity, some trends may be identified that are more or less common to all European countries. This article will focus on those most closely linked to the topic of access.
There have traditionally been two higher education sectors: the university and the non-university. In their policy on admissions, educational options available, equivalence of degrees and diplomas, and the duration and role of research, most countries tend to treat the two sectors as one, although the action of each is heavily influenced by its own tradition.
During the 1980s, many developed countries witnessed increased diversification of the supply of higher education, both from the institutional point of view and with regard to the courses organized in each centre, with the idea of providing citizens with better quality higher education. In any event, the specific factors that motivated that diversified expansion are essentially:
There is also a marked tendency for higher-education institutions to be awarded greater autonomy in various fields. Recently, autonomy in the management of economic resources, financing and admissions policy has been added to the traditional curricular autonomy enjoyed by many of them.
Be that as it may, there is widespread concern about maintaining the traditional high quality of the European university, owing mainly to overcrowding caused by increased secondary education attendance rates and the arrival of the baby boomers. In this last connection, the system of numerus clausus, which began as an ad hoc expedient for some specific types of study in which saturation of the labour market often made it necessary to regulate the entry of new professionals, was transformed into a broader policy intended to slow down the influx of new students at that level of education. All this notwithstanding, there has been a significant increase in the supply of university places.
One of the most disturbing problems in European countries is the high percentage of first-year repeaters and the high dropout rate. The time it takes to obtain a first university degree obviously far exceeds the period envisaged in theory.
In this last connection, given the current economic crisis, governments are increasingly reconsidering whether the expenditure on higher education is sufficiently cost-effective under the current financing facilities. For this reason, many countries, while maintaining traditional grants, are looking to increase university fees and develop other financing formulae for students, such as soft loans to be reimbursed once the students have completed their studies and secured their first job.
Lastly, State control of higher education appears to be increasingly indirect. Given the broad margin of autonomy, as indicated above, the administration's action focuses mainly on monitoring the results of the various higher education centres, using State funding of places to motivate the high performers and to penalize those that are unsatisfactory. In any case, there would seem to be some challenge to the 'enrolment numbers' criterion as the only valid one for the financing of higher education.
TRENDS IN THE PROCESS OF TRANSITION FROM SECONDARY TO HIGHER EDUCATION
The following are the most notable trends in the transition from secondary to higher education.
All countries establish selection procedures for both types of higher education (university and non-university). These selection procedures are of different types and often depend on each country's tradition and rules of evaluation, and the model of secondary and higher education that it has adopted. In some countries—France is a case in point—various transition and selection models exist side by side.
The general criterion for access to higher education in most European countries is the award of a secondary school-leaving certificate obtained on the basis of an external examination. It is also a means of certifying and ensuring that minimum curricular objectives have been met at the end of that phase of the education system.
However, it must be borne in mind that although this certificate served in the past as an authentic pre-university filter, now the high percentage of students obtaining it have made it no more than a minimum requirement for entrance to higher education establishments. Therefore, there is a growing need for further requirements: specific results in the certificate examination, additional tests, interviews, written reports containing a curriculum vitae, personal motivation, etc. Such practices, which used to be exclusive to specific types of study for which it was deemed necessary to have more rigorous selection procedures or to ensure that particular skills were acquired prior to entry, have been progressively extended to higher education as a whole.
The gradual application of the system of numerus clausus in higher education centres in most European countries, coupled with the introduction of these new selection procedures, means that the traditional principle of a right to access to higher education has been at least partially compromised. The application of this principle, recognized by law in many European countries, meant that any student who had obtained the secondary school-leaving certificate was entitled to enter those centres. Nowadays all it means is that this principle may be applied, but not necessarily for the candidate's preferred centre or type of study. It would appear to be this very situation—with some students obliged to pursue a course of study other than their first choice—that has led to the alarming repetition, drop-out and course-change rates observed in some European countries (Halsey, 1993, p. 134-36).
At the same time, the debate on whether the State should intervene more or less in the transition between secondary and higher education must be viewed on the basis of three minimum parameters of interpretation:
We find that each of the educational reforms carried out in Europe in recent years to change the processes of transition from secondary to higher education must therefore be viewed in its proper political context.
It is interesting to observe the tendency in many European countries for the university to enhance—or consolidate, as the case may be—its role in establishing its own admissions criteria, which may or may not be additional to the mere acquisition of the secondary school-leaving certificate.
At the same time, access to higher education in most European countries is explicitly or implicitly influenced by the student's secondary education curriculum. Pupils with a more academically oriented secondary education tend to gravitate towards the universities, while those with more vocation-oriented studies endeavour to continue their studies in the non-university sector.
In some European countries, especially in Northern Europe, access is more a function of the educational centre's prestige than of the type of course the student wishes to take.
European countries are unanimous in their growing concern regarding the lack of motivation and aptitudes of a great many students entering higher education. Students with a brilliant academic record appear to choose a particular type of higher education mostly because of the social prestige it confers (Sutherland, 1995). This has induced universities to try to introduce motivation and personal maturity as criteria in the candidate-selection process.
There is also increasing disquiet in higher education establishments over students' lack of specific aptitudes considered to be a prerequisite for the successful pursuit of that level of education, including reading ability (speed, comprehension, etc.) in the student's own language and a foreign language, written expression, computer literacy, time management and task planning, and data-organization ability. Hence, certain Anglo-Saxon universities have included in their first-year syllabuses subjects designed to remedy students' deficiencies in those areas.
A measure of diversification has also been introduced in entrance systems so as to cater more effectively to the aptitudes and needs of the increasingly heterogeneous higher-education student profile (adult/young person, male/female, unemployed/gainfully employed, full-time/part-time student, for purposes of work promotion/learning, etc.).
TRENDS IN SCHOOL-LEAVING AND TRANSITION EXAMINATIONS
The following are some of the most significant trends in the secondary school-leaving examinations, a certification examination to show that the ultimate goals of this level of education have been attained.
The examination continues to have some social value, although some of it has been lost owing to two factors: the countries' tendency to hold other external examinations at earlier intermediate stages, thereby making the final secondary-education examination less exclusive; and the recent substantial increase in the percentage of young people obtaining this certificate.
The university is now tending to lose some of its former sway over this school-leaving examination, at least in those countries where it existed.
The State's role in the examination is, once again, influenced by the political and administrative structure of each country. Accordingly, while the Baccalauréate in France is national in scope, the German Abitur is controlled by each Land.
The examination is compulsory in the vast majority of countries. In others, such as the United States, where it is optional, it ends up being de facto compulsory for any student wishing to attend university.
Most countries establish the following guidelines for the examination's content: a less encyclopaedic and memory-oriented test; more questions designed to test the candidate's general maturity; and introduction of a modicum of specialization in accordance with the subjects studied at secondary school.
Differentiation between compulsory and optional subjects is fairly widespread. There is some consensus on making the national language, a foreign language and mathematics compulsory, while the basic subjects in the range of secondary-education specializations are usually optional.
In recent years, the structure of this type of examination has changed significantly in different countries. Indeed, structure is not a minor issue, nor is it confined to formal education; it clearly reflects the content to be evaluated. International trends show the countries' concern that the chosen examination format should address two issues: evaluation of new contents and skills; and harmonization of the measurement of more complex learning processes with the principle of maximum objectivity that must govern an examination of such social importance.
Trends have differed somewhat from country to country. However, the idea is clearly to use different traditions to combine more open-ended questions with more precise ones that evaluate aspects that lend themselves more easily to factual testing with this type of examination. For example, countries with a long tradition of standardized objective tests (such as the United States, the Netherlands and Sweden) have incorporated a few open-ended tests. By setting more comprehensive examinations—in an attempt to avoid the standard tests' excessive fragmentation of knowledge and skills—they endeavour to delve more deeply into students' problem-solving capacity and their ability to interpret data, work out conclusions and organize a series of arguments coherently.
At the same time, the oral examination that various countries hold for the certificate examination—i.e. interaction between a panel of examiners and a candidate—has proven extremely useful for measuring aspects that are difficult to evaluate in written examinations. Specialist research on the subject has shown it to be particularly effective because of its ability to predict the aspirant's academic success and because of its minimal discrimination between the sexes.
Accordingly, the countries that have traditionally had some kind of oral test tend to maintain it despite its high financial cost. Conversely, countries that did not follow this practice in the past tend, for purely economic reasons, not to include it in the certificate-awarding examination.
The need for rigorous application of the principle of objectivity in a test of such social importance and with academic and professional implications induces the countries to adopt a variety of measures for abiding by this principle: tests with single-answer questions when the purpose of the evaluation so permits; double marking in more open-ended tests; and panels consisting of several teachers for the oral examinations.
There is no particular trend with regard to the number of times that students can sit the examination, since it varies from country to country. In any event, they always have more than one opportunity.
The overall mark obtained in the certificate examination weighs the examination result against the pupil's school-performance record during the final years of secondary education. It is quite usual for the specific weight of the examination to be approximately 50% of the final score (Sutherland, 1995, p. 240).
Lessons for reform of university entrance systems
Some lessons should be heeded when it comes to reform of a country's university entrance system.
In the first place, we must remember that to transplant an education system—or one of its parts—from one country to another is, to say the least, irrational. On the subject with which we are concerned here, educational tradition and the cultural environment are factors that assume enormous significance in the evaluation of any innovation. The international trends observed should serve more as 'food for thought' about possible changes than as specific policy strategies for bringing such changes about.
Secondly, let us not forget that innovations have never been successfully consolidated through abrupt, short-term changes. The trend should be, rather, for gradual reforms that attain the objectives envisaged within a reasonable timeframe and with the imprimatur of many of the institutions involved. As stated in the Report to UNESCO from the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, many tensions will need to be faced during the coming century.
Thirdly, the system of transition from secondary to higher education is intricately bound up with the secondary education model and the desired university model. What is more, it is by no means preposterous to think that change in a country's system of transition from one level to the other is the cornerstone of reform—or confirmation, as the case may be—of the existing secondary and university education model.
Underlying the debate on the transition between the two educational levels is another debate on student-selection power. What needs to be settled is whether it is the education system that must establish some kind of student selection, or whether, on the contrary, it is society that will ultimately select them and place them socially and professionally. In the former hypothesis, one of the prime tasks in the process of transition from secondary to higher education will be to establish a proper, clear, transparent system of selection of a significant number of candidates. In the latter hypothesis, wherever there is a need to establish some sort of requirement for access to higher education, the process should be designed to accommodate as many students' applications as possible.
The countries with the greatest propensity for student selection prefer more rigorous selection processes; by contrast, the transition systems of the countries more prone to societal selection are more flexible.
There are obviously arguments for and against and there are intermediate positions in any event; however, there is no doubt that any specific transition model involves some gravitation towards one or the other extreme.
Another equally important point is that university entrance requirements and academic success in those institutions must be two sides of the same coin. The latest UNESCO reports emphasize the fact that academic success is influenced in no small measure by the aptitudes and motivations that students bring to a particular course of study, in addition to their previously acquired knowledge. This underscores the importance of taking these two variables—aptitudes and motivations—into account when devising the university entrance system.
UNESCO (1995, p. 38) has also aptly pointed out that: 'Higher education needs to assume a leading role in the renovation of the entire education system.' It is precisely this leading role that is inextricably linked to full autonomy of the university, which is obviously accountable to society. These principles of leadership, autonomy and accountability must also prevail in the design, development and application of the system of university access. It is therefore unreasonable for the university to be held responsible for its students' results unless it is given greater autonomy, which must include a role in student-profile definition and in student selection.
This increased autonomy, coupled with a greater willingness to be held accountable to society for the use it makes of this autonomy, is a challenge for the university. Taking up that challenge calls for substantial changes in its internal operations and its external image in the near future.
Nor must we forget that the university's future depends on more adult enrolment. Thought should therefore be given to appropriate systems of access for this category of student seeking retraining, upgrading or simply personal education. This is all the more important in view of the increasing social acceptance of the principle of lifelong training, already part and parcel of the education system in certain Northern European countries, such as Sweden, where every other adult is enrolled in some type of training course.
Lastly, as the Delors Commission also pointed out in its report (Delors, 1996, p. 156), secondary education must be rethought from this perspective of lifelong education. This means that the diverse training itineraries in secondary education, and the selection processes produced at this level and in the transition to higher education, must not close the door to students wishing to re-enter the education system years later. Genuine acceptance of this possibility would help enormously to clarify the debate on selectivity at these stages of the education system. The possibility of a future return to the system and of access to higher education must hinge on the principle of equal opportunity.
All of these concerns point to the need to devise flexible, diversified systems that attach more importance to the skills acquired by candidates than to the diplomas they hold (at least, that is how access to jobs and training programmes are increasingly envisaged for the future), offer young people and adults new opportunities and, at the very least, do not impose rigid rules on a constantly evolving situation.
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