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Finland Higher Education System

Structure of the Higher Educational System in Finland
Admissions to Higher Education in Finland
Types of Higher Education Institutions in Finland
Cycles of Higher Education in Finland

Types of Higher Education Institutions

There are 14 universities in the Ministry of Education and Culture sector; two of them are foundation universities (*) and the rest are public corporations. University-level education is also provided by a military institution of higher education, the National Defence University, which is part of the Defence Forces. Altogether there were nearly 170 000 university students in 2012.

From the beginning of 2010 universities have had the status of independent legal entities and been separated from the state. However, the state continues to be the primary financier of the universities. Direct government funding covers about 64% of university budgets. In addition, universities are encouraged to acquire private donations.

There are 24 polytechnics in the Ministry of Education and Culture sector. From the beginning of the year 2015 they will have the status of independent legal entities and will operate as limited companies. The State will be the primary financier of the polytechnics. In addition there is the Åland University of Applied Sciences in the self-governing Province of Åland and the Police College of Finland subordinate to the Ministry of the Interior.

The steering of polytechnics based on financing and statutes, as well as operating licenses has been be renewed in the polytechnics reform. The final part of the reform will take effect from the beginning of 2015. The number of polytechnic degree students was approximately 140 000 in 2012.

First Cycle Programmes

First cycle programmes are offered both by universities and polytechnics. University Bachelor’s degrees take three years to complete, while the polytechnic Bachelor’s degrees take 3.5-4.5 years to complete.


At universities students first complete the Bachelor's degree (Finnish: kandidaatin tutkinto Swedish: kandidatexamen), after which they may go for the Master's degree. As a general rule, students are admitted to study for the higher degree. In Finland a Bachelor’s degree is considered mainly to be a stage in the studies for a Master’s degree. This is due, for example, to the fact that the minimum degree for many regulated professions is a master’s level degree. The two-cycle degree system doesn’t apply to medical fields where students study directly to a Master’s level degree.

The extent of a university Bachelor's level degree is 180 ECTS credits and takes three years. The extent of a Polytechnic Bachelor’s degree (Finnish: ammattikorkeakoulututkinto, Swedish: yrkeshögskoleexamen) is generally 210−240 ECTS credits, which means 3.5 - 4 years of full-time study.

The first and second cycle programmes at universities are the same. University education is divided into the following twenty fields of study:

• Theology

• Humanities

• Law

• Social Sciences

• Economics

• Psychology

• Educational Sciences

• Natural Sciences

• Agriculture and Forestry

• Sport Sciences

• Engineering and Architecture

• Medicine

• Dentistry

• Health Sciences

• Veterinary Medicine

• Pharmacy

• Music

• Art and Design

• Theatre and Dance

• Fine Arts

Degrees are usually taken according to subject, but in some fields there are also multidisciplinary degree programmes. The academic degrees usually include studies in one major subject and in one or more minor subjects. Some fields may still offer specialisation areas. Universities have agreed between themselves on flexible minor subject rights in order to widen the supply of education available to students.

Military education is provided at one military academy, the National Defence College run by the Defence Staff. The branches of study available to students are the army, the navy or the air force.

Polytechnic education is provided in the following fields:

• Humanities and Education

• Culture

• Social sciences, business and administration

• Natural resources and the environment

• Technology, communication and transport

• Natural sciences

• Social services, health and sport

• Tourism, catering and domestic services

Admission Requirements

The Finnish matriculation examination provides general eligibility for university education. The same eligibility is also provided by the International Baccalaureate (IB), European Baccalaureate (EB) and Reifeprüfung examinations. In addition, those with a Finnish polytechnic degree, post-secondary level vocational qualification or at least a three-year vocational qualification have general eligibility for university education. Most new students have completed the matriculation examination.

The general requirement for admission to polytechnics is general or vocational upper secondary education and training. In other words, applicants eligible for polytechnic studies include those who have completed the matriculation examination, general upper secondary school (Finnish: lukio, Swedish: gymnasium) or an upper secondary vocational qualification, or those with a corresponding international or foreign qualification.

People who received their schooling in another country may be admitted if their qualification gives eligibility for corresponding university studies in that country. Finland has ratified the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education of the European Council and UNESCO-CEPES (so called Lisbon Convention) and signed the Nordic Convention on Admission to Universities.

Universities and polytechnics select their students independently and they decide on the field-specific student intake taking into account the agreed target number of degrees. The numbers are determined in performance negotiations between the Ministry of Education and Culture and the higher education institutions. There is restricted entry, “numerus clausus”, to all fields of study, as there are many more applicants than there are places available.

There were altogether 182 000 applicants to higher education in the academic year 2013-2014. 90 000 applied to universities, 122 000 to polytechnics and 30 000 to both sectors. Around 35 per cent of the applicants were selected, but there is great variation in the admission rates between different higher education institutions and fields of study.

Student admission may be based on:

• the grades attained in the matriculation examination (and in the general upper secondary school leaving certificate) together with the results of an entrance examination, which is the most common procedure;

• the results of an entrance examination only; or

• the grades attained in the matriculation examination and in the upper secondary school leaving certificate only.

In addition, some fields may place additional emphasis on work experience, studies, practical training, etc. Entrance examinations are designed by the polytechnic, university, faculty or department in question to assess the applicants’ motivation, suitability and aptitude in the field concerned. The tests are often based on required reading. There may also be interviews or material-based examinations, and students may be required to demonstrate their skills or aptitude. Students without the matriculation examination certificate are usually selected on the basis of the entrance examination.

The present legislation allows for flexible pathways leading to higher education. Thus a student is eligible for higher education studies if the institution acknowledges that he/she has sufficient knowledge and competences irrespective of his/her previous education.

An applicant may only accept one study place leading to a higher education degree in each academic year. A study place leading to a higher education degree means a study place in a programme leading to a lower or higher academic degree at universities or a study place in a programme leading to a polytechnic degree.

Finnish universities and polytechnics have autonomy regarding student admission. However, the cooperation between higher education institutions in this respect has increased in the 2000s. The cooperation concerns joint entrance tests and application systems. A national on-line joint application system developed for the student selection of universities, where the main selections of all universities are included, was organised for the first time in spring 2009. The aim is that the on-line system will become the prevalent means of application. A similar on-line application system has been in use in the polytechnic student selections since 2003. These two higher education on-line application systems are being merged. The new merged system was used for the first time in autumn 2014 when selecting students for education beginning at spring 2015.



Polytechnics, universities and their faculties and departments decide on their curricula. The polytechnic degree programmes consist of basic and professional studies, optional studies, practical training to promote professional skills and a final project. The Ministry of Education and Culture has usually confirmed the scope of the degree programmes as being equivalent to 210 or 240 ECTS credits The degrees of midwife, musician, music pedagogue, maritime engineer and sea captain, however, have a scope of 270 ECTS credits.

At universities studies are organised into study units or modules, the extent of which vary and which may include several types of work: lectures and other guided instruction, exercises or other independent work, set-book examinations, seminars and so on. In most fields, the study units form larger modules at three levels: basic or introductory studies, subject or intermediate studies and advanced studies.

The Bachelor’s degree consists of basic and subject studies in the major subject (or degree programme), including a Bachelor’s thesis, and studies in one or more minor subjects.

The scope of polytechnic degree programmes are typically equivalent to 210 or 240 ECTS credits. The degrees of midwife, engineer, maritime engineer and sea captain, however, have a scope of 270 ECTS credits. The polytechnic degree programmes consist of basic and professional studies, optional studies, practical training to promote professional skills and a final project. After the polytechnics reform since 2014 the MoE does not anymore confirm the study programmes.

In polytechnics and universities language and communication studies are compulsory. All students must complete courses in the native language (Finnish or Swedish), in the other national language (Swedish or Finnish) and in one or two foreign languages. Degrees may also comprise either compulsory or optional practical training. In addition to the compulsory studies, students may include extra courses in their degree.

Universities and polytechnics also organise programmes, courses and modules in foreign languages, usually in English. Most higher education institutions have language centres that offer both compulsory and optional language courses in a variety of languages.

The National Defence University educates Finnish officers. The degree programme consists of basic, intermediate and advanced studies of military leadership, tactics and operational art, military pedagogy, technology, strategy and security policy and military history as well as languages. The bachelor’s degree includes writing a thesis and performing supervised practical training.

Teaching Methods

Polytechnics and universities design their own instruction according to national statutes and their own degree regulations. Thus teachers and lecturers have full autonomy regarding their teaching, as well as the materials and methods used.

Results of evaluation projects are frequently used to develop of the instruction. Alongside the traditional forms of teaching – lectures, demonstrations and examinations based on lectures and literature – instruction makes increasing use of other methods, such as essays, projects, seminar and group work. The use of new information technologies in instruction has also increased.

In recent years, polytechnics have strongly developed their instruction. The aim has been to increase students’ independent and self-motivated study. There are various forms of project and teamwork and studies have also increasingly been transferred outside the institution. The role of the teacher has clearly become more instructor-oriented. Compulsory practical on-the-job learning, of a minimum of 30 ECTS credits, enables many students to combine their final project included in the degree programme with hands-on work experience and to apply their theoretical knowledge in real situations. Topics for final projects come primarily from real cases or problems in working life and are often commissioned by enterprises.

Students in higher education institutions are generally responsible for acquiring learning materials and textbooks. Students have the right to use the institutions’ libraries freely with a library card. Also municipal library services are open to all, and the basic services are normally free of charge.

Progression of Students

University students progress in their studies by completing individual courses and study modules. The freedom of choice concerning the order of studies varies between different subjects: in some fields, students are free to plan the sequence of their studies, while the order of courses is defined in more detail in other fields. For some courses, the student may be required to have completed certain preliminary studies or received, for example, the grade "good" from earlier studies.

University students may take studies included in the degree programme or other possible studies offered by the university, or complete studies at other Finnish or foreign universities and institutions of higher education. Universities have separate agreements on the right to study at these institutions.

The system of personal study plans facilitates the planning of studies and the monitoring of progress in studies and supports student guidance and counselling.

The target times for university degrees were defined in 2005. The target time for a university Bachelor’s degree is 3 years. The universities are urged to organise the studies so that a full-time student can take the degrees within the target times. The students can exceed the target times with two years. Acceptable reasons such as parental leave or military service are not included in the two years. After the two years the students can be granted the right to complete their studies after the acceptance of a feasible plan for the completion of the degree.

Polytechnic students progress in their studies by completing courses. Each degree programme consists of core studies and professional studies, optional studies, practical training to promote professional skills and a final project which also includes a maturity test. Studies are compulsory, optional or free-choice. After completion of a polytechnic or another appropriate higher education degree and at least three years of work experience in their field, students may apply for the right to complete a polytechnic Master’s degree.

Each polytechnic student has a personal study plan, which facilitates student guidance and the monitoring of progress in studies.

Failed courses tend to prolong the duration of studies, which will make it more difficult to complete studies in the required period of time. Some polytechnics allow students to retake a failed course twice, unless otherwise agreed in special circumstances. Failed courses should, as far as possible, be retaken during the same term. In order to obtain a degree, compulsory courses must be completed to an acceptable standard.

Studies must be completed within the period of right to study, that is, within no more than one year over and above the standard duration of studies. The standard duration of studies in years is the total scope of credits determined in the curriculum divided by 40 credits. Periods of absence will prolong the period of right to study by a period equivalent to the absence with a maximum permissible period of absence of four terms, that is, two academic years.

Once students exceed the standard duration of studies, the students will have one year to conclude their studies. If students fail to graduate within the standard period of study but want to conclude their studies within the right-to-study period, they will have to draw up personal study plans together with a teacher tutor or a coordinating teacher and send two copies of it to the Head of the Degree Programme for approval. Such students may apply for continuation of the period of right to study and this may be granted in special cases, based on an application, for one time for a maximum period of one year, in order for the students to conclude their studies. If the students fail to graduate during the continuation period granted and want to conclude their studies, they will need to reapply as a student, using the normal application procedure.

The legislation also allows for flexibility in recognising and validating prior learning. Students can be accredited for studies at a higher or other education institution in Finland or abroad. This also applies to learning acquired outside the formal education system.

The initiative for the recognition of prior learning must come from the student and he/she also has the responsibility of providing evidence to support the request. Individual study plans are used increasingly. The accreditation of prior learning in conjunction with these is based on the discussions between teacher and student. According to a survey learning acquired outside formal education is not recognised and accredited very much. Most commonly practical training is compensated by work experience.


Higher education institutions have been encouraged to cooperate with the labour market and the enterprises. One objective of this cooperation is to ensure that studies and degrees are relevant to the labour market. Many degree programmes further include compulsory practice in enterprises in their study programmes.

In addition, higher education institutions have recruitment services. There are joint recruitment services for both universities and polytechnics. Both of these have portals where users can find information on degrees and qualifications, career planning and writing applications.

These services are meant for students who seek placements for training periods during their studies or vacancies after they have graduated. The services are also used by employers for their recruitment purposes.

Student Assessment

At polytechnics and universities student assessment is based on continuous assessment. In most cases, students are assessed on the basis of written examinations at the end of lecture series or larger study units, but there are also oral examinations. In addition, students write papers for seminars and other papers. For the university Bachelor’s degree students write a thesis. At art academies, the thesis may take the form of an artistic production, such as a concert, a play or some other performance, which also includes a written part. At polytechnics students do an individual final year project that commonly includes a thesis. The examiners of coursework are usually the course lecturers or the teachers responsible for the study unit or module.

University decrees include provisions on legal protection for students, in addition to which universities usually have more specific regulations concerning examinations, legal protection for students and the assessment of studies. Students must also be given the opportunity to obtain information on general assessment criteria and the way they have been applied to them. They must also be given the opportunity to request correction and appeal to the relevant faculty’s or corresponding unit’s legal protection board.

Each polytechnic gives regulations and instructions on student assessment in its degree regulations. Students have the right to know how assessment criteria are applied to them and to see their graded examination papers or other performance records. A student not satisfied with the assessment may request correction. The polytechnics have autonomy in deciding on the assessment of practical training.


When a university student has completed all the studies required for a degree, the student may apply for a degree certificate. The certificate is awarded by the university or faculty and the form of the certificate is decided by the university. The university must, on request, also provide students with a certificate for the studies they have completed while still continuing on the degree programme. Students will also receive an appendix of the qualification certificate (called Diploma Supplement). Each student’s study credits are registered on the credit record, of which the student may request a transcript, where necessary. The qualification certificates generally only contain the average grades for the different subjects as well as the grading for the theses.

University degrees and credits are recognised throughout the country. As a result of their autonomy, universities themselves decide on the intake of students according to their resources. The university decides whether studies completed at another institution may be accredited or compensated in a degree.

The polytechnics grant students a degree certificate when they complete a degree. On request, students may also be granted a certificate for the studies they have completed while still continuing on the degree programme.

Polytechnics also grant a diploma supplement for people who have completed a polytechnic degree or studies. The supplement includes the necessary information on the institution as well as studies and credits referred to on the degree certificate and their level and status in the education system.

Short-Cycle Higher Education

In November 2014 a Government Proposal was issued to include provisions on specialisation education in the legislation governing universities and polytechnics. This would create a new type of education alongside degree studies and continuing education.The aim is to provide professional development and specialisation for higher education graduates already in the labour market. Higher education institutions can also accept persons who possess the required competences for these studies without a formal qualification.

Higher education institutions should provide education and training in cooperation with other universities or polytechnics as well as the labour market. These parties should together agree on the scope, objectives, target groups and assessment.

The scope of specialisation studies would be at least 30 ECTS.

The reform is proposed to enter into force in January 2015.

Second Cycle Programmes

Branches of Study

Although students at universities students first complete a Bachelor's degree, students are generally admitted to study for the Master’s degree (Finnish: maisterin tutkinto, Swedish: magisterexamen). A Bachelor’s degree is considered mainly to be a stage in the studies for a Master’s degree. Therefore also the degree programmes are the same in both Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes (see 7.2.1).

The minimum scope of the Master’s degree at universities in most fields is altogether 300 ECTS, in other words, five years of full-time study or 120 ECTS (2 years) after completing the Bachelor’s degree. In medical fields universities may organise their education without offering the first-level degree. The scope of a Master level degree is 360 ECTS in Medicine and Veterinary medicine and 330 ECTS in Dentistry. This is equivalent to 6 or 5,5 years of full-time study respectively.

The National Defence University grants the second cycle degree of Master of Military Sciences. After taking the Bachelor of Military Sciences, the students deepen their education in practical employment for 34 years. After this period the students continue their studies for the degree of Master of Military Sciences. Officers who have graduated from the university are assigned to various wartime and peacetime tasks in the Defence Forces and the Frontier Guard.

Since 1 August 2005 students have had the possibility to complete a polytechnic Master's degree (Finnish: ylempi ammattikorkeakoulututkinto, Swedish: högre yrkeshögskoleexamen. These degrees are meant for people who have completed a polytechnic or any other applicable degree in higher education and who have a minimum of three years of work experience. The degree programmes are in principle the same as for the polytechnic Bachelor’s degrees. As the number of students in the Master’s programmes are relatively small, the degree programmes are decided on in the three-year agreements between the polytechnics and the Ministry of Education and Culture. Polytechnic Master's degrees should amount to a minimum of one year and maximum of a year and a half of full-time study (6090 ECTS). The degree can be concluded flexibly while working at the same time, and without having to leave the labour market.

Admission Requirements

Students apply for admission into the Master’s programmes of universities directly. Thus, there is no separate admission procedure after they have taken their Bachelor’s degree.

The requirement for Master's programmes in polytechnics is a polytechnic degree or other Bachelors' level degree and at least three years of work experience. Master’s programmes are meant for students of all ages. The universities and polytechnics also have to admit students via flexible pathways. Thus a student is eligible for studies if the university or polytechnic acknowledges that he/she has sufficient knowledge and competences irrespective of his/her previous education. See also 7.2.1.


Similarly to Bachelor’s programmes, universities and polytechnics have autonomy regarding the curriculum and courses (see 7.2.1 Curriculum). Universities and polytechnics also organise programmes, courses and modules in foreign languages, usually in English.

Teaching Methods

In the same way as first cycle programmes, polytechnics and universities are free to design their second cycle instruction according to national statutes and their own degree regulations. For more details see 7.2.1 Teaching Methods.

Progression of Students

Students in second cycle programmes progress in their studies mainly as in first cycle programmes, that is, by completing individual courses and study modules.

The target time for a university Master’s degree is 23 years after a Bachelor’s degree. The regulations for exceptions to the target time are the same as for Bachelor’s degrees (7.2.1). In 2012 the median duration of studies for a completed Master’s degree was 6,5 years. There is, however, considerable variation between different fields. The shortest median time was in the field of dance (4 years) and the highest in architecture (8 years).

Student Assessment

At polytechnics and universities student assessment is based on continuous assessment, similarly to first cycle programmes. For the university Master’s degree students write a Master’s thesis. At art academies, the thesis may take the form of an artistic production, such as a concert, a play or some other performance, which also includes a written part.

University-specific decrees and the universities’ or polytechnics’ specific regulations include provisions on the legal protection for students and the assessment of studies. (See Student Assessment in 7.2.1).


The certification and recognition of second cycle Master’s programmes are similar to those in first cycle programmes. For more details, please see Certification in 7.2.1.

In some fields of study, graduates must have authorisation to practise their profession. These fields include pharmacy and psychology, for example.

Third Cycle (PhD) Programmes

Organisation of Doctoral Studies

In Finland third cycle programmes comprise the licentiate (Finnish: lisensiaatin tutkinto, Swedish: licentiatexamen) and doctor’s (Finnish: tohtorin tutkinto, Swedish: doktorsexamen) degrees. The full-time studies for a Licentiate degree takes ca two years after a Master’s degree and a Doctor’s degree four years after the completion of a Master’s degree

Licentiate degrees are awarded to students when they have completed the part of the postgraduate studies assigned by the university and the specialisation education possibly included in the degree. The licentiate degree further includes a licentiate thesis, in which the student demonstrates good knowledge of the field of research and the capability of independently and critically applying scientific research methods. In the field of music and in the field of theatre and dance, the licentiate degree may include a public demonstration of knowledge and skills, instead of a licentiate thesis.

To be awarded a doctorate, the students must complete the required postgraduate studies, demonstrate independent and critical thinking in the field of research and write a doctoral dissertation and defend it in public. The latter is the most important part of the studies. In the fields of fine arts, music, art and design, and theatre and dance, a student may demonstrate in public the knowledge and skills required by the university as part of their dissertation.

Since 2011 all Finnish universities have renewed the structures of doctoral education in order to involve all students in all disciplines in transparent, planned and supervised programme with a reasonable length and aims relevant to the working life. Most of the universities have one graduate school with multiple doctoral programmes. The Ministry of Education sets an annual goal per university for doctoral degrees, and takes the amount of doctoral degrees up to this goal into account in the lump sum funding provided to the universities. Many of the doctoral students are financially supported during the studies, and have multiple funding sources including the university basic funding, the private sector as well as national and international public funding organisations and foundations. The length of doctoral education is not defined in legislation, but in many of the programmes four years is the basis of planning.

Admission Requirements

Postgraduate programmes, that is, those leading to Licentiate and Doctor’s degrees, are available for students with a Master’s degree or a corresponding foreign degree. The prerequisite is usually the grade "good" in the major subject. The university may also accept a degree taken in another field, if the person is found to have the knowledge and ability required for doctoral studies. If the institution regards a degree or study record to be deficient in some respects, the student may have to take complementary studies before starting the programme.

There is generally no numerous clausus to third cycle programmes. Some universities or faculties, however, apply restrictions and select their postgraduate students. This is mainly because there are not enough resources to supervise all willing students. The universities are encouraged to offer third cycle studies through the funding system. The state funding for universities is partly based on the target number of doctoral students and the number of degrees awarded.

Status of Doctoral Students/Candidates

The majority of doctoral students in Finland are employed. However, this group of students is heterogeneous. A part of them are employed by research institutes or universities where their postgraduate studies are part of their work. Another group of doctorate students are enrolled in graduate schools. Finally, for many students their doctoral studies are self-motivated and pursued in their free time. In some of these cases employers can support them by for example giving them short paid leaves of absence.

Supervision Arrangements

The universities have full autonomy in organising the supervision of doctoral students. Most commonly students are the responsibility of one supervisor, generally a professor in their field of study. In addition, doctoral students may have instructors in an enterprise, for example. In the final stages the doctoral dissertation undergoes a reviewing process that involves several external, often international preliminary examiners.


The universities have no special measures for doctoral students to facilitate their access to the labour market. Students can utilise the same channels as first and second cycle students (see 7.2.1). As described above, doctoral students are mostly already in employment and often carry out their research for a specific company or industry.


The coursework required for doctoral studies is assessed similarly to any university coursework, that is, continuous assessment, examinations as well as reports and papers. In addition to the required studies, doctoral students prepare a dissertation, which they defend in public. Again, universities have full autonomy in the assessment. Some universities assess the dissertations and their defence on a pass/fail scale, but some universities use for example the scale approbatur-laudatur.

Certification The certification procedure is the same as in first and second cycle degrees (see 7.2.1 Certification). In some fields of study, graduates must have authorisation to practise their profession. These fields include medicine, veterinary medicine and dentistry.

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