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Universities did not act unlawfully when changing student admission criteria in spring 2020

Deputy-Ombudsman Pasi Pölönen has issued his decision on complaints concerning student admissions in spring 2020. The Deputy-Ombudsman had no legal grounds to intervene in universities’ proceedings.

Exceptionally high number of complaints on student admissions 

The Parliamentary Ombudsman received a total of 104 complaints on universities’ student admissions. The complaints concerned, in particular, increasing the proportion of certificate-based admissions, announcing the changes, the necessity of cancelling physical examinations and problems related to the electronic preliminary selection examinations, especially the possibility of cheating.

The joint application to universities between 18 March and 1 April 2020 took place at the outset of the global COVID-19 pandemic and national state of emergency. In April 2020, universities outlined that it was not possible to organise conventional entrance examinations safely, but it was necessary to resort to alternative arrangements. Universities also changed the selection criteria they had announced earlier after the end of the joint application period.

It is highly unusual to receive such a large number of complaints concerning a single matter. Therefore, the Deputy-Ombudsman considered it important to investigate the matter at a general level, even though it was possible to seek redress against individual student admission decisions and to appeal to the Administrative Court. The Deputy-Ombudsman did not take a stand on individual student admission decisions or the appropriateness of the admission criteria for individual fields of study.

Universities examined changes to selection criteria thoroughly

The Deputy-Ombudsman examined changes to the selection criteria from the perspectives of universities’ examination duty, legitimate expectations, equality, proportionality requirement and information provision. In addition, the Deputy-Ombudsman examined matters related to electronic pre-selection and universities’ preparedness for emergency conditions, especially with regard to student admission.

The Deputy-Ombudsman considered universities to have properly investigated alternative ways of organising student admissions and to have provided information on the changes as soon as possible and to the extent this was possible under the prevailing circumstances and based on their knowledge. Furthermore, universities had not otherwise misused their discretion.

However, with regard to electronic pre-selection, the Deputy-Ombudsman stressed that in general, the aim should be to pursue procedures where the risk of abuses that jeopardise legal protection is minimal. The possibility of misconduct or the unjustified advantage that could be gained by it had now been minimised in many ways (reducing the significance of entrance examinations by increasing the proportion of certificate-based admissions, utilising two-stage entrance examinations and increasing the number of applicants invited to the second examination stage, requirements on the scores of the first and second stage examinations, risk of study place cancellation).

In practice, universities had to perform these measures to address the confidence deficit that had arisen due to the initial adoption of the selection procedure that enabled cheating. However, the Deputy-Ombudsman considered the measures and the use of electronic pre-selection generally acceptable under the prevailing circumstances. 

Decision 2628/2020 by Deputy-Ombudsman Pasi Pölönen is available in full (in Finnish) on the Ombudsman’s website at www.oikeusasiamies.fi.

Further information is available from Principal Legal Adviser Mikko Sarja, tel. +358 9 432 3364.