Finland is famously egalitarian. It has almost no fee-charging schools and there are no university tuition fees. However, the ruthlessly competitive university entrance exams - which result in the rejection of about 75 per cent of university applicants - have spawned something traditionally alien to the Arctic country: private tuition companies. And they have caused such horror that a radical overhaul of the entrance exams has been drawn up.
"We can't say they (the private tuition companies) can't operate. They are very popular and we are not very happy about it," says Anita Lehikoinen, the civil servant in charge of higher education policy. "We are trying to modify the university entrance exams so that these companies would not be able to help with what is tested." The proposed exam would test "motivation" and "general ability" and would force universities to give greater consideration to school leaving exam results.
This "major reform" is planned for 2014, but already the Ministry of Education has written to universities to tell them that "it's not a good idea" for their employees to work for these companies. "It's about equity of applicants," says Mrs Lehikoinen. "Not everybody can afford these companies." She adds that they are "to some extent tuition fees by the back door".
Tero Laiho is one of the managers of Valmennuskeskus, a Helsinki-based tuition centre. "We have about 5,000 students a year and about 60 per cent of them get into university," he says. "The most expensive course is 5,000 euros and most of the students are still at school."
When told of the Ministry of Education's dim view of his business, he says: "They are not happy, but there's nothing they can do about it. People can get into university without our course." He adds that his company offers 50 free places annually to students from less wealthy backgrounds.
Law is a particularly popular subject for tuition companies. Oulu-based Juristivalmennus (Legal Preparation) charges only 575 euros per course. According to tutor Pauli Seppanen, about half its students are school pupils (the rest are retaking the entrance exams) and the government cannot accuse it of undermining educational equality. "Look at our prices," he says. "We are very cheap. Most people could afford this."
Others are also critical of the policy proposals. "If we used only student high school exams or these new exams, neither prove that the students have any knowledge of law," says Kai Kokko, professor of law at the University of Lapland. "At the moment, when our students begin university, they already know a lot about law because they have to study it to get in. But with the new system, we would have to start from the very beginning."
And he was sceptical about the new policy's egalitarian potential. "If they do this, the private companies will simply change the level and start tutoring pupils so they get higher marks in their school leaving exams," he said.