©2021 Tuula Jääskeläinen. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0
Citation: Jääskeläinen, T. (2021). Tuition fees, entrance examinations and misconceptions about equity in higher music education.
Nordic Research in Music Education, 2(1), 4–19. https://doi.org/10.23865/nrme.v2.2803
Tuition fees, entrance
misconceptions about equity
in higher music education
Contact corresponding author:
Keywords: tuition fee, entrance examination, equality, cultural reproduction, higher music education
Tuition fees, entrance exams
Equality is not given, nor is it claimed, it is practiced, it is veriﬁed.
(Rancière, 1999, p. 137)
A national higher education policy which provides equal opportunities to access tertiary
education is generally seen as satisfying one of the central criteria for describing an edu-
cation system as conducive to equality. is article puts the spotlight on the provision of
tertiary education in three countries, and assesses to what extent “equal opportunities” is
a ﬁtting epithet for this provision. e main emphasis is on higher music education. e
countries to be looked at are Finland, the United Kingdom and Australia.1
Equality, as a concept, is oen associated with Finnish higher education policy because
it has been seen to provide equal opportunities to access tertiary education aer mandatory
primary and secondary education (Leijola, 2004). As Cai and Kivistö (2013) observe, this
argument is based on the reality of publicly funded tuition-free higher education system
for students in Finland. Low tuition fees have also been seen as a reason why international
students choose Finland as a country in which to study in higher education, although feed-
back from students in the United Kingdom and Australia indicates that university prestige
is a more important factor than the cost of tuition fees (Cai & Kivistö, 2013).
e increasing participation rate in university education has brought with it its own
issues, such as how to fund growth and still retain the quality of higher education. Else-
where, the expansion of higher education has been the main argument for introducing
tuition fees, for example in the United Kingdom (Ormston & Paterson, 2015). ere is
research evidence that changing the higher education system in the United Kingdom in
1998 from being publicly funded to being funded by tuition fees supported by an income-
contingent loan system for students has promoted equality by increasing funding per stu-
dent, raising enrolment rates, and increasing the participation of disadvantaged students
(Filippakou & Tapper, 2019; Murphy et al., 2019).
In Australia, tuition fees in higher education were abolished in 1974, but were then
re-introduced in 1989 (Gale & Parker, 2018). According to Ronai (2015), the Australian
government supports domestic students with loans that are not required to be paid back
before the students ﬁnd employment aer graduation; however, international students do
not have access to these government loans. It has been argued that the high cost of educa-
tion is a strong motivator for students to complete a degree diligently and on time.
In higher education in Finland, only students outside the European Union and the
European Economic Area are required to pay tuition fees for Bachelor and Master level
programmes (taught in English), although all Bachelor and Master level students pay a
small annual student union fee (approximately 100 euros) (Study in Finland, 2020). In
Finland, the United Kingdom, and Australia, students can apply for grants, bursaries, and
awards to cover tuition fees, and there are also grants or loans available for living expenses,
but there are signiﬁcant diﬀerences in these arrangements from country to country, and
even within the country in the United Kingdom. Also, the tax systems in diﬀerent countries
inﬂuence the expenses and ﬁnancial support of students in higher education in diﬀerent
ways. In fact, it is not easy for students to obtain this complex and varied information on
funding when they are trying to decide where to study (Murphy et al., 2019).
However, there are more barriers to access in higher education than tuition fees; for
example, entrance examinations are a crucial part of higher education systems. According
to Zimdars et al. (2009), there are nowadays still social class inequalities in access to higher
education, especially to elite institutions and ﬁelds of study, although women’s access rates
have increased. When looking at higher music education, where the education is mostly
based on one-to-one tuition and small groups, and is thus both costly and lengthy, entrance
examinations can eliminate inappropriate admission decisions (Cox, 2010)—but at the
same time can eliminate, or at least pare down, very valuable diﬀerences and diversity in
the student intake as well (Bull, 2019).
Both entrance examinations and tuition fees inexorably pull economics—for example,
the ﬁnancial circumstances of a student’s background and that of society at large—into
any discussion of higher education. According to Reay (2017), business-minded adminis-
tration in education, ﬁnancial requirements, expectations for productivity and eﬃciency,
and increasing unemployment in relation to social class inequalities all have an impact on
curricula, and have negative consequences on learning. Biesta (2005) sees the close links
between economics and education as a problematic process, where the learners are almost
expected to behave like customers and know what they want from teachers and educational
institutions, treating them as services. Bull (2019) emphasises that, in order to increase
inclusion and diversity in the ﬁeld of music education, the evidence on inequalities—the
role they have and the consequences of this role—needs to be collected and made public.
e aim of this article is to address misconceptions about equity from the students’
point of view by examining how equality and cultural reproduction are connected to
tuition fees and entrance examinations in higher music education institutions in Finland,
the United Kingdom, and Australia.
Tuition fees and equality
When considering the connection between tuition fees and equality in education, the
concept of equality needs clariﬁcation. From a historical perspective, egalitarianism has
become a common and self-evident concept that is taken for granted as an element of
Tuition fees, entrance exams
social progression, but its meaning has grown out of a vague and even ambivalent abstract
concept, the imprecise nature of which has also inﬂuenced the concept of equality in edu-
cational contexts (Kalalahti & Varjo, 2012). Very oen, equality as a concept is used as if
it were interchangeable with equity or justice; however, the meanings are not the same
(Nelson et al., 2012). In diﬀerent educational ﬁelds, many discussions around equity have
focused on questions of access, participation, and beneﬁts within educational levels and
social groups (Lynch & Baker, 2005). Ainscow (2016) takes equity to be concerned with
inclusion and fairness in education, and views it as a human right and the basis for justice
in society. In addition, equity in connection with quality and eﬃciency has become the
main international measure of the eﬀectiveness of a higher education system (James, 2007).
In Table 1, the diﬀerences between three scholars’ assumptions about educa-
tional equality, educational equity, and educational justice are illustrated to show how
overlapping—and even conﬂicting—these concepts can be.
Authors Educational equality Educational equity Educational justice
As a summary, equality in a society can be considered as a state in which everyone beneﬁts
from the same supports through equal treatment; equity as a state in which everyone gets
the support they need; and justice as a state in which any causes of inequity are addressed
and removed. Espinoza (2007) argues that the degree of equity is not equivalent with the
level of equality, because more equity may result in less equality. Levitan (2016) highlights
that in educational contexts equality or equity must not be achieved at the expense of justice.
Brayboy et al. (2007) also argue that equality, in the sense of aspiring towards same-
ness, is not always compatible with justice, and can lead to assimilationist policies in edu-
cation. For example, even if educational institutions had equal resources, this would not
mean that they were necessarily equitable, fair, and equal. Equity fosters justice and fairness
through a non-equal distribution of various national or local or institutional resources,
thereby compensating for inequalities of various sorts in students’ backgrounds and other
cultural and social circumstances; this results in more equal educational opportunities for
students. erefore, to achieve equality, equity and justice in education, assimilation cannot
be a prerequisite for academic success.
Equality, equity, and justice are connected in intertwined ways to students’ ﬁnancial
circumstances in higher education. e tuition-free education in Finland can look as if it is
promoting equality, as tuition fees are not barriers to study in higher education. However,
despite the tuition-free education, there are socio-economic factors connected to higher
education in Finland that may cause inequality between individuals. One example is com-
petition in entrance examinations, in which applicants who can aﬀord preparation courses
are in a better position and more likely to be accepted than applicants who do not have
access to these expensive classes (Leijola, 2004).
e income-contingent loan system in the United Kingdom may be seen as promoting
justice, since both advantaged and disadvantaged individuals have the same opportunities
to obtain suﬃcient resources to study in higher education. In reality, however, student loans
do not cover all the expenses in a student’s life, and this creates a gap between students with
and those without familial ﬁnancial support (Reay, 2017). Moreover, when students have
large debts waiting for them when they graduate, universities carry increased pressure to
train all their students in all their degree programmes to be more practically employable
(Filippakou & Tapper, 2019).
Similarly, the loan system for domestic students in higher education supported by the
Australian government may seem to promote equity, because domestic students are more
likely to return the government’s investment by paying taxes in Australia through their
future employment. At the same time, for international students, the high cost of educa-
tion in Australia can lead to a lowering of quality standards and the unequal treatment of
students, if teachers are under pressure to advance the academic interests and graduation
of those students who pay higher tuition fees (Ronai, 2015).
Entrance examinations and cultural reproduction
When looking at entrance examinations, Bourdieu’s (1977) theory of cultural reproduction
oﬀers a view on the impact of cultural capital between social classes with regard to entrance
examinations as educational attainment. According to Zimdars et al. (2009, p. 650), “cul-
tural capital consists of familiarity with the dominant culture in a society”. us, cultural
capital varies between social classes. Because education systems are built from knowledge
and skills based on cultural capital, the system itself reproduces the circumstances that put
lower-class students at a disadvantage, since they possess less cultural capital than upper-
Tuition fees, entrance exams
In Finland, the connection between entrance examinations and cultural reproduction
can be seen as a cumulative source of inequality in higher education stemming from a
student’s family background, for example parents having university degrees, leading at ﬁrst
to a child’s better results in primary and secondary education, which then forms the basis
for success in the entrance examinations to higher education (Heiskala et al., 2020; Leijola,
2004). Reay (2017) argues that educational policy changes in the United Kingdom have
not been able to overcome the issue that students are educated according to their social
class background. Recent research by Czarnecki (2018) shows that in Australia there are
still diﬀerences in educational opportunity between social classes, which is evident in that
young people with upper-class background have better chances than those with lower-
class background to access the most prestigious institutions of higher education. Although
an awareness of equality in education has been highlighted in educational institutions,
emphasis on economic eﬀectiveness has increased competition, which has in turn resulted
in decreased social justice and fairness in education, especially for the lower social classes
Higher music education has speciﬁc characteristics that diﬀerentiate it from other
ﬁelds in higher education, and which need to be addressed when thinking about entrance
examinations in connection to cultural reproduction. In many Western countries, music
education practices have historical roots in economic inequalities between social classes,
and classical music in particular is characterized by bourgeois practices “created by the
aesthetic of classical music’s canonic repertoire” (Bull, 2019, p. 222). erefore, this cultural
reproduction can be seen as strengthening the middle class, maintaining gendered patterns,
and legitimising hierarchical, competitive, and exclusive educational practices, thus hinder-
ing wider participation in music education.
According to Bull’s (2019, p. 229) empirical research, these practices are diﬃcult to
change because they are reproduced again and again:
… by teachers, who teach as they were taught, by conservative assessment models both
in and out of school, by the powerful inﬂuence of higher education music institutions,
both universities and conservatoires, by parents who want to accrue value of various
kinds for their children and by young people themselves who want to ﬁnd their social
niche, and … oen have a strong sense of hierarchies of valued identities.
Comparison of tuition fees and entrance
examinations in higher music education in
Finland, the United Kingdom, and Australia
Are there notable diﬀerences in the tuition fees and entrance examinations between stu-
dents in higher music education in diﬀerent countries? To answer this question, three
higher music education institutions in diﬀerent countries were chosen for this article: the
Sibelius Academy (SibA/Uniarts, 2020) in Finland, the Royal Northern College of Music
(RNCM, 2020) in the United Kingdom, and the Queensland Conservatorium (QCGU,
2020) in Australia.
To obtain a sample overview of what students face with regard to tuition fees in these
three countries, Table 2 shows the comparison of degrees, study years, study credits, and
tuition fees in euros as of May 2018. Details of degrees and tuition fees were gathered from
the institutions’ web pages in 2018 (QCGU, 2020; RNCM, 2020; SibA/Uniarts, 2020).
is comparison shows that the Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral degrees in higher
music education have some diﬀerences in their duration in these institutions in Finland,
the United Kingdom, and Australia. In addition, there are striking diﬀerences between the
tuition fees that students face: there are obvious diﬀerences between tuition fees for domes-
tic and international students, and signiﬁcant diﬀerences between the situation in Finland
and other countries.
When considering the entrance examination information on the institutions’ web
pages (QCGU, 2020; RNCM, 2020; SibA/Uniarts, 2020), admission procedures seem to
be similar in all institutions. Admission procedures consist of 1) an application which
may include recommendations, 2) recorded and/or live auditions (particularly in music
performance programmes), 3) an exam, portfolio, or research plan (in other study pro-
grammes), and 4) possible interviews, additional tests, or other requirements depend-
ing on the study programmes’ speciﬁc guidelines. However, there is more ﬂexibility in
the application dates in the United Kingdom and Australia, where, in addition to exact
admission dates, it is possible to apply throughout the year. In Finland, admission dates are
It is not possible to compare the percentages of applicants and accepted students
between the three countries, because information on web pages regarding the total num-
ber of applicants and accepted students is only available for Finland. e statistics of the
Sibelius Academy (SibA/Uniarts, 2020) show that during the years 2017–2020 at the Bach-
elor and Master levels the number of applicants has varied between 1197–1500, the num-
ber of accepted students has varied between 170–197, and the acceptance percentage has
varied between 13–15%. In the United Kingdom, the web pages of the Royal Northern
College of Music (RNCM, 2020) do provide information about other aspects of the appli-
cation/acceptance ratio, in particular statistics regarding Transparency Information about
the applicants’ and accepted students’ gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic background,
which is an important way to show the diversity of admissions.
However, Our World in Data statistics for tertiary education can provide an overview
of the countries’ general situation with regard to education (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina, 2013).
Table 3 shows the comparison of the situation in tertiary education between the three
countries we have been looking at.
Tuition fees, entrance exams
Institution Lower degree Higher degree Doctoral degree
Tuition fee per year Study years
Tuition fee per year Study years
Tuition fee per year
Country Share of the population
older than 14 that has
Share of those who
within 5years of finishing
were enrolled in tertiary
education* in 2013 (%)
on tertiary education* in
2013 (% of Gross Domestic
e statistics regarding the completion of tertiary education show that the percentage was
much higher in the United Kingdom and Australia than it was in Finland. On the other
hand, when looking at the statistics regarding the number of individuals enrolled in ter-
tiary education, the percentage was higher in Finland and Australia than in the United
Kingdom. Government expenditure on tertiary education was higher in Finland than in
the United Kingdom and Australia.
Misconceptions about equity in higher education
e tuition fee systems and entrance examinations in Finland, the United Kingdom, and
Australia each aim to increase equality, equity, and justice, but there are still inequalities
from the students’ point of view. Gale and Parker (2018) point out that the practice of
assigning the burden of students’ tuition fees to individuals, rather than to the public as a
whole, is a product of neoliberalism. Similarly, the neoliberal market economy strength-
ens the cultural reproduction of social classes so that some sort of causal eﬀect is being
strengthened whereby students from wealthier families and/or families with greater
resources tend to gain access to wealthier higher education institutions, while students
from poorer families with weaker resources tend to access inadequately resourced institu-
tions (Reay, 2017). According to Apple (2006), when neoliberal tendencies have impact on
educational systems, it is important to ﬁnd ways both to contest these tendencies and to
strengthen democracy in education.
James (2007) argues that one way to improve equality in education is to reveal mis-
conceptions that surround the discussion of equity in higher education. e ﬁrst of the
six misconceptions identiﬁed by James (2007, p. 10) is that “expanding participation will
improve equity”. As the example of the United Kingdom shows, the increasing participa-
tion in higher education was driven by the needs of labour markets, but this later forced
a re-establishment of tuition fees and caused a situation in which students are burdened
Tuition fees, entrance exams
with heavy debts to be paid aer graduation. According to Peltonen (2017), if the process
of education is driven purely by economic interests, it may overpower the essential aims of
the actual human beings participating in that education.
e second misconception is that “free or low cost higher education will improve equity”
(James, 2007, pp. 10–11). As can be seen from the example of Finland’s tuition-free higher edu-
cation, this also has consequences which may increase inequalities between individuals, such
as the use of entrance examinations. Biesta (2005) emphasizes that one of the most important
tasks for teachers is to challenge educational systems to activate students as learners to meet
otherness and diﬀerence. If the entrance examinations eliminate diﬀerences among students,
then tuition-free education cannot fully support this basic task of education.
e third misconception, connected to the second, is that “improving equity involves
the removal of barriers to access” (James, 2007, p. 11). Removing barriers is not the same
thing as building opportunities, and therefore removing tuition fees or entrance examina-
tions as barriers to access does not necessarily promote equity if it leads to assimilation
policies. Kontio and Sailer (2017) argue that the legitimation of the educational system
should include the idea of allowing each individual to cultivate and reach their full poten-
tial. Securing suﬃcient ﬁnancial aid to manage tuition fees and living costs, for example
with money provided by institutional scholarships or government loans, can be a way to
enable students to realize their potential in education. Similarly, supporting children in the
process of recognizing their potential and providing resources to cultivate their interests
from early childhood can prepare them for accessing higher education or pursuing other
e fourth misconception is that “the onus is with universities to resolve equity prob-
lems” (James, 2007, p. 11). Higher education cannot be solely responsible for increasing
equality, equity, and justice in society. A student’s previous educational path, including early
childhood before school age, has an impact on their opportunities to achieve their potential
through their educational choices. However, ﬁnancial support for tuition fees by the gov-
ernment and higher education institutions can narrow inequalities between advantaged
and disadvantaged students, and in that way promote change in the future. is is imple-
mented in Finland through tuition-free education, and in the United Kingdom and Austra-
lia through loans and institutional scholarships for students. According to Kontio and Sailer
(2017), using taxes for educational investment can be an eﬀective way of achieving a more
equal income distribution from the rich to the poor. As Table 3 indicates, Finland invests
more public resources in higher education than either the United Kingdom or Australia.
e ﬁh misconception is that “widening participation will lower standards or lower
retention and completion rates” (James, 2007, pp. 11–12). It is too simplistic to argue
without strong evidence that increasing participation leads to decreasing retention and
completion rates in higher education. ere are many factors connected to a student’s
circumstances that can slow or hinder graduation. erefore, these assumptions cannot
be used as arguments against the idea of supporting both advantaged and disadvantaged
students on their university paths, for example through governmental support for tuition
fees. Education should not be measured only by graduation rates calibrated to serve the
economic interests of society. Hansen and Davids (2017) remind us that the heart of edu-
cation—wisdom—can only be achieved through discourse about important aspects of life,
not through educational economics.
is idea is also related to the sixth misconception, that “students can be selected for
higher education on academic merit” (James, 2007, p. 12). Gaining admittance to univer-
sity cannot be a sign of merit or intellectual ability alone, as it is also indicative of cultural
reproduction in the cumulative advantages or of disadvantages created by the student’s
family, school, and community circumstances. Increasing participation rates and broad-
ening governmental and institutional systems for supporting free tuition or government
loans for students have changed the elitist image of higher education over the last decades.
According to Dewey (1998/1916), the criteria that determine both the quality and quantity
of education should be a combination of the learner’s point of departure and their intrinsic
activities and needs.
How do tuition fees increase or decrease equality? e answer is not simple, as there are dif-
ferent governmental and educational policies connected to the tuition fee systems in diﬀer-
ent countries. As the examples of tuition fee systems in higher music education institutions
provided here show, while they may aim at improving equality, equity, and justice for students,
they can, at the same time, also enhance (or even introduce new) inequalities. It would be
interesting to consider how tuition fees are connected to students’ well-being, instead of look-
ing merely at students’ economic value as future employees. Recent research by Beban and
Trueman (2018) shows that ﬁnancial worries can be a key source of stress for students in
higher education, including the immediate ﬁnancial needs of paying rent and buying food
as well as the anxiety over student loan debt. Future research in relation to equality could
concentrate on music students’ experienced workload, stress and struggle to cope as they try
to manage their tuition fees and other ﬁnancial challenges alongside the demands of their
higher music education studies (Jääskeläinen, 2016; Jääskeläinen & López-Íñiguez, 2017).
What about entrance examinations and cultural reproduction? Traditions in the ﬁeld
of music have created a strong culture of entrance examinations that is not easy to change,
especially because the roots of cultural reproduction are so deeply embedded in music’s
aesthetic, pedagogical, and educational systems. In addition, the path from childhood to suc-
cess (or failure) in a higher education entrance examination is strongly connected to socio-
economic and family circumstances. e most important step towards improving entrance
Tuition fees, entrance exams
examination systems is to gather data on inequalities and good practices, in order to ﬁnd
ways to strengthen inclusion and diversity. A good example is the Transparency Information
displayed on the Royal Northern College of Music web page about the diversity of applicants
and accepted students. Bull (2019) suggests rethinking selection processes to increase fair-
ness, as well as developing more diverse curricula and pedagogies in music education, while
Reay (2017) emphasizes the impact of collaborative approaches to learning.
Reimer (2007) argues that although inequities and injustices are not going to disappear
in music education, it is crucial to pursue broader equality, equity, and justice—and there-
fore all eﬀorts, even those with modest positive results or resulting in only slight progress,
are valuable. is requires a critical debate about the role and impact of tuition fee and
entrance examination systems in higher music education, situated within an evaluation of
contemporary educational policy trends. According to Bull (2019), crucial topics include
1) social inequalities, 2) genres, class, genders, and race, 3) sexual, emotional, and physical
abuse in the ﬁeld of music, and 4) creative collaboration with other social groups. Moreover,
it is vital to listen to young people talk about their joys and concerns, and to integrate their
voices into the music institutions’ developmental work. Addressing and sharing individual
experiences of inequality and oppression in educational systems can make more inclusive
education possible (Reay, 2017).
In the ﬁeld of higher music education, discussion about tuition fees in relation to
equality and about entrance examinations in relation to cultural reproduction is crucial.
In addition to pursuing this ongoing discussion, Bull (2019, p. 236) provides very practical
steps towards verifying equality through funding and access in music education:
e best defence for better public funding for music education is, therefore, not the
outdated mantra that every child should have a chance to learn an instrument, but that
a public system has more power to sustain and develop more representative, cross-
cultural and innovative musical cultures.
It is through such steps in education that we can contribute to the reformation and redeﬁ-
nition of a more equitable and just society in the future (Siljander & Kontio, 2017). is
article, looking at these important aspects of higher education mainly from the student’s
perspective, seeks to make a contribution to promoting equality both in higher music edu-
cation and in society in general.
Tuula Jääskeläinen (M.Ed.) has twenty years of working experience in the higher educa-
tion administration of the University of Helsinki and the University of the Arts Helsinki,
Finland, as a project coordinator, planning oﬃcer, university pedagogy lecturer, and head
of Student Services. She is currently working as a planning oﬃcer at the Aalto University
School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Finland. She is a doctoral researcher in music
education in the MuTri Doctoral School in the Sibelius Academy, University of the Arts
Helsinki, Finland, and in the ArtsEqual Research Initiative associated with the Center for
Educational Research and Academic Development in the Arts (CERADA). She is also
studying International Law and Human Rights minor studies at the Institute for Human
Rights in the Åbo Akademi University, Finland.
is work was undertaken at the Center for Educational Research and Academic Devel-
opment in the Arts (CERADA), University of the Arts Helsinki, Finland, as part of
ArtsEqual Research Initiative, supported by the Academy of Finland’s Strategic Research
Council under Grant 314223/2017. I would like to thank language editor Dr. Christopher
TenWolde, NRME’s own language editor and the two anonymous reviewers whose sugges-
tions helped improve and clarify this manuscript.
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