Elementary teaching remained under the direction and inspection of the Evangelical National Lutheran Church until 1921 when the Compulsory Education Act was passed, providing for nationwide compulsory public education by 1937. A new Primary School Act came into force in 1958. The Act on the Principles of the School System, issued in 1968, and a decree issued in 1970 further transformed the educational system.
Higher education falls into three categories: universities and institutions of university status; people's high schools or colleges; and workers' academies. Entrance to the universities is through annual matriculation examinations. There were 13 universities and 12 colleges and institutes in 1991. Among the best known are the University of Helsinki (founded 1640), Turku University (founded 1922), the Helsinki School of Economics, and the University of Tampere. University study is free of charge. In 1997, all institutions of higher learning enrolled a combined total of 226,458 students.The new school system unites the primary school and lower secondary school into a compulsory nine-year comprehensive school, with a six-year lower level and a three-year upper level. Instruction is uniform at the lower level. At the upper one, there are both required and elective courses. The upper secondary school (gymnasium) and vocational schools have also been reformed, with enrollments expanding year by year. In 1997, 3,766 primary schools enrolled 380,932 students and employed 21,459 teachers. In the same year, secondary schools had 469,933 pupils and 26,457 teachers. The pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was 16 to 1 in 1999. In the same year, 100% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school, while 95% of those eligible attended secondary school. Virtually all adults are literate.
People's high schools and workers' academies are evidence of the widespread interest in popular or adult education. Although they are owned by private foundations or organizations, these ventures also receive state subsidies.
In the latter half of the 1990s, the government allocated approximately 12.2% of its annual budget to education. As of 1995, public expenditure on education was estimated at 7% of GDP.