Third-level scramble for high achievers can come at a cost

More general entry courses would reduce ‘artificial’ complexity of CAO system

Spoilt for choice: The confusing state of our college application system causes many students to select programmes which they drop out of in first year. Getty/Digital Vision

Spoilt for choice: The confusing state of our college application system causes many students to select programmes which they drop out of in first year. Getty/Digital Vision

Sat, Aug 16, 2014, 01:00

Let’s be honest, there are only about 14 professions. So how did we get to a situation where students face choosing between 1,400 CAO courses each year?

In truth, it is a case of marketing gone mad as colleges compete against each other to attract highly academic students to their campus.

CAO points have become a currency in their own right. Students and their parents don’t want to waste them so they seek out courses close to their estimated Leaving Cert points score.

This creates an incentive for colleges to create course codes with a very small number of places on offer, something which automatically results in the published points being set at a level to attract students of a certain academic quality.

Each move on one college’s part is immediately matched by their competitors – and on it goes, growing year by year.

One college, for example, might attract the application of 10 students who have achieved points scores over 500, who then arrive at a lecture hall with 200 other students of the same discipline who applied under lower-ranking CAO codes. What happens next?

The college down the road, which has the same course of a similar size, but whose points score requirement is quite modest and therefore does not attract the high-points candidate, decides to do the same thing.

The present state of our college application system creates for students a level of complexity in deciding their course choices which is totally artificial and causes many of them to select programmes which they drop out of in first year at great personal cost to both themselves and the taxpayer who is funding the entire system.

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan and a third-level review group chaired by Dr Philip Nolan, the president of NUI Maynooth, are attempting to persuade colleges to unravel this labyrinth.

However no college wants to do something which reduces the academic quality of its annual intake. Among other things, it has a knock-on effect on international rankings.

For the sake of all those seeking a college place, however, higher education institutions should return to offering students general entry into broad disciplines and allow them to discover which aspects of that degree interest them as they progress through their programme.

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