Uptake figures shed light on points race

Parents council says information on course places, published by ‘The Irish Times’ today, should be provided as standard

Blurring the results: the number of places filled in each course is crucial for determining demand for it, and affects the points required. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Blurring the results: the number of places filled in each course is crucial for determining demand for it, and affects the points required. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Thu, Aug 28, 2014, 01:00

As second round offers are released today to college applicants, there have been fresh calls for greater transparency in the application process.

Don Myers, president of National Parents Council post primary, said it would seek a meeting with the CAO – as the organisation charged with processing applications – to discuss concerns about colleges manipulating entry points by offering courses with a small intake.

Demand for courses is normally measured by the Round One entry requirements, which can rise or fall each year. However, it can be difficult for students to find out how many places are available on each course, as not all colleges publish this information. Without it, students may get a false impression of the real demand.

The Irish Times is today publishing this year’s first and second round entry requirements, which were supplied by the CAO. This year we have added a column with the number of places filled through each course code last year, information sourced independently.

Myers said such information should be available as standard for students and parents. “A lot of parents who contacted us last week expressed confusion about the system,” he said, adding there should be “more openness” from colleges. “That’s a big issue at the moment.”

While high demand for a course was normally reflected in higher points, he said people did not know how many places were actually being offered or filled. “Basically the universities are suiting themselves. They are running courses so they can attract high points, and then lowering the points when it suits them.”

The latter can be done by increasing the number of places on the programme, causing the points to drift down.

‘More openness’

“I am not saying this [the CAO system] is a bad system but there needs to be more openness and transparency. I would be hoping we can sit down with the CAO and talk about this.”

NUI Maynooth president Prof Philip Nolan, who chairs a universities’ task force on admissions reform, also backed the publication of such figures. “There needs to be transparency about how many places are on offer in any given course up front” and colleges should explain “if there are fewer than 30 students on a course, why?”

He said: “Points are related to nothing but demand and supply and it’s a real shame if institutions, including my own, feel they should reduce the supply to make the points higher in order that it looks like the course is better; the course is no different.”

An analysis by The Irish Times, published this month, showed that, of the 1,400 course codes listed by higher education institutions, only 48 had filled 100 or more places last year. For over one-third of course codes, 15 or fewer places had been filled.

The proliferation of a large number of course codes with small entry numbers makes it more difficult to read trends in the CAO system. Some of the biggest movers in terms of points this year were for course codes that admitted a small number of students last year.

Colleges believe creating such small courses can attract higher-points students. A student who has 500 points might not apply for a programme set at 400 points, perceiving it to be a “waste” of some of their Leaving Cert results.

In reality, however, students admitted under these course codes typically attend lectures as part of far bigger class groups who secured their places under more general entry courses with far lower points.

The effect of changing course numbers on points can be seen in Trinity College Dublin’s decision this year to allocate 25 places on three course codes to applicants outside the CAO process. The number of places available through the CAO in history thus fell from roughly 40 to 30, and in Ancient and Medieval History and Culture from 15 to 10. As a result, Round One offers for the two courses were up 15 points and 25 points respectively.

In a reverse effect, points for a number of computer science courses dropped this year due to the provision of additional places under the course codes. At NUI Maynooth, points for the computer science degree through arts fell 35 points to 350 and through science from 45 points to 360 as the student intake on the two courses rose from 100 to 150. Points for computer science at UCD remained at 470 where the intake is increasing by 35 to 105.

For students, it can be difficult to establish whether the entry points are an accurate reflection of demand unless they also know the number of places offered and filled. More places may be offered than are filled due to a lack of demand, and may then become available on the CAO “available places” list.

Of 941 higher-degree (level 8) courses listed this year, 80 were included on this year’s “available places” list. Of 471 courses at ordinary degree or higher certificate (level 6/7), 112 were similarly listed.

The closing date for accepting Round Two offers, issued today, is September 3rd.

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