Why the Hpat system has failed


LEFTFIELD:MINISTER FOR Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn has had three months to consider the report from the review team of experts in medical education on the first three years of the Hpat. This is the test that all applicants to medicine in Ireland must take, on top of securing the requisite points in the Leaving Cert.

It was introduced with the objective of widening access to medicine. Having read the report the Minister can be in no doubt that it has failed in this objective. In fact, it gives an unfair advantage to those who can afford expensive preparatory and repeat courses.

The admission test was a well-intentioned reform. Its introduction by former minister for education Mary Hanafin closed off a glaringly unfair loophole in the CAO system, which allowed students to meet the entry requirements for courses over two years. Under the revised system, students are assessed on the basis of meeting both the minimum entry points for medicine and the points requirements in one Leaving Cert sitting; the days when students could meet the minimum entry requirements in 6th year, and then go on to study six subjects in a grind school to maximise their points score and gain a coveted place in medicine were over.

Along with this reform came the Hpat, an Australian aptitude test designed to assess students’ suitability for a career in medicine. The idea was that you could not prepare for the exam – you either had the aptitude to do well in it or you didn’t.

The new review reveals that many students who secured 550 Leaving Cert points or thereabouts and insufficient Hpat scores accepted places in courses lower down their order of preference such biomedical science, while attending intensive repeat courses for the Hpat in the same pricey grind schools where their colleagues once repeated six Leaving Cert subjects.

More than 85 per cent of those who repeat the exam secure a higher score on their second attempt. Flushed with success, they often abandon their first year college course. The draft report specifically refers to this phenomenon. It notes that in 2010 and 2011, one-third of medical school entrants presented one Leaving Cert result and a repeat Hpat result.

In 2010, for example, 111 medical school entrants (23 per cent of all successful applicants that year) had vacated another third-level course in Ireland and accepted a place in medical school. In this year’s round of CAO offers, two students who had secured a medical place in NUIG last year and got a higher Hpat score by repeating it this year and dropped out of their course to start medicine again in UCD. Nobody can now take up their abandoned places in NUIG.

What a waste of public money.

The message from the report is stark: the Hpat system has failed. It does not, as its promoters claimed, identify the best potential doctors. Instead, it has produced a new system with the same old problem, namely, those who can afford expensive preparatory and repeat courses retain a significant advantage.

Curiously, having exposed the failure of the test, the review team suggest only minor adjustments. Why has the review team been so cautious? A clue comes in the introduction to its report. It notes that “the revised new entry and selection mechanisms to medicine were introduced at the direction of the Department of Education and Skills”.

It’s clear that the department does not want to return to the requirement for a near-perfect Leaving Cert to gain entry to medicine. I have some sympathy with that view but this will not happen if students have to meet the full entry requirements in one sitting of the Leaving. We could also consider moving medical entry to the end of first year of an omnibus science programme, to allow students to fully understand the options available in all medical and paramedical careers before they make these choices.

There would be resistance to such a move from the Hpat grinds industry, which has grown hugely in the past three years. Has the Minister the courage to take such a step in the name of equality of opportunity?

BRIAN MOONEYis a guidance counsellor at Oatlands College, Stillorgan, Dublin