Going beyond the points race to ensure greater diversity at Third Level

Thu, Aug 21, 2014, 01:00

Learning, ideally, is its own reward. In practice, though, the education young people gain in secondary school is translated annually into a numerical value. “How many points did you get?” is the question school-leavers were asked this week as the Central Applications Office (CAO) began making offers for college places. Higher education institutions, which set up the CAO almost 40 years ago to manage candidate selection and entry, themselves admit that the points system measures something but not everything about students’ ability. An applicant with 515 points – the equivalent of five B2s and an A2 in Maths – will get a first round-offer of Science in Trinity College Dublin or UCD. But if one of those B2s was a B3 she loses out, pending second round offers, even if she is the sort of person who loves nothing more than taking apart and reassembling machinery in her spare time. Or indeed is the sort of person who has risen from a disadvantaged background to become the first in her family to apply for third level education.

The CAO is blind to such factors. It can be a cruel judge too. Students target a figure based on last year’s points only to find the goal posts have moved 12 months on. Those seeking a more enlightened system sometimes point to the examples of England and the US where universities typically interview candidates or incorporate factors beyond exam results. Two such factors, however, are money and personal influence, and – in their latest deliberations on reforming the CAO – universities here have insisted on maintaining the anonymity of the selection process on which its integrity rests. A pilot project at TCD is this year seeking to demonstrate that anonymity can be retained despite broadening the admissions criteria. It has taken in 25 students in three courses through a weighted scoring system based on CAO points, the candidate’s performance relative to other third level applicants from their school, and a statement of interest – from which any reference that might identify the candidate is first redacted. The students will be tracked over a two year period, and other colleges await Trinity’s findings with interest.

As for students, Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan gave wise advice this week when urged them to “choose the path they are interested in” rather than chasing the course with the highest points. The CAO has brought with it a degree of points snobbery, albeit parents perhaps more readily fall under its spell. The recently-published ESRI report “Leaving School in Ireland” showed that when school-leavers were deciding what to do after the Leaving Cert they placed greatest weight on doing something interesting or fulfilling, and least weight on what friends or family were telling them, indicating that school-leavers do have minds of their own and are, thankfully, willing to use them.