New points system may accelerate race for places

Fri, Aug 17, 2012, 01:00

COLLEGE CHOICE:ONE OF the striking features of the queries received from students to CampusTimes is the fundamental misunderstanding of the CAO points system.

Many students on on irishtimes.comare being far too pessimistic about their prospects for the first round of CAO offers on Monday. Yes, there will be a steep increase in points for many courses but there are also plenty of alternatives available if you do not get your first choice.

In my day, I needed only two C3s on higher level papers and four passes to gain entry to UCD. In the intervening 30 years the number of students seeking admission to third level has grown by 300 per cent, resulting in the points race for so many places.

To understand how the CAO system works, think of it as operating like an airline.

Imagine if you are queuing for your flight. Seats are allocated to first class passengers and to passengers with children. On occasion, passengers can be left behind as the flight is overbooked – even though they have a ticket.

The CAO system works in a broadly similar way. In all, about a quarter of places are reserved for certain students, such as mature students (15 per cent), students from poorer backgrounds (5 per cent) and students with disabilities (5 per cent).

The remaining 75 per cent of places are allocated according to a student’s place in the points queue.

Until 2011, the first person on board was the student with 6 A1s holding a ticket worth 600 points, followed by those on 595 and so on, until all seats were full. Once the last seat is filled all those still holding valid entry requirements are left behind. The points score of the last person to gain entry is published by the CAO to help guide next year’s applicants.

Of course, that points score can change from year to year. A college may increase the number of seats available, thus enabling more people in the queue to secure a place; with the last person securing a seat having a lower points score than previous years.

Similarly, the number of students queuing for a particular course may grow, many of them holding tickets worth 500-600 points, resulting in a far higher cut off point for the last seat than in previous years.

Many students and parents falsely believe that colleges set the points for each course. They believe that if they have secured the same number of points as the last person to get a seat last year that they will receive an offer for a place on this course next Monday morning.

But two developments this year will transform the picture.

First – as revealed by Seán Flynn in The Irish Times last Monday – there has been a dramatic increase in applications to science and technology, agriculture, medical and paramedical courses. Crucially, there has been no corresponding increase in the number of places on offer.

Second, the more than 11,000 students who passed higher-level maths go into the points race with a bonus 25 CAO points.

Essentially, this allows them to move to a higher spot in the queue, giving them a better chance of getting their place.

If you are one of the 32,000 ordinary-level maths candidates, you are already behind in the race for college points.

Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn says he is pleased with the big increase in those taking higher-level maths. The hope is that many will proceed to take science, technology and related courses at third level.

The economy is particularly dependent on mobile international companies who require their workers to have skills in these key areas. Indeed, the IDA needs a deep pool of graduates in these disciplines to attract the multinationals in the first instance.

But the decision to award bonus points to all of those taking higher maths could have unintended consequences. Many of those who have a ticket may find themselves struggling to get on the plane.

Brian Mooney’s guide to the CAO first-round offers will appear in Monday’s special 12-page College Choice supplement