Leaving Cert 2023: Universities may use lotteries for high-points courses as official criticises ‘populist’ grade inflation

Foley defends decision to keep results at record high out of ‘fairness’ for students

A senior university official has criticised Minister for Education Norma Foley’s decision to keep Leaving Cert students’ grades inflated this year as a “populist” move which would force colleges to use lotteries to select top students for some high-points courses.

Prof Pól Ó Dochartaigh, University of Galway’s deputy president and registrar, also said the extent of high grades this year puts the credibility of Leaving Cert grades at risk.

The use of random selection by colleges occurs when there is a bunching of candidates on similar points. Officials expect the measure may be needed for some high-points courses such as dental science, business and others when CAO offers issue next Wednesday.

“I saw today that one school in Cork had 10 students with 625 points. It may be a brilliant school, but that would not have happened before inflated grades. So it is inevitable that there will be random selection again this year,” Prof Pól Ó Dochartaigh said


Inflated grades were creating “false expectations” for some lower-achieving students, he said, who may end up struggling in their courses and dropping out. He told The Irish Times that provisional figures show student dropout levels – which fell to a historic low in the early years of Covid – have already climbed back to pre-Covid levels and “possibly might end up worse”.

However, Prof Ó Dochartaigh said his greatest concern was that students from the North were finding it increasingly difficult to access universities in the South. While grades remain inflated in the Republic, A-level grades are returning to pre-pandemic norms in the North and elsewhere.

“I’ve had emails from parents and students today and some feel they are being excluded from studying in their own country. You don’t have to be a Sinn Féin republican to feel like that. They want to study in another part of Ireland. and they feel it is being made infinitely harder for them to do so.”

Geraldine Fusciardi, who lives in Northern Ireland, said she was “shocked and disappointed” on behalf of her daughter who has applied to go to college in the South.

“It doesn’t create a level playing field for students across Ireland, with A-level students who are already disadvantaged in how their results are converted to CAO points,” she said. “I’m disappointed that for many reasons – economic, political, social – we need to have more Northern Ireland students in the South. This is how we build a better future for all of us across the island of Ireland.”

Mrs Foley said on Friday that she had directed exam authorities to keep grades for the class of 2023 at last year’s inflated levels out of “fairness” for this year’s students. “This particular cohort of students is unique. They are remarkable in that they never had the opportunity nor the experience to take a State exam: they never sat the Junior Cycle.” She said they also had to use considerable more home teaching and learning.

When asked if she was ruling out inflated grade next year, she said she was not, and pointed out that grade inflation was also a factor in higher education.

In all more than 60,000 students received their Leaving Cert grades on Friday morning, which were artificially increased by an average of almost 8 per cent on foot of a “postmarking intervention” by exam authorities.

The extent of how much higher grades are this year compared to the year before the pandemic is evident in a breakdown of the volume of H1s achieved. While a total of between 5-6 per cent of grades were H1s in the years before the pandemic, it has climbed to more than 14 per cent from 2021 to 2023.

Similarly, while about 200 students achieved maximum points – 625 – in 2019, this climbed to more than 1,100 last year. A similar number of high-achieving students this year is expected to be confirmed in the coming days.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent