16,000 students turned down third-level places


More than 16,000 students who were offered a place on a third-level course last year did not accept it, the Points Commission says in its interim consultative document. This was more than a quarter of the Central Applications Office applicants.

The document, published yesterday, has been prepared as a background paper for five meetings this month for the public to give the commission their views. These two-hour evening meetings will take place in Cork on September 21st, Athlone on September 22nd, Galway on September 23rd, Sligo on September 24th and Dun Laoghaire on September 29th.

The document contains the preliminary findings of three research reports: on the views of Leaving Certificate students on the points system; on how good a predictor the exam is of future third-level performance; and on what basis students choose their courses.

The commission's chairwoman, Prof Aine Hyland of UCC, yesterday said the most traditionally prestigious courses only reflected the laws of supply and demand, their high points requirements dictated by the small number of places available on them.

Thus there were only 10 places on TCD courses like radiography and law with French, and only eight on human genetics. This determined their high points requirements. The very high demand and limited numbers of places affected many university courses in the areas of medicine, law and pharmacy.

Prof Hyland also stressed the theme which many of the 120-plus submissions already received had highlighted, the problems disadvantaged and mature students faced in gaining access to third-level education.

She said less than 5 per cent of third-level places were available to mature students, which was very low compared to other OECD countries.

In its submission UCD's adult education office noted that the procedures for admitting mature students rested with each individual institution, and in universities with the faculties.

"As a result of this system (or non-system), the procedures for admission vary considerably and range from random selection to extensive interviewing and testing. This has the effect of handicapping and discouraging candidates and of cheating them of their right to parity of esteem."

Linked to this is the theme of disadvantage. The Conference of Religious of Ireland's submission argues that "the points system itself actually contributes to the perpetuation of inequalities of educational outcomes."

CORI argues that disadvantaged students are particularly affected by the narrow range of subjects in second-level schools, and the points system "reinforces and accentuates the strong academic bias" of such schools.

This perception that the points system only measures a narrow range of skills, and that this should be broadened, perhaps through the use of continuous assessment, is a frequent theme.

The commission's consultative document also cites the many submissions which highlight "the issue of the variation in marking between subjects and the effects this has on subject choice."

"Concern is expressed that subject choices made by students can be influenced by the perception that some subjects are likely to be marked `more easily' than others in the Leaving Certificate examination."

The consultative document is available on the commission's website at www.irlgov.ie/educ/comm.htm