CAO points system faces review


The CAO points system - which determines entry to third level colleges - is set to be reviewed , Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn has announced.

In a major speech on higher education, he said the CAO review would be part of a major programme of education reform that also includes a recasting of both the Junior and Leaving Certificate exams. Mr Quinn predicted it would take about six years to roll out the radical reform programme he envisaged.

In a significant move, he also refused to rule out new student charges or fees as the third level sector struggles with a funding crisis.

The Minister made his comments in an address to the Royal Irish Academy on the recent Hunt Report on higher education in Ireland.

Mr Quinn repeated his assertion that the current CAO points system was having an adverse impact on the learning experience at second level, on the Leaving Certificate examination and on the readiness of new entrants into higher education.

The benefits of any Leaving Cert curriculum reform will be undermined, he said, if the demands and pressures that the current points system places on both teachers and students are not addressed.

"I have asked for a full and frank consideration of this issue within the higher education sector in the coming months. We need to be prepared to think in terms of radically new approaches and alternatives to the current arrangements," Mr Quinn told his audience.

The current CAO system is designed around the dominant needs of a cohort of full-time, school leaver, entrants, the Minister said.

"While the CAO has served us very well and enjoys widespread public confidence . . . we have to think in terms of how we manage for a more diverse cohort of students, with new levels and forms of demand for flexible learning and non-traditional routes of entry. ''

Mr Quinn said there can be a lack of clarity and transparency around application processes and requirements for progressing from one part of the further and higher education system to another.

"We need to consider how an increased complexity of entry routes into the future can be managed in a way that is sufficiently sophisticated while remaining transparent and fair.''

On higher education, he said the first basic challenge will be in responding to the huge growth in demand over the next two decades - projected, probably conservatively, at 72 per cent.

This will be mirrored by radical changes in the profile of learners and in the nature of their learning interaction.

"Meeting this will require new ways of funding, designing and delivering higher education and learning opportunities, to support a growing emphasis on flexible opportunities, part-time provision, work-based learning and short intensive upskilling programmes.''

On fees, Mr Quinn refused to rule out additional costs for students - even though he made a specific pre-election commitment ruling out new charges.

The Minister said the issue of finance at third level would have to be addressed, but he said no proposals are being considered. Government would have to look at ways to finance the sector, but he had not been "feeling pressure'' from Government colleagues on the introduction of fees, Mr Quinn added.

Mr Quinn also signalled a very small number of institutes of technology could be transformed into new technological universities as proposed by the Hunt Report.

But he warned that they must meet very strict criteria. "We must be vigilant and ensure that excellence continues to be the hallmark of our higher education institutions and of our system of higher education. ''

"We cannot afford to be influenced by conventional prejudices, territorialism or institutional ambition for new status without new substance. A technological university must first and foremost be a university in the quality of its programmes, teaching and research, albeit one with a quite different mission to our existing universities."

Responding, Fianna Fáil spokesman on Education Brendan Smith accused the Minister of avoiding steps to tackle the funding deficit at third level institutions.

"Instead of taking real action to address the funding difficulties at our universities, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has today kicked this difficult issue down the road by ordering yet another report into funding structures at third level," he said in a statement.

"The Hunt report, commissioned by the previous government, has already clearly stated that our universities will need additional €500 million a year to meet the demands of rising student numbers. One has to question the merits of commissioning another report to do exactly what the Hunt report has done, highlighting the same concerns about growing budget deficits due to a surge in demand for third level places," Mr Smith said.