Beyond the CAO points race: Irish colleges need to address issues of access and diversity


Criticism of the points system as the sole basis for entry to third level education has grown in recent years as rote learning and special tuition courses became the norm and inherent weaknesses emerged. A pilot project introduced by Trinity College seeks to demonstrate entry criteria should be broadened to include work experience, critical thinking and communication skills. At the same time, Maynooth University intends to dramatically reduce the number of intake courses next year and encourage students to specialise at a later stage. Issues around access and diversity need to be addressed by every third level college. The debate has intensified in recent months as reflected in commentary in this newspaper.

When the CAO points system was introduced almost 40 years ago, it brought with it anonymity, transparency and a barrier to “political pull” and academic influence in the allocation of college places. It was a rare achievement and attracted widespread support. As happens with all systems, however, weaknesses were eventually identified and exploited. A points race developed in secondary schools that rewarded rote learning and cramming over critical thinking. CAO points rather than student aptitude came to dictate choice of careers. Academics have acknowledged an amended model of entry assessment might be beneficial while Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan has urged students to follow their areas of interest.

The current debate is to be welcomed, though it has given rise to forceful disagreement. The Trinity project, under which 25 students were admitted to courses on reduced CAO points but involving personal assessments, attracted particular criticism as “an exercise in futility” that jeopardised the future of students. Such a response might suggest the entire CAO system is under threat. That is not the case. This two-year project addresses inflexibility and social bias by broadening admissions criteria while retaining anonymity and freedom from external influences. Rejecting the exercise now fails to recognise the need to respond to evolving social demands and circumstances.

There are concerns that changes to the admissions system could open university doors to the influence of money and personal influence, as happens in the US. That is not what the Trinity project is about. It has been designed to recognise the importance of CAO exam points, while taking personal and social factors into account within a process of guaranteed anonymity. An inflexible CAO admissions system is not the only cause for concern. The number of “prestige courses” offered by universities, involving low intake numbers, are creating multiple entry routes and distort the points system. This trend, which inflates entry point requirements, can be as threatening to the potential of some young people as the points system itself.