CAO applications: colleges call the shots

A reduction in the artificially inflated range of choices would lead to lower drop-out rates

The points for any given third-level course can rise or fall each year, and is determined by the law of supply and demand

The points for any given third-level course can rise or fall each year, and is determined by the law of supply and demand


The Central Applications Office (CAO) is a not-for-profit company established by the higher education institutions in the Republic of Ireland. Colleges delegate to the CAO the centralised processing of applications for undergraduate courses. The colleges still make all decisions regarding offers of places, including where students are being advantaged by schemes such as Dare, Hear, or given elite status due to high performance in sporting or other designated skills.

Since September 2017 it operated the new points scale based on the new Leaving Cert grading system and other internationally recognised second-level terminal exams. The new points scale has been applied by the CAO to every applicant’s results (current or previous).

Where an additional assessment (apart from exam grades) partly determines entry to a course – for example in artistic, musical, architectural or medical courses – colleges designate them as “restricted” courses and only accept applications up to February 1st (March 1st for amended applications). The applicants are graded on the additional assessments, to determine suitability for the programme, and these grades are added to their eventual Leaving Cert points score.

Priority applicants

As outlined above, colleges reserve the right to prioritise certain applicants through programmes such as the Higher Education Access Route (Hear) supporting economically disadvantaged students, Disability Access Route to Education (Dare), elite sport or artistic ability, etc. These students may be offered places based on up to 20 per cent fewer CAO points than those required of mainstream applicants.

The points for any given third-level course can rise or fall each year, and is determined by the law of supply and demand. This year sees the first set of new grading and CAO points, reflecting the scores required in 2017, to secure a place in a specific course, as published in this supplement.

How do colleges determine who gets which place? The colleges decide the number of places they will offer on each course in 2018, and the number of applicants for it who meet the entry requirements. They start by offering places to those with the highest points. The lowest entry point score for any course (published by the CAO after the results) is determined by the points of the student offered the last place.

Manipulating points

This should be a random process whereby the colleges cannot exercise control. But research by a task force on reforming admissions, chaired by Maynooth University president Philip Nolan, showed that some colleges, by varying the number of places offered, seek to keep points above a psychologically significant number. For example, far more places are offered on 500 points than on 499. Colleges may manipulate points in the hope of attracting higher points students, impressed by the status of such programmes.

Applications increase each year, due to our demographic profile. Thus, the battle for places on prestigious courses will intensify, and the entry points of the last applicant to squeeze through the door will inevitably increase. The only way to stop this is to increase the number of college places to match population growth.

The number of level 8 honours degrees has grown from just over 200 courses in 2000 to 1,143 today.

Courses with a tiny number of places inevitably have very high points. So, there is an incentive for colleges to subdivide a large generic programme, with, say, 500 places, into 10 specialised courses in the discipline, with 50 places in each. If the course was offered with 500 places it might have 420 points; by offering 10 courses with 50 places each, each might require points over 500, which raises their prestige.

Cutting down

Following publicity about this issue, colleges have come under pressure to reduce the number of degree programmes. Over the past few years some have cut down, offering applicants broad general first-year programmes within a discipline, eg arts, science, engineering, etc. However, others have done little. Therefore, the overall number of courses has only dipped slightly.

The coming years will show if there can be a real reduction in the vast range of choices facing students each year. This should lead to lower drop-out rates among first years as they are given freedom to explore wide areas of knowledge, before choosing which aspect of the discipline most interests them. They can then choose to specialise from second year onwards.