Barrier of 600 points breached: Five takeaways from CAO offers

Brian Mooney: Maximum Leaving Cert points no longer secure that college place

It must be a slightly unnerving prospect for lecturing staff and students to be starting out with such an elite group. File photograph: Getty

It must be a slightly unnerving prospect for lecturing staff and students to be starting out with such an elite group. File photograph: Getty


1. Barrier of 600 points well and truly shattered

There was huge surprise across all involved in the college place allocations system in 2019 when UCD’s economics and finance broke through the 600-point barrier.

The level of grade inflation in 2021 now means about 20 programmes shoot through that barrier, leading to entire classes where every student may have secured at least six H1s.

They include occupational therapy in NUI Galway and UCC, human nutrition and dietetics in TU Dublin, and physiotherapy in UCD and UL.

In a cruel twist, most of these courses were on random selection. So, even though candidates secured the required points, some have not secured places. Colleges say they have limited capacity and no choice in the matter.

Overall, grade inflation is to blame. It is questionable whether the class of 2021 is that much more intelligent than those who started their degree programmes in 2019, but it must be a slightly unnerving prospect for lecturing staff and students to be starting out with such an elite group.

2. Maximum points no longer secure a college place

It is incredible, but true: a maximum score of 625 points no longer secures you a guaranteed place in your first choice course.

There is a cohort of CAO applicants mystified as to how it is possible to secure a perfect score in the Leaving Cert only to discover on the following Tuesday that you have not been offered your first-choice programme.

This is because courses which require 625 points this year – dentistry in Trinity and UCC, economics and finance in UCD and management sciences and information systems in Trinity – were all determined by a raffle called random selection. This takes place when more students secure a points score than there are remaining places to allocate.

3. Unwinding points inflation will be tricky

How do we unwind what we have now created? There are many disappointed applicants who sat the Leaving Cert in 2019, or previously, whose hopes of securing an offer were buried today under an avalanche of extra CAO points sloshing around the application system.

It seems likely that many students who have just begun their final year in second-level school will face the traditional Leaving Cert exam as it operated up to the outbreak of Covid-19. While there will be modifications to the papers, to take account of school closures, there are no plans at this stage to run school-estimated accredited grades in June 2022.

Will grades return to their pre-pandemic norm? Or are this year’s inflated grades a “new normal”? Or will we see a gradual unwinding of inflation? Whatever happens, it will advantage certain cohorts over others.

4. Coronavirus impact

As a result of Covid-19, courses from medicine to nursing have increased in popularity. Points for the vast majority of these courses are up significantly.

So, too, have degrees in journalism, possibly because of the prominence of mainstream media over the past two years. At NUI Galway, for example, points for journalism have jumped from 400 to 484 points.

There are also signs of growing environmental awareness feeding into course choices. This, after all, is the school strike for climate generation. There is strong growth in demand, and therefore entry requirements, for all programmes relating to the health of our planet and the environment in which this generation of school leavers will spend their adult lives living.

For example, a new sustainability degree at UCD – introduced in 2020 – increased by 70 points to 510 despite the addition of dozens of extra places on the degree by the university.

5. It’s the economy, stupid

As ever, there is clear evidence from the CAO points that many of the increases are in programmes relating to jobs within the economy.

It is no surprise, then, that points and applications are up for courses in construction sector and architecture. For example, architecture at UCD has jumped from 510 to 555 points.

Any applicants who don’t qualify for construction-related courses would do well to look at alternative entry routes into this sector through further education and apprenticeships.

General business programmes are also up, for the most part. Graduates will be in high demand given the predictions for post-pandemic economic growth over the coming years.