CAO course choices: Health sees largest cohort of first-choice applicants

Figures indicate an increase in applications from 77,813 in 2020 to 84,526 this year

Forty-two thousand applicants amended their course application preferences during May and June

Figures released by the Central Applications office (CAO) that reflect applicants’ final course choices as of 1st July indicate an increase in applications from 77,813 in 2020 to 84,526 (up 8.6 per cent) this year.

Forty-two thousand applicants amended their course application preferences during May and June.

The additional 6,695 applicants this year are drawn almost equally from two main components.

Domestic applicants are up 5 per cent (3,369), indicating an increase in the number of additional students in that age cohort.


Applicants from other EU countries are up 3,027, 136 per cent, from 2,229 to 5,256 in 2021, due mainly to the relative cost of third-level tuition in Ireland as opposed to the UK, where many EU students previously sought places in programmes taught exclusively through English.

The numbers of applicants for each area of study or discipline should therefore be looked at through the prism of an overall increase of 8.6 per cent in application numbers. Where numbers are up in any sector by around 9 per cent, they are in effect static, or if unchanged they are effectively down by 9 per cent.

Looked at through this lens, the drop of 5 per cent and 9 per cent in the numbers selecting a primary or secondary teaching course is significant and indicates a possible negative reaction by applicants to the experience of teaching during Covid19.

With student numbers currently decreasing in our primary schools, this fall in applicants may not overly worry policy-makers, but at secondary level, where numbers will grow significantly over the next five years, this will raise concerns.

Conversely the increase of 15 per cent in first-preference choices for nursing, pharmacy up 23 per cent and medicine up 20 per cent is possibly a similarly positive outcome of the perception of the "caring" professions in the past two years, and will put pressure of CAO points requirements in September, unless Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris can deliver substantial additional places.

In this light, the largest increases in preferences at 50 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively, are in courses in the disciplines of environment and journalism, indicating a growing awareness among young people of care for our planet and the provision of high-quality information and analysis through our mainstream media, including print journalism.

In terms of overall numbers, the largest cohort of first-choice applicants are in health (15,108) up 13 per cent on 2020, followed by business (9,835), up by 3 per cent.

Factoring in the overall increase in applicants of 9 per cent, interest in health programmes is up by 6 per cent but down in business by a similar proportion.

Again, the contrast in perception of health versus business programmes is probably a reflection of public sentiment, and that of 2021 college applicants regarding these two career paths in the era of Covid19.

Allowing for the overall increase in application numbers, arts programmes are up 12 per cent at 7,792 (translating into first preferences up around an additional 3 per cent), social behavioural sciences at 6,388 are up 16 per cent, an additional 7 per cent, whereas education at 5,465 is up 1 per cent but is effectively down by 8 per cent. Law at 2,930 is down by 8 per cent on 2020, which is effectively a drop in overall preference of double that percentage.

The constant message relating to the shortage of housing has awakened the interest of some applicants, with numbers expressing their first choice course in architecture and construction up to 2,734 (16 per cent) or 7 per cent above the overall increase in applications.

The applicants of 2021 seem to have a positive perspective on the constant stream of scientific experts who have helped us navigate our way through the pandemic.

Application numbers for biological and related sciences are up in first preferences to 3,698, an increase of 16 per cent on 2020 or 7 per cent ahead of the overall increase in application numbers.

The breakdown in overall application numbers provided by the CAO, as outlined above, indicated where the pressure points are likely to be when colleges offer their main round of places on September 7th.

With an increase in overall numbers of 8.6 per cent, Mr Harris would have to provide funds and other resources to expand our third-level system by similar numbers, for points to remain at 2020 levels.

Where different sectors and faculties of the academic world draw greater or lesser interest than 2020 as outlined, this will inevitably be reflected in CAO points requirements in two months’ time.