Colleges criticised for using small-intake courses to drive up CAO points

Some ‘niche’ courses offer just 10 places

Of almost 800 honours degree – or level-eight –  courses, 60 per cent had fewer than 30 places.

Of almost 800 honours degree – or level-eight – courses, 60 per cent had fewer than 30 places.


Many colleges are still manipulating the CAO system by offering courses with very few student places in order to drive up the points requirements for them, a university president has warned.

Colleges have been criticised in the past for creating these high-points courses in the belief they add to the prestige of the institutions.

In recent years, higher education institutions have pledged to take the heat out of the points race by reducing the number of “niche” courses and introducing more general-entry routes.

Philip Nolan, president of Maynooth University and chair of a taskforce which is overseeing the process, criticised institutes of technology in particular for increasing the number of smaller courses on offer.

His comments come as more than 50,000 Leaving Cert students are set to receive their exam results on Wednesday.

Bonus points

Much of the pressure for places on courses comes where places are most limited and points are highest.

The approach of creating niche courses, Prof Nolan said, smacked of using the CAO system as a marketing tool rather than an admissions process.

“Universities signed up to a process of reform that is due to be delivered by next year. Some institutions have moved ahead of time, while others are moving slower than we would have liked,” he said.

“But institutes of technology are heading in the opposite direction. The numbers of courses has actually grown. It is very disappointing and requires some review and some action.”

Enrolment figures for all higher education institutions, obtained by The Irish Times, show about 20 per cent of all higher education courses admitted 10 students or fewer last September.

Of almost 800 honours degree – or level-eight – courses for which data was obtained, just over 450 courses, or 60 per cent, had fewer than 30 places.

The fragmentation of courses at ordinary degree or higher diploma – level six and seven – is even more stark; about 70 per cent of courses had an intake below 30 last September.

Niche courses

“As far as I am concerned, we made a set of commitments. They are in the best interests of students, so we are obliged to deliver on them,” he said.

Prof Nolan said the experience of universities who instituted the reforms early was positive in terms of student recruitment. Both Maynooth University and UCD – which have led the process in reducing the numbers of different course codes on offer – have not suffered in any way from this decision, as their overall number of applications has remained strong.

In fact, Maynooth received its highest-ever volume of first-preferences. “It is a tremendous vindication for the bold steps we took to offer students a unique opportunity to have greater flexibility and more control.”

The move to create more broad entry-route courses came about following an Irish Universities’ Association task force in 2012, which called for greater transparency in admissions strategies as well as a reduction in course codes to try to relax the points race.