Champagne corks popped in many households last Friday when students received record high Leaving Cert results.
By Tuesday afternoon, many celebrations had turned to heartbreak.
CAO points for entry into to most college courses jumped to a record high, with hundreds of students failing to get into their first preference course despite securing more than 600 points.
In all, more than 20 college courses shot through the 600-point barrier this year. This is up from seven last year and just one the year before. For the first time, four courses reached the maximum threshold of 625 points.
These exclude medicine and portfolio-related courses, points for which also rose almost universally.
The CAO points race is a cruel system at the best of times – this year it was especially so.
Faced with record high Leaving Cert results and greater numbers of applicants than ever, universities in most cases had to use “random selection” to determine entry into these very high points courses.
As a result, dozens of high-achieving students lost out on their dream courses on the basis of a lottery. Incredibly, they included students who secured maximum points.
University admissions officers resented having to set the bar so high, but say they had little choice.
“To study medicine with us, you need a near-perfect Leaving Cert with well over 700 points, including the Hpat,” said one higher education source, who declined to be named.
It is not a sustainable position that entry to our degrees should require achievement of greater than 600 points
“This year, we had to reject 21 medical students on random selection, even though they got the points required. It’s devastating for them.”
There was better news for most students. About three-quarters of students are estimated to have secured one of their top-three preferences in the CAO this year, a similar proportion to last year.
However, much of the heartache has been reserved for those at the top end of the results spectrum.
UCD said that while it always seeks to avoid random selection in high-point degrees the number of applicants on the same points was greater than the capacity of these classes. It feels the system cannot continue like this.
Prof Mark Rogers, UCD's deputy president and registrar, said: "While we are delighted for students, it is not a sustainable position that entry to our degrees should require achievement of greater than 600 points and, in one case, achieving the maximum points possible in the Leaving Certificate does not guarantee students a place in their course of choice."
Pól Ó Dochartaigh, deputy president of NUI Galway and chairman of the CAO, went further still.
“It’s cruel, it’s actually cruel,” he said. “Our resources in higher education are finite.”
I think we should go back to the grade profiles in pre-Covid times and regard these as a blip. It's the fairest way, all round
It is clear that record high grades have, in turn, led to record CAO points. In points terms, numbers are jaw dropping. In normal times, between 700-800 students get more than 600 points. This jumped to about 1,800 students last year, according to higher education sources. This year, it has climbed to an estimated 2,500 students.
Higher education sources say it has undermined the meaning of high grades and made it more difficult to differentiate between top candidates.
What to do?
So, is it time to burst the grade inflation bubble?
Most observers accept there are two simple options: accept this new inflated grade profile as the new normal for future Leaving Certs or return to the traditional grades in place prior to the pandemic.
If these are the new normal, many believe we will need a new system to measure achievement for entry to higher education. Universities are in no rush to return to matriculation exams or holding interviews with candidates, which leaves the option of a more refined points system. In the UK, this led to the introduction of the A* grade in A-levels a few years ago.
Prof Ó Dochartaigh, however, said it is time to return to the traditional grade distribution.
“I think we should go back to the grade profiles in pre-Covid times and regard these as a blip. It’s the fairest way, all round,” he said.
“Yes, the class of 2021 and, to a lesser extent, 2020 will have an advantage. But it’s better than permanently disadvantaging everyone’s results from before the pandemic.”
Politically, however, grade deflation will be unpopular. If there is a reset to pre-pandemic grades next year, it will further penalise a 2022 cohort that has had their education blighted by two years of Covid-19 disruption.
Others believe the process of unwinding grade inflation could take years. For example, students’ grades at higher are now, on average, 17 per cent ahead of where they were two years ago. This will be no easy feat.
In higher education circles, meanwhile. there is frustration that they have been left to deal with the fallout.
"Many of us are pointing the finger at the Department of Education and the State Examinations Commission, " said one higher education source. "They have stood over the validity of this year's grades, which is fine for them, but we're left with the difficult choice. Who, seriously, believes students are that much better than they were two years ago?"