A record 84,000 students have applied for college places in the coming academic year, according to well-placed sources, placing further pressure on the third-level entry system.
Last February the Central Applications Office (CAO) received a record 79,000 applications for college places, a 9 per cent increase on 2020.
This figure has since climbed by several thousand since the deadline for late applications passed on May 1st, according to education sources.
The increase is likely to be the result of mature students seeking to retrain and increased interest from overseas applicants sparked by Brexit.
Government sources say they hope the addition of about 4,000 extra third-level places this year will absorb pressure linked to growing demand and grade inflation as a result of the new accredited grades process.
Details of where the additional places will go are still being worked out, but senior sources want to target them in areas of demand such as health, law, business, science, the environment and journalism.
These issues are due to be discussed by Ministers at a meeting of the Cabinet committee on education this week, which includes Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris, Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and others.
However, higher education sources have warned that places in very high demand courses such as medicine, dentistry and engineering have “maxed out” due to a combination of physical constraints and limited clinical placements.
“We simply can’t accommodate any more applicants to these types of courses,” said one senior third-level source.
“We don’t have the lab space, we don’t have access to additional clinical places, so I don’t see where these places can go. The danger is that we end up creating additional places in other courses where the demand isn’t really needed.”
Tensions are also emerging between the Government and universities over the funding of additional third-level places generally.
One higher-education source said that although the Government wanted a new baseline of third-level places based on 2,225 additional third-level places created last year, this was being resisted by colleges.
“We will do everything we can to facilitate students, but we can’t plan our higher education in this kind of on-the-hoof way. We need to ask: how many students should be going to third level, are they going there for the right reasons and what alternatives are there?”
Grade inflation is expected among this year’s Leaving Cert students because they have the option of receiving accredited grades based on teachers’ estimated marks – similar to last year’s calculated grades – or sitting written exams, or both.
If a student chooses to avail of accredited grades and the written exam, they will automatically receive the better result. The vast majority of sixth-year students have opted to sit exams and receive accredited grades in a number of subjects.
Last year’s calculated grades process resulted in grade inflation and a major increase in CAO points. This led to additional pressure on places in high-demand courses where there were limited places.
Some observers believe grade inflation could be even greater this year due to the fact that most students will
automatically be credited with their best result.
Increased demand for college this year and the pressure on particular courses became clear in a breakdown of CAO applications by the regular February 1st deadline.
This showed there was particular pressure for places on high-points courses in areas such as health sciences and environmental studies.
Some colleges recorded an exceptional demand for places. For example, Trinity College Dublin recorded a record 38 per cent increase in first-preference applications, while University College Dublin recorded a 16 per cent increase.
In light of additional demand, Simon Harris set up a working group to identify spare capacity in the higher-education system, which has been examining how many more places can be offered across high-demand courses.
It is understood that engagement is taking place with health services, in particular, to see if additional clinical placements can be provided to help boost numbers in these sectors.