How places at third level are allocated

Colleges play no part in determining points

A common misperception of many CAO applicants and their parents is that colleges set the points score for all courses, or that the points requirements published in 2012 remain fixed for the 2013-14 academic year, unless colleges decide otherwise.

Having calculated their points score last Wednesday morning, many students and parents are waiting anxiously to see if the colleges are going to increase the points requirement for their favourite course come 6am on Monday. All of the above perceptions are completely false.

Colleges play no part
In fact, the colleges play no hand, act or part in determining points. They simply set out the basic entry requirements for each course, known by university students of my generation as matriculation. They then decide how many places the CAO, on their behalf, are to offer on each course next Monday morning.

Imagine you are in a queue for a flight. The staff call on those with children to board first, followed by those with first class tickets. They then call on all other passengers holding valid boarding passes to board the aircraft, but shortly afterwards announce that unfortunately the aircraft is now full and although you have a ticket you are going nowhere. This is exactly how our third-level entry system works.

From among those who meet the basic entry requirements for a specific course, first to secure their college place are those who hold the 5 per cent of places reserved for those with a designated disability, followed by the 5 per cent from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and the up to 15 per cent of applicants who are over 23 years of age, and secure places as mature entrants. The remaining 75 per cent of places in all courses are allocated according to a student’s place in the points queue, starting with the student holding the maximum 625 points.

Once the last seat is filled, all those still holding valid entry requirements are left behind. The points score of the last person to secure a place is always published by the CAO, which will be printed in our Irish Times College Choice supplement next Monday, to indicate to those who will not receive an offer that, although they have all the entry requirements for the course, the college has run out of places to offer below the published points.

The points score of the last person to secure a place can change from year to year: the college may increase the number of places on offer, enabling more people in the queue on to the course, with the last person in having a lower points score than previous years. The number of students queuing for a particular course may grow, many of them holding points scores of 500-625, resulting in a far higher cut off point for the last seat than in previous years.

One major change
There has been one major change in the CAO landscape in the past two years, which will determine who gets the coveted places on our various college courses next Monday morning. Some 96.6 per cent of the 13,014 students who successfully secured grade D3 or higher in higher-level maths have 25 additional points, over and above those who passed this subject in 2011. This initiative allows them to move to a higher spot in the points queue, and gives them a greater chance of getting a coveted college place.

Conversely, if you are one of the 32,165 ordinary-level maths candidates without these bonus points, you may find yourself next Monday further down the queue, and still standing there when the door closes behind the last person to secure a seat.

It amazes me that the changes to our college entry requirements, which prioritise entry for specific groups (known elsewhere as affirmative action programmes), have raised not a whimper of protest or comment from those who don’t get a place in their desired course. I am not suggesting our specific affirmations action initiatives are not appropriate, but the complete absence of any comment or debate on these issues is strange.