Has the CAO points system run its course? Earlier this month, Simon Harris, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, questioned if the points system is the right way to go, stating that it is "not the international norm".
His intervention came after the class of 2021 received the highest grades in Leaving Cert history, with the number securing maximum points up from 0.4 per cent in 2019 to 2.3 per cent this year. This led to record CAO points and, in turn, saw maximum points college courses use random selection to allocate places – meaning that some students on top points still missed out on their chosen courses, primarily in health sciences.
For many years, critics of the CAO points system have said that it is almost focused entirely on academics – with some exceptions for portfolio-based courses and the admission of mature, disabled and disadvantaged students – and they argue that, in tandem with a reformed senior cycle, that HEIs should further broaden their selection criteria.
Later this year, Harris is expected to introduce a new system that will allow students to apply for further and higher education at the same time.
“The CAO system works well for some – but not for everyone,” says Harris. “Covid-19 has taught us a lot about the education system. Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time meeting FET [further education and training] students who narrowly missed out on a CAO offer, but ultimately find that the year in FET stands to them.”
Harris says that he wants to ensure more places reserved for FET students to progress to higher education.
This could, however, mean fewer places for CAO applicants, driving points up further.
“It could be that students take a [FET] year after school to consider their options,” says Harris. “A system where people apply to the CAO and FET and apprenticeship options at the same time would change the conversation.”
Harris, however, is reluctant to abolish the CAO altogether.
“I’ve an open mind on it but it should not be the only show in town,” he says.
Nonetheless, parallel admissions models are being considered by HEIs and policymakers and, with the advent of senior cycle change, seem inevitable.
Michael Bastedo, professor of education at the University of Michigan, is an expert on international college admission systems.
"Ireland has one of the most structured college admissions systems, with few alternatives to the CAO," he says.
“It is high on transparency, relatively low on political corruption and very low in nepotism. There’s a deep concern to ensure that nobody running the system could know an applicant. On the other hand, outside the Leaving Cert, there’s not a lot of ways to demonstrate your capacity to do well.”
So what might these other methods look like?
The holistic system
Students apply directly to individual HEIs and are assessed on a combination of personal statements/ essays, interviews and recommendations.
On the face of it, this would ensure that less places are captured by those who can afford private or additional tuition to bolster their exam results.
But famously, in the US, this led to a college admissions scandal with wealthy parents – including actor Felicity Huffman – jailed for bribing officials.
“Transparency is low in this system and, in the US, you have no idea why your application was successful or not,” says Bastedo.
Brigid Freeman, a senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne and an expert on international admission systems, says that international systems are changing to allow for more holistic approaches.
“The global trend is towards a more diverse student body, allowing for more social inclusion and equity through portfolios, letters of recommendation and interviews.”
Bastedo points out that this would require significant investment.
"The Irish system is cheap to administer, but to get holistic admissions right is expensive – we know this from how much South Korea had to invest in it."
College places for all
RTÉ Liveline presenter Joe Duffy has questioned why there isn't a college place for anyone who wants one.
Such a system might allow larger numbers of students into first year courses, with entry into second year decided on a competitive basis.
UL president Kerstin May, however, has reservations.
“The resources required and ‘wasted’ when, for instance, 1,000 students would start their BBS programme in year one and only 500 progress to year two, would be enormous. We would be better served to broaden our open day approach to stimulate interest in programmes by taster session and also offer summer camps. The latter may be particularly valuable to grow diversity in areas with under-representation.”
In an Irish context, such a move would require significant additional investment in an already chronically underfunded system.
“We do need a more sustainable funding model for higher education,” says Harris. “I want to talk to the sector about funding and reform.”
"Globally, developed countries tend to prefer end-of-school exams as the main admission method to third-level," says Freeman.
“Other systems have entrance exams run by an educational authority] such as China’s gaokao], which essentially does the same thing. HEIs might take into account a combination of subject specific entrance exams, tests, interviews, portfolios and aptitude tests. Overall, the more holistic an admissions process, the fairer it tends to be.”
Here, Trinity College has experimented with a system where, in disadvantaged schools, the top-performing students are assessed on their class ranking, not their points relative to wealthy students in fee-paying schools.
"The CAO could be tweaked to include class position, marks in subjects relevant to your course and assessing skills," suggests Brendan Tangney, co-director of the Trinity Access Programme.
“But I’m not sure the system has the appetite for it.”
‘I got maximum points - and I still lost out’
Andrea Whyte, Leaving Cert student at Athlone Community College
“I did everything I was supposed to do. I met all the requirements for dentistry- and I still lost out.
“At the start of fifth year in 2019, there was no Covid. Points for dentistry were at 590 – tough, but I felt it was doable. Then last year, with no Leaving Cert exam, points rose to 613. I was a bit nervous but felt that, because I worked hard and was doing eight subjects, I had a good chance.
"Athlone Community College is an excellent school and I had excellent teachers. I felt proud of the work I'd put in and the fact I'd received no additional grinds or tuition outside school.
“This year, I sat eight exams and got eight H1s, which translated to maximum points (625). I was delighted.
“But when the CAO offer arrived, I didn’t get an offer for dentistry in either Trinity or UCC. I checked my CAO to make sure I had filled it out right. Then I looked up the newspaper and realised that, with so many students getting top points, the places for the course had gone to random selection. My achievement counted for nothing; it was a lottery.
“I’ve accepted my other CAO offer in pharmacy and I’m holding out hope for round two offers. It feels like they could have chosen the students in a fairer way. Perhaps prioritising the students who got H1s in more than six exams, or interviewing for the places given the exceptional year that’s in it.
“Nobody can believe that I didn’t get my offer. It really feels like the people who worked the hardest missed out.