Fighting Covid-19 has forced many previously unthinkable changes to life as we knew it. In doing so, it has done one significant service by exposing some of the vulnerabilities and inadequacies of the Leaving Certificate.
It is an exam that provokes an annual media frenzy around grades and entry to third level, almost as if there is no other purpose to the exercise.
When the effects of the pandemic in 2020 led to the cancellation of exams and the estimation of marks by teachers who had no previous experience of undertaking such activity, the results suggested that we had the brightest cohort of 18-year-olds in the history of the State.
Teachers’ estimations produced a set of grades that in the subjects assessed at Higher Level were on average 15 per cent higher than the exam grades achieved by pupils in each of the three years immediately before 2020.
Even after moderation by the Calculated Grades Executive Office, the average was 10 per cent higher than in previous years. The number of students achieving 625 points in 2020 almost trebled compared to 2019, while the number achieving 600+ more than doubled.
Inevitably, the points for most courses went up, even after the addition of several thousand extra places. This created two key issues.
The first is that many students who in an ordinary year may not have achieved the points for third-level courses have been afforded an opportunity that they must grasp with both hands.
The second is that students with a set of Leaving Cert results from previous years were suddenly at a disadvantage. The extra places mitigated that disadvantage to some extent, but the intake of students with previous years’ Leaving Certs was still down by more than 1,000.
The demand for degree places (level eight) has risen again in 2021 and it is no surprise that this increase is most pronounced in the areas that have dominated our daily news over the past 12 months.
First-choice applications to medicine have gone up by 25 per cent to over 4,000. Nursing first choices are up by 21 per cent to almost 6,000. Pharmacy is up 26 per cent. Biological sciences applications are up by 21 per cent. Other health and welfare course applications are up by 15 per cent. Journalism, too, has benefitted, up by a whopping 58 per cent.
Other areas are more of a mixed bag. Primary education has barely changed, but secondary education is down 8 per cent. Social sciences are up by 27 per cent, arts and humanities up by 9 per cent but languages, worryingly in our post-Brexit world, are down by 6 per cent. Architecture is up by 19 per cent, ICT by 14 per cent, engineering by only 7 per cent. Business is up by 6 per cent but law is down by 5 per cent.
EU and mature students
Overall, applications are up by 11 per cent, both at level eight and at level six/seven, but the source of the increase is not primarily this year’s Leaving Cert students. Level-eight applications from that source have increased by only 1 per cent at this stage.
Rather, the increase has come primarily from other, mostly EU countries and from our own mature students, ie, aged 23 and over. Mature student applications are up by 20 per cent. Applications from Britain and the North are up 23 per cent. Most significantly of all, EU applications at Level 8 from outside Ireland are up by a whopping 145 per cent, an extra 2,600 applicants, which looks like a direct consequence of Brexit.
Those increased numbers would have the inevitable effect in a normal year of pushing up the entry points needed.
In a year in which students will be given an option to take either an exam or receive accredited grades, there must be a real fear of further grade inflation, especially if, in setting the appropriate levels for the accredited grades, 2020 is taken as the new norm. Giving students, in effect, two bites of the cherry, is almost certain to increase grades.
The Government must address the impact of grade inflation as a priority. If the trend of 2020 is repeated or even expanded in 2021, some outstanding students who were locked out in 2020 may find themselves permanently excluded from the third-level courses of their choice, because entry points for the courses that are most in demand will simply rise in response to inflated grades.
Additional places announced at short notice will not resolve the key issues, which are ones of resourcing, be it clinical placements in hospitals, lab spaces in the institutions, or the employment of full-time fully qualified staff, rather than short-term part-time staff.
All of that requires serious long-term planning, something that Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, to his credit, has recognised, not least with his initiative to put a range of options in front of school leavers. The alternative is many years spent chasing our tails, as Leaving Cert grades go up, followed by points increases in courses. That is in no one's interest.
Prof Pól Ó Dochartaigh is deputy president and registrar of NUI Galway and chair of the CAO Board