One-fifth of CAO courses have 10 places or fewer

Number of ‘niche’ courses with small student intake is greater than estimated

CAO course codes: smaller, specialised courses restrict student options and mobility. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

CAO course codes: smaller, specialised courses restrict student options and mobility. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy


The manipulation of CAO points by colleges through the provision of courses with a small student intake is under scrutiny again this year.

Today The Irish Times sheds further light on the practice, showing exactly how many students were enrolled on each course last September. The information is contained in an added column to the usual CAO points listings on pages 4-6 of this supplement.

The figures show the number of courses with a small student intake is much greater than previously estimated. Of 766 level 8 courses for which data was obtained, 143 – or 19 per cent – had 10 or fewer places. A total of 453 offerings – or 59 per cent of level 8 honours degree courses – had fewer than 30 places.

The fragmentation of courses at level 6/7 is even more stark. Of 376 such courses for which data was obtained, 83 – or 22 per cent – had 10 or fewer places. Some 265 level 6/7 courses – or 70 per cent – had an intake below 30 students last September.

Maynooth University president Prof Philip Nolan, who chairs a universities task force on admissions reform, has led the charge for transparency on the issue, saying colleges should be “upfront” about how many places they are offering under each CAO course code. He has told The Irish Times that colleges should explain “if there are fewer than 30 students on a course, why?”

Dramatic increase

The number of “niche” courses through the CAO increased dramatically during the Noughties as higher education institutions competed for the highest-performing Leaving Cert students.

In 2000, school leavers had just 220 Level 8 honours degree programmes across the system to choose from. This year, there are 925 level 8 courses, or 1,108 if you include Trinity College Dublin’s 183 two-subject moderatorship combinations.

By restricting number of places on a course, colleges can inflate points, with the aim of attracting higher-performing candidates.

Some students feel they should get a course close to the number of points they get in the Leaving Cert or their points are “wasted”, but they may find when they start college that they are in classes alongside candidates who came through a different course title and entry code, on lower points.

Guidance counsellors warn against “points snobbery”, but students and parents continue to associate higher points with higher quality. “Points are related to nothing but demand and supply,” Prof Nolan has said, “and it’s a real shame if institutions, including my own, feel they should reduce the supply to make the points higher in order that it looks like the course is better; the course is no different.”

The biggest concern around the proliferation of “niche” courses on the CAO is the effect it has on college drop-out rates. UCD researchers Niamh Moore-Cherry, Suzanne Quin and Elaine Burroughs recently surveyed more than 4,000 students who failed to complete courses between 2011 and 2014, finding more than half of them had dropped out because they had made CAO choices they later regretted.

Of those dropping out for this reason, 39 per cent said they had selected the “wrong” course; 27 per cent said they transferred to a more desirable course; 22 per cent said “course interest and expectation” was the problem; and 12 per cent found the course too difficult.

The report should be compulsory reading for all college presidents, with the authors recommending that “student non-completion should be viewed differently, not as a failure or problem, but rather an indicator of the need for greater ease of student mobility within the higher education sector, thereby enabling a student to create their own ‘career plan’.”

The advice dovetails with recommendations from the universities task force report for the introduction of more common entry routes to academia, which allow students to specialise later in their studies. Among other recommendations of the UCD researchers are:

Third-level institutions should identify students from intake statistics who might be particularly vulnerable to poor social integration “either because they are the only one attending from a particular second-level school or whose home is a considerable distance away”.

More focus on general learning skills at higher education in the early weeks of the first year of college.

Colleges should try to identify students who enter, “often with high points”, professional programmes, only to find that this is “not for them”; the earlier they can be identified, the better their chance of finding an alternative better-suited to their skills and interests.

The Susi scheme should be reviewed to enable more flexibility for those who develop serious physical or mental health issues during their studies;

College preparation schemes should be developed in schools, for example short summer programmes between fifth and sixth year of secondary education to better inform students about CAO choices.

While the report highlights the need for co-operation between different agencies to aid transition from second level, there is a sense that higher education institutions have not been pulling their weight.

A common attitude remains that new entrants to third-level must “sink or swim” and that the attrition of students in first year is somehow necessary to uphold standards.

Transparency is the first step towards reform and, while some colleges publish student intake numbers in annual prospectuses, others are secretive about them. The Irish Times obtained the data in the “college place numbers” column on pages 4-6 through a combination of applications under the Freedom of Information Act and direct requests to institutions.

All universities and institutes of technology supplied figures, along with the teacher training colleges, RCSI and National College of Ireland. However, a number of private colleges declined to provide information.