Preparing for college after a year like no other

Despite uncertainty, CAO applicants have to assess which courses to apply for in 2021

Up to 10,000 applicants from previous years will apply for CAO college places in 2021. File photograph: Getty

Up to 10,000 applicants from previous years will apply for CAO college places in 2021. File photograph: Getty

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The 2021 college application season is likely to be like nothing we have experienced previously.

As in previous years, the majority of Central Applications Office hopefuls are those due to complete the Leaving Cert this summer.

These students have already missed three months of tuition in the last academic year and with the majority of schools to remain closed until at least the end of the month remote-learning is likely to continue as the main mechanism for educational delivery for the foreseeable future.

To-date schools have done an amazing job in keeping tuition going under radically changed circumstances and will continue to do so if required.

While many students will be hoping for a quick return to classes and uninterrupted face-to-face tuition until June 2021, uncertainty remains.

Are we likely to see a continuation of the calculated grades process and if so, what implication will this have for the rest of the Leaving Cert cycle?

The good news is that the system can at least draw on its experience of 2020 to deal with any further disruption caused by the pandemic.

Exam changes Last week, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said the Government would focus on how special needs and vulnerable students will be supported while schools remain closed.

He added that a decision on whether the Leaving Cert in 2021 would go ahead in the traditional format needed to be approached “in a calm and judicious manner”.

The Department of Education has already informed students and teachers of changes to the examination format, arising from the loss of tuition time in the springtime.

Are we likely to see a continuation of the calculated grades process and if so, what implication will this have for the rest of the Leaving Cert cycle?

Will this have a knock-on effect on results and therefore CAO points scored achieved in 2021?

Alternative arrangements have already been made for the Health Professions Admission Test (HPat), which has been used for some years now as part of the entry procedures for undergraduate medical entry.

The deadline for registration HPat is 5.15pm on January 20th.

The exam will take place online via online proctoring (monitored by camera at all times before and during the test) from applicants’ homes on Saturday, 21st or Sunday 22nd February 2021.

Administrators of third-level courses that require a portfolio and face-to-face assessment as part of the application process are reflecting on how to manage these in a Covid-19 safe way.

Can portfolio materials be transferred safely from students to colleges for assessment? Again, how will this affect entry requirements into these “restricted application” programmes?

Amid all of this uncertainty, CAO applicants still have to assess which courses to apply for in 2021. Part of this has always involved evaluating what the CAO points requirement might be.

Administrators of third-level courses that require a portfolio and face-to-face assessment as part of the application process are reflecting on how to manage these in a Covid-19 safe way. File photograph: iStock

If, as is now looking increasingly likely, the extra 2,245 additional places created in 2020 are retained this year, what impact will they have on the entry requirements?

Would the 2020 points requirements which arose from the calculated grades process then be an accurate guide as to what applicants might expect in 2021?

As is usually the case every year, up to 10,000 applicants from previous years are expected apply for CAO college places in 2021

With the impetus created by the establishment of the new Department of Higher and Further Education, will the retention of these places, in addition to an expected 2,700 undergraduate college places planned to address demographic growth pressures, ease those entry requirements this August/September?

As is usually the case every year, up to 10,000 applicants from previous years are expected apply for CAO college places in 2021.

How many of these previous Leaving Cert applicants will carry points from the 2020 calculated grades process, which were 10 per cent higher than previous years at higher level papers?

Will this cohort of applicants with their higher points scores push up the entry requirements for this year’s Leaving Certs in 2021?

Notwithstanding the Common Travel Area , what will the effect of Brexit be on the fees charged to Republic of Ireland students in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, where they have paid far lower fees in recent years than the €9,250 charged to Irish students in England?

Will these changes put additional pressures on our colleges, if students who previously would have accepted places offered through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) decide to remain at home in 2021?

As the only English-speaking European Union country other than Malta in the community, will there be a growth in applications from other member states who want to be educated through English, who might previously have applied for places in UK universities? Will that put pressure on our CAO points system?

Continental colleges We need to be aware that all EU students have the same entitlement to apply for places in Irish colleges as Irish students.

Alternatively, as many EU colleges have switched their tuition to English over the past 10 years, will we continue to see the near doubling annually of Irish student numbers deciding to seek and accept places in continental EU colleges?

With fees costing about €2,000 per year in the Netherlands and totally free in many other western European countries, will these growing numbers of Irish students travelling to Europe take some of the pressure off CAO points, as the additional 50,000 students pass through the second-level system in the coming five to six years?

All of these questions will be played out and should be resolved as the year progresses.

All that those seeking college places can do for the moment is to explore the courses on offer in Ireland through the CAO and in further education colleges, through Ucas in the UK and Northern Ireland, or through eunicas.ie in European Uni- versities and those further afield.

In the fullness of time, when the Leaving Cert process is completed in late June 2021, students will then have the opportunity to finalise their domestic Irish college choices.

Then come August they will have the widest range of course choices available when they get the results of this year’s Leaving Cert, or alternate assessment process, if Covid-19 were to cause similar problems in 2021 to those caused in 2020.