Students are the guinea pigs in Trinity’s experiment

Opinion: Decision to allocate places on basis other than Leaving Cert points is ill-judged

Since my retirement as general manager of CAO 10 years ago, I have resolutely refrained from commenting on any matter concerning third-level admissions. However, I feel compelled to break my silence when I see Trinity College Dublin using students in an outrageous experiment.

In August The Irish Times reported that some 25 students who got up to 150 points below the entry requirement for three Trinity courses were offered places under a scheme allowing students to qualify under alternative criteria.

I am sure that those 25 are very happy. However, what about the 25 students who got up to 150 more points but were deprived of a place because Trinity decided to experiment? Are their claims and hopes just abandoned on the altar of novelty?

Trinity’s ill-judged action arises from a view that the Leaving Certificate is inadequate in selecting those who should obtain a place. For almost 50 years the Leaving Cert has been used as the basis for admitting students to third level, and it has often been criticised. Yet, for all the criticism, no better alternative has ever come to light.


The reason for its continued use is akin to the survival of democracy; it is not the best system – until you look at the alternatives.

Trinity states that using the Leaving Cert as the basis for entry is unfair.This is patently untrue. Using the Leaving Cert is as fair as anything can be.

A student knows in advance exactly how she will be admitted to third level and at every stage controls her own destiny. She is not dependent on anyone or anything except her own academic ability. And is not academic ability what is required to undertake an academic programme at third level?

If a student is unhappy with her results she can ask to see the original papers and the marks awarded for each question. She can then appeal to have the paper marked again by a new examiner. Is any other examination open to such scrutiny?

In addition, publication of the minimum points required for entry ensures that every student knows exactly why she did or did not get a place. That is a fair system.

So, what does Trinity suggest is fairer? It will take account of four things: the Leaving Cert; the relative performance rank; an essay (which it hopes will be written by the student but that could be written by anyone); and “special circumstances (illness, death of family member, significant extracurricular involvement etc) or achievements not reflected in the application”.

Let us examine the three new elements.

Relative performance rank

This is the performance of the applicant relative to other applicants from her school. In other words, if you are a bright student but find yourself in a class with a number of other bright students, you will be discriminated against in favour of a student from another school who had the good fortune not to have so many bright classmates.

If Trinity believes this is fair, should it not ask the State Examinations Commission to take account of relative performance ranking and adjust all Leaving Certificate results on that basis?

The essay

Trinity says that “this essay helps us to become better acquainted with you. It will also demonstrate your ability to express yourself”.

Exactly how will Trinity become better acquainted with the student by reading an essay? Assuming that the student wrote it.

Does the student not express herself in an essay in the Leaving Cert English exam? Why should she have to express herself again? And we know only the student can express herself in the exam. We do not know who wrote the essay for Trinity.

Special circumstances

1. Illness. How ill do you have to be? For how long? How does Trinity determine that one illness warrants more favour than another? 2. Death of a family member. How long since they died? Does the death of a father merit more credit than that of a mother? How much extra weight is given to the death of both mother and father? 3. Significant extra-curricular involvement: What is significant? How does Trinity weigh involvement in the local camogie team compared with voluntary work in an animal shelter? 4. Achievements: Such as? And how much weight is given to different achievements?

Trinity says all this information “will be examined by professional readers, go for evaluation before an Admissions Review Committee, and will then go before a Final Review Committee, where the final decision will be made about the allocation of the places.”

Professional readers? Of what? Two thousand years ago the ancient Romans employed special public officials known as augurs whose job was to foretell the future by observing the flight patterns of birds. Are these “professional” readers the new augurs? All of this is mumbo-jumbo verging on voodoo.

The student may apply for three courses but a committee will decide (augur-like ) on the basis of the essay, and so on, which course the student will be offered, if any. The arrogance is breathtaking.

Unlike the Leaving Cert, the student does not know how she will be judged, cannot see the evaluation of the committee, nor appeal its decision. The student has no idea how decisions that fundamentally affect her future are made.

But Trinity claims that this is fairer than using the Leaving Cert.

What is the point of this exercise in futility? Trinity says that it is intended to give "a sense of academic ability and potential". Why look for a " sense " of academic ability when the actual evidence is available in the Leaving Cert results? As regards potential, has nobody in Trinity ever read the report of the Points Commission, which was set up by the Irish government to see whether there was a better admissions method than points?

After two years of intensive investigation, in 1999 the commission decided that, while it did not consider the Leaving Certificate system to be perfect, it was preferable to any alternative. The commission found no way to determine the “ potential” of a 17-year-old but it did find that the Leaving was the single best indicator of performance at third level.

Has Trinity discovered something that eluded the Points Commission?

Before Trinity devised its experiment, perhaps it should have looked to DCU for advice.

About 30 years ago DCU tried to find an alternative to the Leaving Cert. Every applicant had to take an extra DCU test (but admission remained based solely on the Leaving ).

The results of the test of each student were compared to their Leaving Certificate results to determine whether the test might have been a better predicator of success in DCU than the Leaving. DCU abandoned the experiment because it found that the test told them nothing that the Leaving Certificate did not already provide.

At least DCU had a measure against which to evaluate its test. How will Trinity measure the “success” of its experiment? It cannot take account of those students whom it has excluded, so how will Trinity know that they would not have performed better?

But the most important difference between the DCU practice and the Trinity one is DCU did not jeopardise the future of the students on the basis of someone else’s whim.

Trinity has been renowned for its standards and intellectual rigour, so I am at a loss to understand how that rigour was not applied to this scheme. I should have thought that if it had been presented by a post-graduate student as a research project it would have been ignominiously rejected as infantile. This charade should be ended immediately.

Until his retirement in 2004, John McAvoy was general manager of CAO