In a major speech to a nervous American nation in 1860, Abraham Lincoln explained that it would be foolish to “follow implicitly in whatever” had been done before, just because it was the easy option. To do so, he explained, “would be to discard all the lights of current experience, to reject all progress, all improvement”.
I was reminded of these words when I read the critique of Trinity’s admissions feasibility study in The Irish Times. Although some of the language used by the former general manager of the CAO was intemperate and regrettable, it was perhaps understandable given that he had given so much of his life to administering the current system, and it must surely be frustrating to have to listen to the regular criticisms of the points system. His intervention, however, was helpful, because it is time to have a serious debate about whether a holistic admissions system – which works so well internationally – might also work in an Irish context.
Trinity does not believe that using the Leaving Cert as the basis for entry is unfair as has been claimed. Two of the three scales being used in the study revolve around the Leaving Cert (the results themselves, and the relative performance rank of the applicant), so it plays a major part in selecting students. Rather it is suggesting that using a single examination as the sole method of deciding upon the suitability of an applicant for a course - on their academic ability and potential - is unfair.
International experts argue convincingly that a holistic admissions system, using multiple indicators, is a fairer, better and more reliable system than using just a single scale, no matter how robust it is. So why are we so afraid to test whether this might work in an Irish context?
The key point about the Trinity feasibility study in admissions is that rather than cursing the flaws in the current points system, it is attempting to provide some light on one of the most controversial parts of Irish higher education. It is testing on a very small scale – in partnership with the CAO – something new and innovative, in a process that is completely anonymous, externally assessed and free from any kind of external influence.
When it was launched last year the current general manager of the CAO, Ivor Gleeson, was much more measured and optimistic in his comments.
He called this "a project of national significance" and noted that "the new admissions route being tested in this feasibility study has the potential to bring about a significant change to the system of third-level admissions in Ireland [for the first time]
in over thirty years".
A rigorous and exhaustive process
The 25 students who were admitted this year under this route – far from being guinea pigs undeserving of their places – are enthusiastic and able students, excited by learning and by the opportunities before them, with ability and potential that goes beyond a narrow points total, and we are very proud to have them in Trinity.
They were not chosen by some kind of “voodoo”, but after a rigorous and exhaustive process which was chaired by an independent retired judge (Dr Yvonne Murphy), and which benefitted from the external advice of leading experts and observers (including Prof Áine Hyland who served on the 1999 points commission and who welcomed the work of a new generation in trying something different).
This was a rigorous and robust process. We do not claim to have solved the problem of the points race (described as “a cruel judge” in an editorial in this paper on August 21st), but we stand over the decision to attempt to solve it, rather than sitting back and accepting the status quo purely because that is the way it has always been.
The only thing worse than failure is cowardice. Change can sometimes be frightening, but it doesn’t mean that we should ever be afraid of it. The dinosaurs also believed that they were fine, and that nothing needed to be changed. But they still became extinct.
Prof Patrick Geoghegan is the former dean of undergraduate studies at Trinity College Dublin and helped develop the admissions feasibility study.