The points system fails students and the country, so replace it with a lottery


LEFTFIELD:HERE’S THE situation. We have a final secondary school examination that we all know isn’t fit for purpose. It encourages learning methods that offend the most basic principles of pedagogy. Its curriculum is outdated and hard to change to something better. By all accounts it fails to engage the interest and enthusiasm of either teachers or students. It doesn’t attract any respect from the wider world, including the world of business. It has little impact internationally, except, rather absurdly, in Col Gadafy’s Libya.

It is possible that the Leaving Certificate wasn’t always bad, but over the years it has been corrupted, and the chief corrupting influence has been the points system operated by the universities through the Central Applications Office to determine third level entry.

The points system produces a numerical score for each student based on the grades achieved in the Leaving Certificate. This score then becomes the currency that is used to determine whether the student can be accepted on the third level programme for which he or she has applied.

Because year-on-year demand for places has outstripped supply on many programmes, the points system acts as a market currency. If you want to study a particularly popular subject, you need very high points to get in. Therefore the examination results needed to study the subject of your choice are determined not by academic criteria but by the popularity of the subject. This has over the past decade and more led to the absurd result that if you wanted to study law you needed much better results in the Leaving Certificate than if you wanted to study chemistry.

In fact, almost by definition, the more difficult your chosen subject is, the lower the required entry points – because difficult subjects tend not to be popular.

But it is worse than that.

Irish families (and parents in particular) tend to value the professions (law, accountancy, medicine and so on) more than other careers, and so push their brighter children into these.

So the final stages of secondary education get consumed by family and personal ambition, and the resultant cramming of information by students to maximise their social prospects, assuming (quite correctly) that rote learning is what examiners are looking for. The result is that this whole framework makes secondary students tackle their courses the wrong way, make doubtful career decisions and select higher education programmes for which they may have little taste or aptitude solely because they have the points.

This in turn has pushed far more people into the professions than is good for this country while neglecting areas that are vital for it; those latter areas also tend to get the less gifted students.

This system is crazy. It makes young people study subjects for all the wrong reasons, and it has asset-stripped subjects that should be national priorities. It encourages students with fairly mediocre academic credentials to study hugely complex subjects, and it pushes extremely bright students into subjects where their levels of intelligence will not necessarily be needed.

Despite all these obvious problems the points system has had an extraordinary hold on the country. Indeed, every time I question it – and I have done so often – I get quite a bit of hate mail (much of it postmarked Dublin 4, by the way). Often I am told that the points system is fair and impartial and immune to manipulation. All of which is nonsense. It is fair only if you think it is fair that educational outcomes are determined by family wealth, and impartial only if you accept that any dispassionate observer would think it right that the best university places must go to students from private and grind schools.

Anyway, any reasonable person knows we have a fundamental problem, but nobody has wanted to do anything about it. Every time it has been raised it has been kicked into touch. It is also fair to point out that the chief culprits are the universities, as the owners of the CAO. They control the system, and they (alone) can change it. And they haven’t.

This is why it is so refreshing that the new Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, has decided to address the issue directly. According to a report in this newspaper, he has asked the university heads to come up with suggestions for a new third level entry system. Good for him! This is an issue that must be taken up urgently, and if the Minister can push and cajole the universities into changing the system, then he will have done really excellent work.

So let me make a suggestion. A far better way of addressing entry is to determine the points a student needs to engage successfully with the course. Let us say that for law this might be 280 points and for chemistry 400. Then the CAO can take all the students who qualify, and if there are more applicants than places, conduct a lottery to determine who gets in. Such a system would be fairer (and I am absolutely serious about this) but would also have the effect of distributing applications more sensibly.

Go for it!

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is principal of Robert Gordon University, in Scotland