Universities have been ‘using the points system’ to inflate demand

Chair of reform group says colleges are ‘trapped in internal competition’

The chair of a universities’ task force on reforming admissions procedures for third level has admitted colleges have been artificially inflating points by offering courses with a small student intake.

Prof Philip Nolan, president of NUI Maynooth and chair of the Irish Universities Association's task group on reform of university selection and entry, said "all of us have become embroiled in a system where we've been using the points system . . . to try to attract students in".

There were "too many courses with very small numbers that are there for historic reasons to do with ensuring that points are not seen to sink too low," he told The Irish Times.

“We need to get away from this sense that points are related to quality. Points are related to nothing but demand and supply 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.”


‘Prestige’ courses

Prof Nolan was commenting amid renewed criticism this year of a proliferation of “prestige” courses in college prospectuses, which take in a very small number of students in a bid to get a high points listing in the CAO. The creation of such course codes panders to an idea among some students that if they don’t “use all their points” they are somehow wasted.

From the perspective of universities, said Prof Nolan, “we are all kind of trapped in that internal competition between ourselves because of a public perception that a 500-point course is better than a 400-point course”.

Universities and institutes of technology have pledged to reduce the number of courses on offer to make the CAO application simpler, thus allowing students greater flexibility in their college options.

However, the figures indicate little progress in the area, with the number of CAO course codes at higher degree (level 8) rising from 903 in 2013 to 941 this year. They are expected to fall back to about 925 in 2015.

An analysis by The Irish Times shows that one-third of course codes were filled by 15 or fewer students last year.

The Irish University Association task group has circulated a discussion paper to members suggesting that entry courses “should not normally admit fewer than 30 entrants”.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column