What’s the point of the points race?

A proposal to reform college admission says we have too many courses and too narrow a focus. Will academic councils be prepared to cut back?

Photograph: Alexander Raths/Getty

Photograph: Alexander Raths/Getty


Students about to start secondary school may never have to face the points race as we know it. Our highly competitive CAO system is under fundamental review, and if the leaders of this change agenda get their way the points race will be less like the Grand National and more like community games, with the emphasis on taking part rather than winning by a nose.

“We need to remove competition to the minimum required for the effective allocation of places,” says the president of NUI Maynooth, Philip Nolan, who chairs the Irish Universities Association. The association is part of a collaborative process aimed at making the transition from school to university less of a bare-knuckle fight for points and places. The hope is that the idea of the Leaving Cert determining what you do for the rest of your life will be shelved for good.

The CAO system started out simply enough in 1976, with five participating institutions and 69 courses for fewer than 7,000 applicants to choose from. In 2012, 77,000 students faced the formidable challenge of selecting from more than 900 level-eight (honours degree) courses at 45 institutions.

The problem for school-leavers is not just that they have to choose from so many courses and that the points they need for each course go up and down and rarely reflect the academic requirement of the programmes in question. There is also the issue of early specialisation; broad areas have been granulated into slim specialisms, forcing 17-year-olds to make confining decisions about what to do with their first years out of school. It’s a big ask at an early age.

Multiple narrow gateways between second-level and higher education are warping the path for young people from secondary school right through to the workplace.

Teachers find themselves yoked to the CAO, trying to squeeze every last point out of students to get them on to their chosen course. The result, say teachers involved in a consultation process designed to help shape the new strategy for access to higher education, set out in Supporting a Better Transition from Second Level to Higher Education , is that “teachers feel under pressure to coach students in how to frame responses to optimise their performance” rather than, as one teacher said, “just letting the students rely on their own knowledge and way of wording the answer”.

Employers are concerned that by streaming students into specialisms early on, they lose out on the broader education they need when they hit the workplace.

Jason Ward, country manager for EMC, the IT multinational employing almost 3,000 people here, welcomes reform of the system and a reduction of in the number of level-eight courses. “Our colleges can sometimes produce programmes that are overspecialised, particularly at undergraduate level, when they perhaps should be giving students the freedom to explore multidisciplinary courses and then figure out where their strengths lie. EMC would like to see more tailored big-data college programmes drawing together multidisciplinary strands across maths, computing, science and sociology, so graduates have a mix of skills to catch the new big-data wave.”

Why have universities and institutes of technology taken broad subject areas and broken them down into their smallest constituent parts? On the one hand it’s part of a general drift towards specialisation in academia. On the other it’s the law of the market: smaller courses with fewer places move up the value chain as surely as any product with “limited edition” on the label.

Nolan agrees that the points for some of these subspecialisms are higher than they need to be. It’s like an academic version of the property bubble, with students paying too high a price for courses that might not suit their needs at all.

The new plan from the Department of Education was devised with the Irish Universities Association, the State Examinations Commission, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the Higher Education Authority and Institutes of Technology Ireland – in short, everyone keeping the gate between second and third level.

You’d imagine, with such a heavyweight line-up, there would be no impediment to reform. Not so. The real levers of power lie with each institution’s academic council. These are akin to the judiciary: their judgments lie beyond the reach of political or managerial influence. They are large groups of professors, in the main, who come together each year to decide what their institution will offer students through the CAO. While they do not set the points levels – that’s a demand-led metric – they influence demand by tweaking and repackaging course offerings and intakes.

Competition between members of academic councils is one big driver of the fragmentation of degrees. If your specialism is Greek or microbiology or industrial relations, try forging an identity and pulling in students when you have to operate under the general rubric of arts, science or business. Everybody wants to be seen.

The challenge now for the university presidents is to convince the academic councils that it’s a good idea to go back to basics and allow themselves to be subsumed under the old headings of science, arts, business and law. In this way, students doing their Leaving Cert could paint their early career in broad brush strokes, filling in the finer details as they progress through their degrees. Some subjects may always require their own CAO entry gate; physiotherapy, psychology and music are just three that have been flagged.

“If you look down the CAO Handbook it’s easy to see what should go and what should stay,” says Philip Nolan. “Using the CAO to compete for attention is not healthy competition for students. We need to use other means, such as websites, to attract applicants. The CAO should only be used as an entry route where absolutely necessary.

“The presidents of the universities have discussed this extensively, and we will all make the same recommendation to our academic councils, and then we will wait and see what they say.”

The only way this will work is if everybody jumps together. If one university baulks, no one will be prepared to collapse degree courses into general-entry routes that will most likely experience a drop in CAO points. Will all the academic councils take the leap?


A commitment to address “problematic predictability” in Leaving Cert exams, which drives teachers to teach to the exam using marking schemes and banking on subjects coming up. The Oxford University Centre for Education Assessment has been charged with evaluating the Leaving – the first external review of the exam.

A commitment to reduce the number of Leaving Cert grading bands, which focus excessive attention “on the detail of the assessment process rather than . . . broader learning objectives”.

A commitment to significantly reduce the number of level-eight courses.