CAO points and demand for courses

 

Sir, – Much of the recent commentary on the proliferation of low-quota CAO entry routes claims that it has been driven by colleges fighting to secure high-points prestige courses (“Universities have been ‘using the points system’ to inflate demand”, Front Page, August 28th). This is a simplification of a very complex problem, and credits us with a level of organising ability that I suspect we do not possess.

Given the cost structure and the nature of academic appointments in higher education institutions, it is extremely difficult to reallocate resources in the short and even in the medium terms. If a college experiences a significant shift in student preferences from one discipline to another, one discipline will find itself underutilised – the other under-resourced.

A tried and trusted way of managing demand in this type of environment is to use a quota system to channel demand to match the resources available. Irish higher education institutions mostly manage demand through CAO quotas at intake – ensuring as far as possible that students will be well serviced. Some demand management occurs after intake, where, for example, a general science intake is allocated across the various science specialisms at the end of two years of study.

In a severely resource-constrained environment, with very “sticky” resources, the arguments for using quotas at point of entry are strong, not only from the point of view of resource management, but also for the assurance it gives successful applicants that they can complete the course they choose. The arguments for allocating demand at some point after entry are also strong; not least that it allows students to experience a broad range of courses before they make important intellectual and life choices.

Nevertheless, it is widely agreed that our current entry system has spun somewhat out of control, and is in need of the kind of “pruning” that university presidents have recently promised. But make no mistake, demand will have to be managed at some point, and arguably, it is more difficult to manage after intake.

The notion that university presidents manipulate admissions quotas in an effort to outdo each other in a race for high-point prestige courses is crass, and a practice that I do not recognise over a long career in the sector. – Yours, etc,

Prof GERARD McHUGH,

School of Business,

Trinity College Dublin.