Should mature students be allowed to go to college?


News that CAO points will rise has left Leaving Certificate parents wary of the competition for college places

THE NEWS this week that CAO points are set to rise for popular third-level courses is causing no end of stress in the suburbs. Parents are looking at the Christmas reports, doing the maths, adding on a few points and thinking, Yikes, it’s going to be tight! Time to ratchet up the pressure.

It’s grim reality for 6th-year students from here on in. The pre-debs are over, the mocks are looming, and they’re likely to be grounded for the pettiest offences. The Holy Grail is the group family holiday in Spain or Crete, but in between is the small matter of the Leaving Certificate.

Now I realise that “CAO Points Set to Soar” is a headline that leaves much of the population cold. The rest of you can read it and think, interesting, before moving immediately on to Sports or the Deaths page. It worries you not a whit. You don’t appreciate the huge effort involved in moving a 315 point candidate up the scale towards 350, or the agonising gap that exists between 495 and 510 points. You are not remotely interested in how many study hours and intense tutoring will be needed to plug those holes between now and June 9th.

But for Leaving Certificate parents, this is essential, gripping stuff – more fascinating even than Iris Robinson’s lovers.

There is a lot that parents can do, of course, in the line of constant support and helping with homework, but I imagine that nagging levels are set to soar, as the CAO deadline looms. In this house anyway. I’ve read advice from psychologists, telling us to be supportive but still, when I open my mouth to say something positive, something like this comes out instead: “Are you sure you’ll enjoy pastry and baking studies, because that is all you’re going to get into at this rate.” Or, “Do you realise your generation will probably live to 100 so you need to have a decent career to pay for your old age, never mind mine.”

And so on and on, like a broken record. It’s very unattractive but there you are. Leaving Certificate mothers cannot help parroting phrases that have been handed down from previous generations, no more than they can help sticking chemistry tables and quotes from Shakespeare on to the fridge, or regaling the candidate with tales of excellence – the 13-year-old admitted to Cambridge and so on.

Our guard may have been down for a while. Statistically speaking the class of 2010 had been in line for a reasonably easy run. After more than a decade of falling points and expanding career options, all signs were that getting into a reasonably fulfilling college course would be just a matter of filling in the forms. But the great recession has put paid to that. Certain courses are no longer attractive at all, such as those leading towards a career in property or construction. The inevitable swing towards the sciences or any course that might feed into Brian Cowen’s beloved “smart economy” will increase competition for places. This year more people will sit the Leaving Cert than ever before. And now there’s talk of a wave of the newly unemployed going back to college.

More than 12,000 mature students are apparently seeking college places this year, while there has also been a surge in the numbers set to sit the Leaving Certificate, after several years of decline. You can’t blame them. Who wouldn’t want to quit the job search and spend a few years learning something new and ogling young ones.

But 12,000 is an awful lot of them. Should they all be allowed go back to college? Emphatically no, says one friend who not so long ago was considering doing a degree course herself but has now shelved all plans until her eldest is safely into third level.

“Who needs to see the grey workforce spilling over into uni,” she says. “They would only be sucking the life blood out of the university.” That is putting it a bit strongly. She would like to see all 12,000 herded off into a separate college, preferably in the North.

There may be some scaremongering by the colleges in all of this. The Government has told them to trim costs by 6 per cent, and they are facing staff cuts and a freeze on hiring. This, they will say, is likely to push up points as places on courses are scaled back. A points hike and a flood of new applicants may just be the thing to loosen the purse strings.

However, dedicated Leaving Certificate parents will be taking no chances and even now will be booking extra grinds and Easter cramming classes. There is too much at stake for this year’s students and for the year or two following them. They need to reach third level and stay there for a few years until the country is in a position to offer them jobs.

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