The presidents push for change

 

THE MUCH-anticipated report from the seven university presidents on the Leaving Cert/points system is a highly significant document which could over time herald substantial change. The report – requested by Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn – has much merit. In making the case for more common entry routes to college, it openly acknowledges how the current system has contributed to the points race.

It is scathing about existing arrangements which do not promote positive education values or personal development. Having examined the system in detail, the seven presidents conclude that the selection process for higher education is having “disproportionate and undesirable effects on student learning . . . at second level.’’

That said, they acknowledge there is no panacea and “no perfect system’’. This makes sense. The two most recent innovations in the CAO system – bonus points for maths and the Hpat process for medicine – have had unintended consequences. Bonus maths has distorted the points system while the Hpat exam is seen as being much more “predictable” than envisaged. These serve as a reminder of how the task ahead in recasting the entire Leaving Cert-CAO system is a formidable one. The paper presents a broad range of policy options for discussion; the plan is that a taskforce will tease out these proposals and report back before the end of the year.

Many of the proposals are sensible and pragmatic. It makes sense to incentivise strategically important subjects. The success of the bonus system for higher-level maths in boosting student interest to record levels shows how “social engineering” of this kind can reverse well-established trends. Is there a case for similar incentives for key subjects like physics and chemistry which currently attract only about one in six Leaving Certs at higher level?

Other proposals also have merit. A reduction in the number of Leaving Cert grades from 14 to eight would, as the report states, allow beneficial changes to how the Leaving Cert is assessed and consequent changes in university selection. More graduate entry programmes for certain professional courses would lower the temperature in the points race. It also makes sense to incentivise students to take what are regarded as “harder’’ subjects. The presidents favour some kind of ranking system based on the relative performance of the student against the relevant cohort taking that subject nationally. It talks about converting merit ranking into CAO points using a new system based on percentiles with those in the top 1 per cent getting 100 points, those in the next percentage getting 99 points and so on. The practical impact of these and other proposals have still to be teased out; that is a matter for the taskforce.

At this point, the presidents stress they do not wish to be prescriptive in regard to the various issues. But their contribution to the debate is impressive. The report from the Irish Universities Association is challenging and provocative. The hope must be that it will lay the foundations for overdue change.

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