Getting the point

For the curious, this blog now comes to you from California, where I am attending an event this evening before returning to Ireland tomorrow.

At this morning’s event with President McAleese in Phoenix, Arizona, the President of Arizona State University, Dr Michael Crow, made an interesting point. He said that the best predictor of final school results (SATs in the US, Leaving Certificate in Ireland) was not the student’s talents, learning or skills, but his or her zip code (or post code). If,  his argument was, you determine university access through examination results, you may think you are applying an objective standard that is blind to class, race and background, but in reality you are doing the opposite. So the first step to tackling educational disadvantage at tertiary level is to accept that a points-based system is inherently discriminatory. What is worse, it is discrimination masquerading as even-handed objectivity.

I don’t know, in any scientific sense, whether this holds true for Ireland also. I suspect it does. We know that, nationally, over 50 per cent of an age cohort go to university or college. But we also know that in certain areas (some of them very close to DCU) a significant majority of young people will not achieve the points needed to go to college. Is this because people in those areas are inherently less intelligent? Of course not. So if we apply a points system we are saying that the perceived (but unachieved) objectivity of examination results should trump social exclusion concerns.

I have pointed out in the past that the points system has a number of undesirable effects, including its tendency to push students into subject areas which are not national priorities. I should now add what I would regard the clincher: that it is a framework that entrenches social exclusion.

We urgently need a national debate on this, and to move towards getting something that is better, in the national interest and in the interests of equity and non-discrimination. The time for that debate is now.

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10 Comments on “Getting the point”

  1. Cian Says:

    Surely the issue here is not our selection method for third level (weak as it may be) but rather why our primary and secondary systems serve the well off so much better than those from a less wealthy background? Changing the points system would seem to be fighting the symptoms, rather than the cause of the problem.

  2. Jilly Says:

    Well I was in complete agreement with you until the statement that one of the disadvantages of the points system was its tendency to ‘push students into areas which are not national priorities’. While I fully support the promotion of ANY subject area so that students who are inclined/gifted in that discipline pursue it, I completely reject the idea of funnelling students into particular subjects because they are a ‘national priority’. It seems to me that this undermines the entire point of education, which is to pursue learning and critical thought regardless of currently identifiable economic goals.

  3. Ultan Says:

    I presume when he says zip codes he means the address the student gives as his/her home address and not of the school they attended, as in the US you can be bussed from one side of the city to a public school on the other side depending on the regulations of the local unified school district board – which are not always popular (

    Actually I think he’s missing the point. The real question about discrimination is why some people live in one ZIP code and not another in the first place.

    Btw, positive discrimination in third-level education in California is illegal (prop 209).

    OF course, if you’ve been following the silly arguments on the letters page of the Irish Times this week you’ll know that the real concern of the populace is the “educational apartheid” arising from extra points for exams done through an teanga duchais. Some people just don’t know they’re born…

  4. Some interesting comments.

    Cian, I don’t think this is about tackling the symptoms at all. The main way – perhaps even the only realistic way – of tackling structural poverty is through ending educational exclusion at third level. We need to get people from disadvantaged backgrounds into university as an urgent priority. That is not tackling the symptoms, but actually the heart of the problem. Nor is there any other way that I know of and that anyone would actually be likely to attempt that would solve the poverty problem.

    Jilly, you have rather jumped to some conclusions. What do you think I mean when I say ‘national priorities’? If I were to say that national priorities were to eradicate poverty, address intercultural integration, end discrimination, and create a sustainable society, would you believe these are unacceptable objectives? I would also add that it is, at least for me, not a national priority to have more lawyers and architects.

    Ultan, I don’t know of any country where you do not have pockets of disadvantage in certain geographical areas. That’s the point.

    Many thanks for all your comments – they are very interesting.

  5. Jilly Says:

    I fail to see how supporting the study of some subjects rather than others by undergraduates is going to eradicate poverty etc. Getting kids to university regardless of their socio-economic background may well help with that (though sadly I think that has its limits too, but that’s too lengthy a topic for this post). Engineering which subjects they study, however, is not going to help, and has been an increasing feature of government educational policies in Ireland in recent years: and not for those admirable objectives you outlined, I fear.

  6. Ultan Says:

    Perhaps we could award college places as “sports scholarships” to members of disadvantaged communities so they can go to college. Look at the marvellous success it’s had in the U.S.A of alleviating poverty in the African American community. And middle-class guilt.

  7. Wendymr Says:

    There is, though, a debate to be had about why this ‘postcode disadvantage’ persists. Not about why some geographic areas are disadvantaged, but why we’re not doing enough to improve schools in these – largely, but not exclusively – inner-city and north of the Liffey areas.

    How, also, to rewards success against the odds: in the UK for some years Oxbridge and some other top universities have been working out ways of judging the worth of a student from an inner-city comprehensive who gets three As at A-level as against a student from Eton who gets the same grade. Who has actually had to work harder and achieve more? Which achievement indicates greater potential? Easier, of course, to do this in an application system where candidates are interviewed (I interviewed mature applicants for undergraduate courses for many years, and this allowed me to take into account ‘life skills’ learned and non-academic accomplishments which showed commitment and motivation). Without interviews, you are left with some sort of quota or lottery system – which leads to resentment from those who don’t qualify as coming from a disadavantaged socio-economic group – or the dreaded sports scholarship over my dead body if I had any say in the matter, which I don’t.

  8. I think my starting point in this post was that the points system rewards people for being wealthy, or at least living in wealthy areas. It doesn’t do that deliberately, but it does it in practice. I can understand the response to this that says that we should focus on eradicating poverty. But if we’re honest, we’re not going to achieve that any time soon. And in the meantime we are neglecting and excluding those from disadvantaged areas.

    I agree with Jilly that the issue of choice of subjects is quite another issue – it was maybe something I shouldn’t have mentioned in this context at all…

    Tp Wendy I would say that there is nothing wrong as such with sports scholarships – again maybe for another post.

  9. Cormac Says:

    In many cases, my own course, Computer Applications for example there is a direct correlation between Leaving Certificate points achieved and success within the course.

    If the CAO points system is proving an excellent predictor of future success, then is it not in fact acting in the national interest?

    As to the issue of social equality, in the lottery system that you propose in the linked article, surely the minimum points and subject requirements present a barrier which is practically the equivalent of the current system?

    I don’t believe that lowering the barrier to entry at university/college level will result in college education being a much more frequent occurrence in disadvantaged areas. I believe it will result in more people with inadequate educational foundations entering and then quickly dropping out.

    I agree with Cian that educational problems need to be addressed at a much earlier stage than university. I don’t know if there is much that a university can do help in such a deeply rooted issue.

  10. In reply to Cormac: yes indeed, in some contexts the CAO points are a viable predictor of performance at university. But that’s only part of it all – how and why do people get their points? Some of it is talent and skill and application, and some of it is good (or bad) fortune resulting from background and personal history.

    But that doesn’t explain it all. For example, we have now for a number of years admitted access students on lower points. Do they do worse than students admitted with the full points? No, they do better.

    In some programmes we set points at a level that is not at all required by the complexity of the programme; if it were otherwise, then you’d have to argue that Law is more complex than Astrophysics – which clearly it isn’t.

    I agree that educational issues need to be tackled at all levels; but disagree strongly that universities cannot help. If you were right, we should drop all our access programmes on the spot.

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