Misguided points?

One of the most influential structures of modern Irish society is what is known as the ‘points system’, the framework that determines access for school leavers to the higher education system. All results of a student’s performance in the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate, are converted into points (with a maximum of 100 points for a Higher Level paper, and 60 for an Ordinary Level paper), and the overall sum of the student’s points so calculated is the ‘currency’ that the student can use in applying to do a course or degree programme in a university or college. Each programme of study has a threshold of points that the student must have in order to be admitted. The student submits their application to the Central Applications Office (CAO), and in the application lists his or her choices for programmes of study in order of preference; these choices can be for any programme in any institution covered by the CAO, including all universities and institutes of technology and other colleges. They are then admitted to the highest preference in their list for which they have the required points.

The problem with the system is that the points required are not particularly determined by the minimum level of attainment deemed necessary in order to be able to do the course. Rather, the points are arrived at primarily as a result of supply and demand: the greater the demand for a particular programme at a particular institution, the higher the points. Therefore the most popular subjects have the highest points – and typically these have been the programmes that quality students for professions such as medicine or law, but also a number of arts and humanities subjects. Access to less popular subjects – but often ones where there is a significant requirement for more graduates in those fields – can be achieved with much lower points, despite the fact that some of these are by common consent more demanding in terms of knowledge and skills. Moreover, the popularity of some programmes has been influenced by parental ambitions to see children in socially respectable professions, or even by the perception that these programmes are easier: so that ironically ‘easier’ subjects can have higher points requirements.

The result of all this has been a serious distortion in both student preference and the availability of nationally needed skills. The points system has exercised a huge influence on Ireland’s national direction, and the influence has been almost all bad. But although this has been known for some time, there has been an overwhelming reluctance to do anything about it. In 1997 the government established the Commission on the Points System, and this reported in 1999. This Commission, while making some recommendations for adjustments, concluded overall that the system was fair and practical. This conclusion was probably questionable then, but is impossible to justify now. The points system has become a real threat to the future of Ireland as a functioning society and to the knowledge economy. It needs to be re-visited, now.

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8 Comments on “Misguided points?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    As far as I can see, the points system is a predictor of performance in the same way as the Lotto from the Universities point of view. This given a floor of attainment, five high C’s as an instance.
    The point of view of the first years(FY) may well be different. I’m uncertain how accepting the FY’s or their parents would be to luck as the decider of their futures. But luck would certainly bleed some of the steam out of the current situation.

  2. Mark Dowling Says:

    Isn’t there an avenue open to DCU though – be the first to define a maximum point number?

    For the highest demand courses, set a realistic number and select randomly from those who reach or surpass it. This does not regress to the failings of an interview/”who you know” system but also does not reinforce the grind school/gaelscoil advantage where that extra 5% to get above the pack comes from financial or social advantage.

    Unfortunately there is a certain amount of cachet in some quarters about applying for a “high point” system but you’re not worried about cachet… right?

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Of course the points system is not purely supply and demand. Courses such as medicine at TCD do not have more applicants than (say) Applied Social Studies at WIT. But they do have a very high number of applicants who anticipate getting a very high no. of points. Medicine is regarded as a course you need a lot of points to get into. So even if you tripled the no. of places, it is likely that the points would remain very high. The main driver is not the points system, but the extremely tight occupational closure that can be exercised by professional groups like medicine and law, and the perception of high graduate income that such closure creates.

  4. Sarah Says:

    The other question is how do you replace the system? The great thing about the points system is that college places are selected purely on the points – not on who Daddy went to school with. Points are cruel but egalitarian (well leaving out social disadvantage leading to educational disadvantage too)

    • Sarah, you wrote: “The great thing about the points system is that college places are selected purely on the points – not on who Daddy went to school with. Points are cruel but egalitarian”.

      I would disagree with that strongly. As has been suggested, points owe much less to the student’s ability than to their social background and the location of their home. In some cases, the points are what money has been able to buy. There is absolutely nothing egalitarian about them!

      • Perry Share Says:

        Exactly – there is a very clear correlation between social class and educational attainment. It would be a lot cheaper for the state just to post out honours in the Leaving Cert to appropriately aged people in specific postcode areas (if we had postcodes!). The massive public spectacle that is the Leaving Certificate does a great job of convincing the population that we live in a meritocracy.

  5. […] to the point(s) It is now just over a year ago since I explained in this blog why I thought the CAO ‘points system’ is undesirable. Let me recap, very […]

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