Getting 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 briefly. For those who may not already know this, the CAO is the Central Applications Office, and it handles and processes higher education applications. It was founded by the universities and is jointly owned by them. In the 1990s it also took over the applications process for the Institutes of Technology.

The system used by the CAO to determine eligibility for particular programmes is the so-called ‘points system’. This attaches a points score for different grades achieved by students in the Leaving Certificate, the final school examinations. Because year on year  demand for places has outstripped supply on most programmes, the points system acts as a market currency. If you want to study a particularly popular subject, you need very high points to get in. Therefore the examination results needed to study the subject of your choice are not determined by academic criteria, but by the level of demand for the subject. This has over the past decade and more led to the absurd result that if you wanted to study law you needed much better results in the Laving Certificate than if you wanted to study chemistry. In fact almost by definition, the more difficult your chosen subject is, the lower the entry points – because difficult subjects tend not to be popular.

But it is worse than that. Irish families (and parents in particular) have tended to value the professions (law, accountancy, medicine etc) more than other careers, and so have tended to push their brighter children into these. And so the final stages of secondary education get consumed by social ambition and the resulting cramming of information by students to maximise their results, assuming (quite correctly) that rote learning memorising is what examiners are looking for. The result is that this whole framework makes secondary students study their courses the wrong way, make doubtful career decisions, and enter higher education programmes for which they may no taste or aptitude solely because they have the points. This in turn has pushed far more people into the professions than is good for this country, while neglecting areas that are vital for it; those latter areas also tend to get the less gifted students.

It has to be said clearly that this system is crazy. It makes young people study subjects for all the wrong reasons, and it has asset-stripped subjects that should be national priorities. It allows students with fairly mediocre academic credentials to study hugely complex subjects, and it pushes extremely bright students into subjects where their levels of intelligence will not particularly be needed.

But then again, why am I sitting here complaining? Why don’t I just use the little bit of time left to me as President of DCU to tackle the matter head on, and propose that we drop the points system. Doing so is in the universities’ hands. And if we did so, it would have a strongly beneficial impact on student learning methods and subject choices at second level. But in truth, while some of my complaints about the CAO and the points system are recognised as true by others, but mostly they don’t want to rattle this particular cage.

At an excellent event on the future of Irish education yesterday, organised by Intel in TCD’s Science Gallery, there was an overwhelming consensus amongst the large number present that the points system was damaging the education system in this country. It is time, I think, that the universities took notice of this mood and looked at major reform, in dialogue with secondary education. This won’t happen any more in my term of office, but it is something I shall press for before I step down. The country needs change.

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13 Comments on “Getting to the point(s)”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Like a lot of people I share your misgivings but am a bit stumped when it comes to an alternative. What drives the points system is excess demand. Since that is not going to go away soon we need some way to ration the places. At the moment they are done “on merit” i.e. by points. Since points are to a large extent determined by who your daddy is (shameless plug for my recent paper…) “merit” here largely means social class.
    One of the features of the system is that it is impersonal. Some people regard this as bad thing but on the whole I think it is good for two reasons: (i) personalized applications including interviews and essays etc are hugely time-consuming and (ii) there is a lot of opportunity for biases & favouritism to creep in, especially in a small country like Ireland.
    So what else? Define a minimum level of attainment and randomly allocate places to those who make the cut-off. It’s your idea I believe & not a bad one but I suspect it would go down like a lead balloon as when Dr Well-Heeled finds his daughter going into engineering and not medicine.
    This general problem is not unique to Ireland of course and there must be plenty of models to look to. Surely the geniuses in the IUA have looked into all this?

  2. iain Says:

    It is a crazy system and impacts on the preparedness of students for higher education as well as threatening the existence of key subject areas. Other countries, as you mention Kevin, set a minimum standard per subject studied, some allocate the high demand on a lottery basis, but not all. The obsessive demand for ‘the professions’ is peculiarly Irish and no doubt from a combination of history and the hyper-inflated salaries and remunerations that have traditionally been available to those professions in this country. Elsewhere, where there is less opportunity for private practice in medicine, for example, then the demand for places is less distorted. Maybe what we need is a maximum salary limitation on professions that’s a small multiple of the minimum wage!!?! That would be fun. 😉

    • Vincent Says:

      What we need is to smash that choke point that the professional bodies have over entry. And change to a Licence.
      With this at a stroke we could half the cost.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    Or maybe we need to confront the barriers to entry to the professions head on? Perhaps by restricting entry to professional vocational programmes (like medicine, law, architecture &c) to graduates who can demonstrate that they have already made a positive contribution to society? Make no mistake though that those in the lucrative professions will do all in their power to protect their privileged position! I would agree that any alternative to the points system for admissions will require very significant resources to administer.


  4. Thanks for your thought provoking contribution to the excellent event organized by Intel yesterday.

    There seems to be consensus that the current points system is bad – not only because it does not necessarily select the most suitable students to be given places on university courses, but also because the secondary education system has been warped by the pressure on students to maximize their points score. Unfortunately, there is no similar consensus on what would constitute a better system that could replace it. I think the time has come for some experimentation with alternatives.

    I think that one of the main problems with the current system is the belief that it is possible to come up with a single points score which gives students and identical ranking for all courses. Clearly the student most deserving of a place on a Chemistry course is not necessarily the the most deserving of a course in creative writing.

    – I think that we should give bonus points for subjects which are relevant to the course. For example we should give bonus points for Maths and Science when selecting students for courses with a Math and Science content, but we should also give bonus points for students who have taken business subjects when selecting students on business courses, etc.

    – We need to introduce more evaluation methods so that we judge students on other criterion other than their ability to perform well in written exams e.g. the way many art courses currently judge applicants based upon their portfolio. However, in order to be fair to students we need to be careful not to force them to undergo an unreasonably large number of assessments. Therefore colleges should cooperate by operating shared assessment whenever they are trying to measure the same attribute among their potential students.

    You also complain that there is irrational high level of demand for some courses such as law. However, I don’t think it is possible or even desirable to change the demand for places in law courses by altering the method for selecting students. I think that demand is more likely to be affected by recent changes affecting the potential earnings in the legal profession (e.g. the introduction of the personal injuries assessment board)

    • Oisín Says:

      “I think that we should give bonus points for subjects which are relevant to the course. For example we should give bonus points for Maths and Science when selecting students for courses with a Math and Science content, but we should also give bonus points for students who have taken business subjects when selecting students on business courses, etc.”

      Very good idea. Why not have a simple (and of course, open!) weighting scheme whereby more relevant subjects can influence more significantly the effective points score?

      e.g. a computer science course might declare weights of 1.2 for maths and science subjects, 1 for English (or Irish) and 0.8 for less relevant topics.
      That way, the effective score would be higher for university courses which suit the student’s strengths and talents (and, hopefully, this would coincide with what they enjoy).

  5. John Says:

    Parents push their children into the best-paid subjects rather than the easiest, most useful or most suitable to their talents.

    The fundamental question behind this is how pay is derived.

  6. Colm Harmon Says:

    One thing that skews the impact of the points system are inequities in the secondary school system and the differences in the impact of different subjects (i.e. that some LC subjects are easy, and some hard). As a varient on the bonus points for maths etc (which doesn’t get away from the first inequity) surely it would be possible to weight points scores by (1) the grade distribution within the subject (so rather than give bonus points to maths, you give more to a high achieving grade in a subject where the average grade is more middling); and (2) examine school level averages (again to weight applications from kids achieving high scores in a school which is otherwise mediocre).

    This would allow the ‘blind’ nature of the CAO to be kept, remove the advantage of easy over hard and encourage students to do what they are good at, and also deal with the fact that not all schools are the same (implied by the current system).

    • kevin denny Says:

      Would (2) give you an incentive to send your bright kid to a lousy school to make him look brilliant? And vice-versa. Assuming you thought it wasn’t goiing to be such a handicap. But if everyone does that the distribution will converge, possibly a good thing.

      There has been talk in the US about reforming the SAT system to take into account these differences. It was discussed on Andrew Gelman’s blog amongst other places.
      http://www.stat.columbia.edu/~cook/movabletype/archives/2010/06/my_proposal_for.html

  7. Al Says:

    I think that any criticism of the current system needs to outline an alternative system.
    Is it beyond us at this stage to create a system where a chosen university course has its own set of subject weightings from the leaving cert subjects.
    Medicine being loaded differently than law, then engineering, etc.
    This would then marginalise efforts at points grabbing.

  8. cormac Says:

    Excellent post but as so often, we’re discussing this as if our little country lives in isolation. How do the Swedes, Danes and Germans get around the problem?

    • Al Says:

      One would have to concede that we are also driven to distraction by international comparisons.

      Surely, with a knowledge of our situation, and the application of human reason we can come up with solutions that are in the national interest rather than appeasing factions intent on over representing their interests, with the cost being the nations effectiveness at increasing its goods.

      Far easier to look at far away fields and mouth statements like “we punch above our weight”.


  9. […] will know that I am not making this point for the first time; most recently I addressed this issue here. Yesterday, however, there was some strong support from Tom Collins, acting President of NUI […]


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