Chasing university places

As I have argued before, it now looks increasingly inevitable that the trend of recent years of a annual increases in the number of university places will come to an end. As public funding is cut, and crucially, as more and more teaching posts are taken out of the system, it is becoming impossible for universities to contemplate further increases in the student intake. This development, however, is coinciding with a significant increase in student demand, so that the impact may turn out to be a major increase in points and in the number of applicants who cannot find a place.

This development is not unique to Ireland. In England the head of UCAS (the British equivalent of the CAO) has warned that upwards of 150,000 school leavers will fail to get a university place this year. Meanwhile in Ireland he CAO’s website crashed yesterday, having fallen victim to a malicious cyber-attack early in the day, while it became clear that points for a variety of course were rising. All of these things help to pile on the pressure.

Our key concern must now be that the growing mismatch of supply and demand does not produce socially undesirable results. We need to ensure that access programmes are reinvigorated, and that university places do not disproportionately go to the children of wealthy families. We also need to ensure that young people are offered viable and attractive substitutes for higher education programmes. We should also look again at what level of participation in higher education is most suitable for this country in our current circumstances.There are many challenges ahead, but also many opportunities.

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9 Comments on “Chasing university places”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    It seems odd that some commentators here and in England are talking about the numbers who go onto university and whether there needs to be a reduction. The points method for determining university entrance must surely be one of the worst examples of why ‘grading on a curve’ is such an inappropriate means of judging performance. Just at the time in which universities spend so much time, internally, focusing on the use of learning outcomes and criterion referenced measures of achievement they are busily discriminating against those who may have all the necessary requisite skills but just happen to be born a year too late for entrance to their chosen course.

    Obviously, the issue is one of costs and how many students the system can afford to support, but perhaps we need a completely fresh approach to the whole issue of the purposes (individual and societal) of higher education, its accessibility throughout life and how it fits within a broader vision of society.

    By the way, it’s interesting to see in the UK the rising demand from school-leaving age students for places in the Open University, an alternative pathway that is lacking in Ireland on any significant scale (I know the OU provides courses here, and congratulations to the person just appointed as the head of the OU in Ireland last month, but courses are expensive in this country).


  2. A few thoughts about your last paragraph.

    If spending on education is being reduced or frozen, it’s hardly likely that access programmes will be funded.

    The tiny number of children from poor families at university is a consequence of poverty. Intervention in education is desirable and at an early age but it will “rescue” just a few. Poverty will determine education until almost all parents say to their young children, “There are three schools that you will go to …”

    We need to be careful that offering alternatives is not part of denying access. There is no effective substitute for higher education. Far too often the substitutes are offered to the poor, with their lower attainment and their perceived suitability and need for more vocational courses.

    • kevin denny Says:

      I think its highly unlikely that funding for the Access programs would cease. Aside from the fact that it would look terrible, the university management (if my experience of UCD is anything to go by) has a strong commitment to them. Some of the money comes from philanthropic sources – which may also be under pressure of course. So it will certainly be a challenge for them to maintain the current level of services.
      The scale of Access programs is small, I think about 5% of the incoming class are covered by them. But it is something: there was a stupid comment in a recent article in the Irish Times by a Ross Higgins that the access programs “had failed lamentably”. They haven’t. They cannot solve the problem by themselves and there is no magic bullet. We need a range of interventions but the evidence in general on investment in children is that the return to early interventions is strongest. If you look at say UCD’s Access program, New ERA, they started working with the Leaving Cert classes in schools, progressed to also working with Junior Cert students and now interact with primary schools. But universities cannot be expected to solve huge problems that are created elsewhere.
      However, it is fanciful to think that the relationship between poverty and education can simply be changed by some remark by parents.

      • Kevin O'Brien Says:

        That comment annoyed me too.

        Access programs prior to entry are meant in conjunction with other initiatives, such as maths and science learning centres, which the student uses during their course.


        • I’ve been teaching in Access for years and I never doubt the commitment of others to do what one can. I realise more than most that a small initiative can change the world for one person.

          My point was that if spending on education is to be pared back, it is highly unlikely that access will be prioritised and enjoy increased spending.

          I worry that too many people believe that access programmes are more than schemes to rescue a handful, that they are solutions. Equality of opportunity depends on greater equality generally. When all parents can say – as well-off parents say today – to their small children, “There are three schools that you will go to …”, we will have something approaching equality of opportunity in education.

          I might as well reiterate the 3rd point while I’m at it. I’m always uncomfortable with talk of alternatives to university because it is often patronising nonsense about the needs of the poor being for more vocational courses. (NO, I certainly don’t think that Ferdinand meant that.)


          • Colum, my point is that there are too many people from *wealthy* families doing third level courses, who are only there because their rich fathers paid for grinds that just about pulled them over the line.

        • Kevin O'Brien Says:

          just to confirm: I meant the “failed lamentably” comment in the paper

  3. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    re: OU
    maybe it is time to overhaul and revamp the Oscail program.


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