University admissions: time to re-think the criteria
This is going to sound very grand, but over the past few years I have been trying to persuade the education sector and politicians of two things: the socially undesirable and financially unsustainable nature of ‘free’ higher education that is not adequately funded; and the damage being inflicted on Ireland by the Leaving Certificate examination (the Irish final school exam).
I want to focus briefly on one aspect of the second of these, the Leaving Certificate. I believe that, having once been quite innovative, it is now a thoroughly flawed exam with a wholly unsatisfactory curriculum attached to it. But it is also more or less the sole basis on which school leavers are admitted to university, so that the whole sad heap of its inadequacies infects higher education. There is an urgent need to reform the Leaving Certificate, but one way of advancing that agenda is to decouple it completely from university admissions.
There are many reasons for doing this, but the three most important are the following. First, the Leaving Certificate tests all the wrong skills and therefore doesn’t prepare students for higher education. Secondly, students make inappropriate subject choices in secondary school based on what examinations in those subjects will do to help them into university; let us stop that. Thirdly, the Leaving Certificate fuels the points system, with its mad impact on career choices.
In other countries, notably Britain, there is some evidence that using final school exams for university entrance purposes reinforces inequalities and condems students from disadvantaged backgrounds and minorities.
It would be more appropriate and also fairer to set minimum entry requirements for all subjects, and then apply a lottery system to all those where demand outstrips supply. That would allow us, at last, to stop the deeply flawed pedagogy of the school system from undermining our society and our economy. It is time to take this problem seriously.