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.

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11 Comments on “University admissions: time to re-think the criteria”

  1. NiallM Says:

    I can see here you are coming from, but think that the lottery system will only increase stress on students, particularly the highly motivated ones with very definite goals.

    But at least it is a suggestion.

    Here is mine: the universities have it in their power to address the crazy CAO race and the “mad [impact on] career choices”; make the vocational high-points programmes graduate only entry. I’d much rather see a strong Science graduate from DCU (say) make a mature decision to study medicine, than seeing an 18 year with an almost prefect LC repeat a year.

    • wendymr Says:

      And in a perfect world where everyone can afford the real and the opportunity costs of 6-10 years of higher education, that would be great. But not everyone can, and certainly not people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, or those who have family responsibilities.

      It’s not just about fees. It’s about lost earnings while at university; costs for things like books, childcare or dependent care; and about age on graduation, particularly those looking at mature entry.

      I work in Canada as an employment counsellor – a country where several vocational programmes (law, medicine, social work, psychology among others) are graduate entry – and I see people who would love to enter these fields having to forget any thought of it because there is no way they can contemplate the number of years of study involved. This is widening yet again the class divide in higher education and access to the professions.

  2. Trevor Says:

    You make a sound point overall but your focus on the Leaving Certificate as the problem here is wrong. While there is no denying the Leaving Certificate has flaws, the Universities created and continue to propagate this problem. The Leaving Certificate has become bent out of shape because it is used (abused) by the third level sector.
    As you well know (as a former head of an Irish third level institution) the Central Applications Office is a private limited company set up by the Universities to manage the allocation of third level places to second level students. The Universities could, overnight, remove the pressure exerted on the Leaving Cert to facilitate this function if they introduced an independent entry process.
    I am from a generation of Irish students who can remember having just finished the Leaving Cert only to then immediately have to sit a whole other raft of exams to matriculate. I also recall a time when many undergraduate programmes held interviews to assess the suitability of applicants to their chosen field (e.g. teacher education). These and other systems were quietly dropped in favour of the CAO process.
    It’s time the University sector (and members of the Academy) in Ireland stopped throwing stones in the glass house they built!
    Finally, the lottery idea is nuts! Entry to a third level course should be based on merit not luck. We should assess the abilities and qualities of every applicant and award places accordingly – not set a minimum standard and then roll the dice!

    • jfryar Says:

      Yes you can tell I’m bored today given the volume of posts but I agree with Trevor’s point that the universities are partly to blame for the situation.

      Let’s take DCU as an example, simply because I happen to know that institution rather well. At least 16 of the science degrees offered by DCU require an HD3/OC3 in mathematics. Which looks ok until you realise that a higher level maths student would need 45 points compared to 20 points for an ordinary level student. Put simply, the maths requirement is lower for an ordinary level student than a higher level student. Which, to me, seems a bit of a discrepancy.

      That is until you look at LC statistics. About 96% of higher level students met the HD3 grade for maths or better and about 67% met the OC3 grade. It’s quite clear that universities have deliberately maintained low entry requirements and this sort of discrepancy in order to maximise their potential student intake.

      What about CAO cut offs? Well, exactly. The universities are relying on cutoffs rather than demonstrable aptitude in subjects key to the courses they offer. In DCU, to continue the example, 12 of the science degrees had cutoffs of 400 points or less. So it was fully possible for a student with ordinary level maths to make the CAO cutoff and meet the minimum maths requirement.

      Unremarkably enough, DCU also has the highest dropout rate of science courses in the state, with almost 40% of students failing to complete their degree. Of course DCU is not alone in this (TCD and UCD also have similar minimum entry requirements and CAO cutoffs in science) but I thought it was worth raising the point.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    While the current system is for from ideal, many of the proposed alternatives have their own problems:
    + lottery – may be appropriate for the small number of very high-point programmes but a bit OTT for common or garden courses
    + interviews – very resource hungry to operate, plus open to skewing factors that are equally likely to favour the already-favoured (eg ability to participate in extra-curricular activities like school debating)
    + matriculation exams – even more exam pressure, just intensify and multiply the problematic trends
    + aptitude tests – will be manipulated just as exams are – cf SAT industry in the US

    The key ‘problems’ with LC seem to be:
    a) encourages shallow rote-learning. Yes it probably does, but it is up to the tertiary sector to engage with the second-level sector to help move it towards a more enquiry-based approach. Of course this means that the tertiary sector will also have to give up its love affair with unseen exams!

    b) students making the ‘wrong’ choices. Do we know what the proportion so doing is? and why? How many are making the ‘wrong choice’ due to parental or peer pressure – or indeed the huge emphasis now being placed on STEM disciplines? A better way to address this might be for universities and institutes to make it easier to change courses – this will mean the introduction of proper modularisation and credit transfer systems, and also a change in how the fees/grants system operates.

    As long as educational outcomes can be converted into social and economic capital, then the advantaged will find ways to play the system. Making entry to certain professions post-graduate may be such a strategy, as pointed out by wendymr above. Performance in aptitude tests and interviews is also highly dependent on social and cultural capital and success in both can be enhanced by coaching/grinds – again to the benefit of the better-off.

    In practice, in Ireland, the continued existence of a well-resourced IoT sector, an accessible PLC/FETAC sector, and flexible and transparent systems for articulation between these and the elite universities (ie a fair and equitable ‘ladder’ system) is probably the best approach to trying to achieve more equity in the tertiary system, along with a funding system that treats ‘full time’ and ‘part time’ students equally.

  4. Marie Coleman Says:

    Be wary of anything that removes the broad span of subjects studied. From that point of view the Leaving is a major improvement on ‘A’ levels where students specialise on a restricted range of subjects too early in their careers. At least most LC graduates go to college with humanities and science subjects as well as a language. The ‘A’ Levels produce much less rounded students. Nevertheless, I agree with our criticisms about many of its outdated aspects. I write as one who went through the LC system and has taught in the third level sector in both Ireland and the UK.

  5. Jilly Says:

    Some interesting international perspectives on this issue in this article from today’s NYT:

  6. jfryar Says:

    I have to say I agree with much of what has been written above. However, I think there are two separate issues: how do we provide a secondary education system that better meets the needs of students in the 21st century and how do we allocate third-level places? Focusing on the Leaving Cert. tends to blur the distinction between the two.

    One aspect that is seldom mentioned is the three-year preparatory nature of the Junior Cert. – I personally think we need to cut the content of the courses. For example, a lot is said about the need for students to develop ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving skills’. Fine, let’s make the science course less about memorising the parts of the human digestive system, how to mix chemicals to make gases, and the fact that the extension of a spring is proportial to the applied load, and let them do experiments rather than watch the teacher, discuss approaches, and consider different methodologies. Let’s not simply teach history as a set of events that happened, but focus on key events and allow students the time to think about the reasons historical figures made the choices they did. ‘Would you have dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan?’ is a much more interesting educational question than ‘can you remember what cities were destroyed by those bombs?’.

    On the allocation of third-level places, one idea I’d propose is that applications are only accepted from students who have attended some open day introduction course and signed up. The CAO system is full of students who, for various reasons, have placed courses onto their lists without the foggiest notion of what is involved. This, I believe, is particularly true of science courses that traditionally have relatively low CAO cutoffs and low minimum entry requirements leading to almost a 40% dropout rate in some Irish universities.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Good points re Junior Cert. Are the facilities and technical support in Irish secondary schools to allow an active approach to science to happen? The great success of the Young Scientists competition suggests that the basis of a great approach to science teaching already exists.

      Maybe we should abolish the JC – what is its purpose anyway apart from a softening up for the LC?

      On the Open Day suggestion, this might well be difficult for those who wish to apply to geographically dispersed applicants. Maybe it would be useful to make better use of existing Open Days (which tend to be well attended by potential applicants). Again the two sectors could cooperate, for example, on building projects around Open Day.

      But in my experience Open Days do work quite well in giving potential applicants an opportunity o find out more about a course – if they are motivated enough.

      • jfryar Says:

        Perry … well I know members of the Irish Science Teachers Association who have been pushing for lab technicians for about a decade now, ever since the publication of the Task Force on Physical Sciences report. So you’re right, we don’t have the resources. Yet. But, having said that, I think modifying the existing JC science curriculum could have an impact on improving the kinds of ‘skills’ people are increasingly worried about. I don’t mean ‘educating people to work in the SET sector’ but enhancing problem solving, critical thinking, etc.

        I somewhat disagree about the Young Scientists competition though. Typically there’s about 500 entries – but one might expect about 150,000 students to be taking Junior Cert. science so what we see in the RDS is a mere drop in the ocean so I’d be relucant to use the YS competition as an indictor of the success of our approach to science. I think what the YS does show is the public’s interest in science.

        As for the open days, firstly I just have a problem with the notion that students can apply for say, a four year degree, without having ever travelled to the institution they’ll put on their CAO forms.

        Secondly, I personally think open days are a waste of time in their current format (hence my suggestion to make them a little more important) and I say that having been involved in a detailed analysis of a certain faculty’s open days.

        What we found was that the open day made little difference to CAO choices. Students would apply to a particular institution because a sibling or friend had attended or because of the geographical proximity to their home. The actual open day made little difference to their choice of institution.

  7. Martin Says:

    Hoare and Johnston have looked at the admissions situation at University of Bristol for the latest edition of Studies in Higher Education.

    Their findings appear to suggest that the exam system pre-university cannot provide an accurate pointer of how students will perform at undergraduate level. Or, at least, that performance will level out in the main once in a university setting.

    The paper can be found here:

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