Revisiting university access

Whatever country you are in, and whatever higher education system you are reviewing (unless you’ve found an obscure one I am not familiar with), there are serious issues regarding the extent to which the student body reflects in any real sense the population of the country from which it is drawn. Notwithstanding serious efforts to widen access and remove obstacles, in every system the participation of students from socio-economically disadvantaged groups is not satisfactory. While over the past half century or so middle income groups have gone to universities in much greater numbers, the same is on the whole not true of those from poorer backgrounds. Moreover, this pattern appears to apply regardless of the existence or otherwise of tuition fees. Indeed, it is possible that access for these groups in society has been determined more by the arrangements made by individual universities than by whatever is put in place by the state; though it is probably also true that more targeted financial support for the disadvantaged by the state would have a positive effect.

In this setting, it is interesting to read in the Irish Times that the Provost-elect of Trinity College Dublin plans to look at new ways  to ‘increase admissions of poorer students’. Suggesting that the CAO points system (under which Irish students are admitted to higher education institutions on the basis of a points score determined by the final school examination results) may need to be reviewed, Paddy Prendergast suggests that Ireland might use a scheme pioneered in Texas; applying this to Ireland or TCD, Professor Prendergast wonders whether there should be a rule under which ‘the top 5 per cent in all state schools gained automatic access to the leading university’. In fact, the rule in Texas applies to 10 (not 5) per cent, and we’ll gloss over the comment about a ‘leading university’. But could this idea work?

Probably not, if he is suggesting a specific scheme for Trinity College. I haven’t worked out the statistics, but if the top 5 of every state school were to be given automatic access to TCD, and assuming they all wanted to go, it would more or less remove all discretion from the College as to whom to admit. Furthermore, it would create serious confusion in the rest of the higher education system, and probably a high level of hostility between TCD and the others. But even if he is suggesting a sector-wide rule that doesn’t just apply to TCD, it is not immediately obvious that it would work. How would the allocation of students from these groups be decided as between the 40 or so Irish higher education institutions?

I am all in favour of abandoning the points system which, as I have noted previously, has done more to undermine Irish higher education than almost anything else. I am also strongly of the view that access for the disadvantaged needs to be addressed much more seriously. But the two are not particularly connected. The reason for the unsatisfactory participation rate by poorer students is not a result of university selection practices, but of various social and economic factors, including low expectations, bad advice, inadequate personal and family resources, and so forth. These need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Some of Paddy Prendergast’s other comments are interesting and show a willingness to address problem areas in higher education. It is also good that he understands that the route by which students enter higher education is not satisfactory. But on the specifics of access for the disadvantaged, he may want to reflect a little more on what he has proposed here.

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8 Comments on “Revisiting university access”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Without a doubt there are high fliers that can get 600 points in the Leaving Cert effortlessly. But what in reality do you need in order to do that part of your work that deals with students.
    I’ll bet you that 400 would do the job nicely. Then you might get people that have a few more skills than to singleton of exam ability.
    As to the TCD idea. Well it seems the place will expand somewhat even at 5%, for that clicks out to a few thousand. All the same though, TCD has always had innovative ideas evening classes and so forth, so I’ll take a wait and see approach.

  2. […] “Whatever country you are in, and whatever higher education system you are reviewing (unless you’ve found an obscure one I am not familiar with), there are serious issues regarding the extent to which the student body reflects in any real sense the population of the country from which it is drawn …” (more) […]

  3. jfryar Says:

    I remember a student who entered college with relatively mediocre CAO points. She subsequently graduated top of her class and went on to do a PhD. Then there was the student who consistently scraped through exams and discussed dropping out. He was given research projects to do in third and fourth year, was a fantastic experimentalist, scraped a 2.2, but was offered a postgrad place regardless. He left with a PhD.

    Everyone working in a university will have fond memories of the students who surprised them, the ones they knew were capable but lazy, the ones you’d be afraid would break equipment in a lab but would happily tolerate because they’d take the data and find interesting ways of analysing it.

    I think what Ireland needs is a third-level entry system that can identify the strengths and weaknesses of students beyond simple points. One method of doing that is to reduce four year degrees to three years and introduce a prep year at the start where you allow students freedom to explore course options. It wouldn’t, in my opinion, take very long for seasoned academics in those courses to identify potential in people, and to suggest where their abilities might lie.

    In other words, use the CAO to get people into colleges. Let the colleges then admit people into courses based on the experience of academics after interacting with those students for a year.

  4. Aidan Says:

    In one of the Freakonomics books they looked at how the students who had gotten in to one of the top law schools because of positive discrimination got on in their career afterwards. On every measure they were more or less equal to their ‘smarter’ peers.
    The only university level courses that I would describe as difficult are those demanding a high-level of mathematical aptitude. You don’t need to be really intelligent to do well at university. Interest and dedication go a long way.
    In my experience mature students and foreign, fee-paying students, did way better than average. That says a lot about what affects performance.

  5. otto Says:

    “I am all in favour of abandoning the points system which, as I have noted previously”
    On the points issue, three things:
    First, the “points” system appears to be completely exempt from wriggling/lobbying which infects so many other aspects of Irish life. I could not be sure, to put it mildly, that many other systems of application, including interview systems, would be equally exempt.
    Second, the current system is very efficient in terms of university time and resources. No new application system should be introduced should take up more of university staff’s time or require new employees in universities’ administrative staff.
    Third. in my experience at least, the CAO points of incoming students is indeed a very good predictor of how well students do at UG and even MSc courses at Irish universities.
    Not a bad system at the moment at all — could be much worse.

    • Otto, I hope you don’t mind my saying, but this is a very naive perspective on the points system.

      1. No ‘wriggling/lobbying’. Perhaps, but it’s irrelevant. Your points are determined well before you sit any exams. Your place of normal residence (with resulting school resources) determines them. There is a *huge* correlation between points and socio/economic background.
      2. Interviews. Not a realistic proposition. The one that would be most exempt both from lobbying and background is a lottery, applying to all who have exceeded the points needed to understand the subject.
      3. Efficiency of resources. my proposal is no costlier than the existing one.
      4. Points as predictor. For sure, but if (as they do) points reflect socio-economic status, then it is the latter that is the reliable predictor. If that matters, why don’t we just automatically admit the upper middle classes and tell everyone else to get lost…

      • otto Says:

        Thanks for the reply.
        1. There’s often a lot of wriggling/lobbying in Irish decision-making, including around issues like switching courses within universities, which are sometimes – by the rules – meant to be determined by CAO points e.g. for first year students switching students, but do not always follow that process. This point will certainly not appear irrelevant if we move to a system which allows much more “influence” than at the moment.
        2. Prendergast I think floated interviews, which is why I mentioned them. Would likely be a disaster.
        3. I didn’t see any proposal from you in this post, but I see from here – – that you favour some sort of lottery: “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.” Interesting. Such a system would indeed be efficient and require little university staff time etc. On the wider question, I wonder if “minimum entry requirements for a subject” really makes sense. There is no minimum entry requirement for studying e.g. Aristotle as such, but with students of different abilities/past educational achievement, the lecturer will teach “Aristotle” at very different levels of ambition. Indeed, at US universities of the most selective sort, “Aristotle” may be being taught to UGs at a more advanced level than is currently the case at any Irish university. At the limit, if everyone was admitted subject to a low minimum, you would need streaming of different students *within* the universities, so that some were taking Aristotle-simple and others Aristotle-advanced, with degree results to reflect this difference, whereas at the moment this streaming largely takes place by putting students in different universities according to CAO points.

  6. otto Says:

    Although perhaps I should add that maybe what school students need to do to get their points may need to be changed.

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