University entry in Ireland: decided by lottery?

As long term readers of this blog will know, I am not a fan of the ‘points system’ which determines higher education entry in Ireland. Under this system, eligibility for entry into university programmes is determined by the points score calculated from the results of the final school examination, the Leaving Certificate. The points are a form of currency, and the price for which they provide the payment is determined by the popularity of programmes. The maximum points score is 600, and this or something like it is needed for entry into medicine. Very high points are needed for socially desirable subjects like law. Much lower points are needed – because the subjects are less popular – for engineering or computing. Since these subjects are by no means easier than law, the whole system is crazy. It has encouraged social ambition (particularly parental social ambition) and distorted career choices in Ireland.

Some years ago I suggested in a newspaper article that it would be better to replace the points system with a lottery. My suggestion was that each programme should determine what the minimum points were that were needed to ensure a student would be able to navigate the course successfully; and if there were then more applicants for the programme with the minimum points than there were places, the allocation should be done by lottery. This would be immune to influence and corruption as in the present system, but would not follow the existing framework’s tendency to distort student choice.

At the time my suggestion was criticized severely, and indeed I got very little support. Interestingly however, the Irish Times reports today that the idea has been picked up and recommended for consideration in a report prepared for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) by retired University College Cork professor Áine Hyland.

Ultimately the reform or abolition of the points system rests with the universities, who own it. It is to be hoped that they will take this particular idea for reform seriously.

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27 Comments on “University entry in Ireland: decided by lottery?”

  1. Peter Lydon Says:

    Well done not he prediction. But this still won’t solve the problem of people wanting, for example, (the approximately) 600 points needed for Vet who have no intention of actually becoming a practicing veterinarian; or people simply entering law because that is the done thing and if it doesn’t work out, well they can do something else!

    There needs to be a system that takes account of a students aptitude – not just their ability to cram the night before the exam. Something like the HPAT for all subjects should be included. IN particular, there should be a test to see whether a person should be in Third level in the first place, regardless of how many points they have.

    There also needs to be an exception to the lottery system that allows students from disadvantaged areas a better chance to get in. Statistically, in a lottery system, there would be fewer of them.

    • no-name Says:

      This statistical argument merits clarification, since it appears to presuppose that there are fewer people living in disadvantaged areas than in conditions of the other extreme. Being disadvantaged is not the same as being in a minority. If the argument is that minority groups are unfairly disadvantaged by this sort of lottery, isn’t it actually the very wealthy who would be in the situation you described if the lottery principle were applied without interference? Is it not potential disadvantage to the very wealthy minority (and those who aspire to be in it) which will most impede the implementation of a lottery system for access to courses at the third level?

      • Peter Lydon Says:

        Eh, no. Take the third sentence first. You haven’t explained how a lottery system would disadvantage the well-off except by reference to the principle you assert in your first sentence, which of course, is incorrect. There may or may not be more or less people in disadvantaged areas than in middle class area – but this is not the pivot upon which my assertion rests.
        Instead it rests upon the fact that fewer people from disadvantaged areas apply for college in the first instance. So in fact the population of college applicants is lower in disadvantaged areas. Being disadvantaged does mean being in a minority when the population we are analyzing is the third level population. Differences between ‘wealthy’ and ‘very wealth’ do not reduce the likelihood of college application.

  2. Rachel Says:

    I agree with your comment about distortion of career choices Ferdinand, but it is not exactly right to say that the “price” in points of entry to a particular programme is determined by its popularity – it’s determined by the relationship between that and the availability of places. The Irish university where I work had around 1300 first year students in Arts last year and fewer than 150 in Medicine. If the number of places in 1st Arts was also limited to 150, the successful applicants would all have very high points in the LC. It’s not that Medicine is “more popular” than Arts.


  3. I read your original article and thought it was slightly tongue-in-cheek insofar as you might be suggesting that anything might be preferable than the points system. However, your minimum points suggestion might undermine the solution as many will still study very hard to get into the lottery and you may get a lot of less capable people getting access to an expensive education that would have more impact if it went to the most capable people who were interested. An aptitude test would be a better way to select although, given that success in life is a based on a combination of factors including both aptitude and dedication, the performance at school (possibly measured differently) should also be continued to be taken into account.

    I’m almost afraid to say that perhaps we should also bring in the dreaded market forces insofar as a significant (50%?) contribution by the student towards the cost of provision might lead to the allocation of these resources more to those who can and intend to make efficient use of them.

  4. Al Says:

    One point that maybe worth making is the punctuality of this and other education reform in Ireland.
    It moves at the pace of a glacier, it shouldnt be an earthquake of reform every 20-30 years, and we should aim for well naviagated continual reform.
    This will take leadership and a clarity of purpose but that is the most important thing missing.


  5. @Al I would agree with you that there should be major reform but then would we all agree what that reform would be. Would the Hunt report (http://www.hea.ie/files/files/DES_Higher_Ed_Main_Report.pdf) fit the bill for your earthquake in terms of scope and would you generally agree with the content?

    • Al Says:

      @ Brian

      First of all, the Hunt report is the report that we have and the one we will work from.
      I dont rate it as an earthquake.
      It challenged our ambitions, but it didnt challenge our percieved truths!

      Further, from what I have seen of it the composition was reflective of a partnership approach with student members etc on it. This seemed to cause problems when it came to issues like student fees. I would favour a “lone wise person” approach to challenges like that that Hunt sought to identify.

      As regards to the content, there were several things that I didnt agree with, or thought that issues werent dealt with completely. But it is a while since I read it.


      • @Al, I’ve often thought of starting a blog on Irish education titled “Well, I wouldn’t start from here”. We do need much more radical change, but I don’t think it is politically feasible. What radical ideas have you in mind in terms of an “earthquake”.


        • Brian, that’s a brilliant blog title. Wish I’d thought of it.


          • Ferdinand, its OK for the likes of us with very little influence to propose radical ideas. It’s a bit of a entertainment really. However, I am fully aware that the only practical way for the likes of yourself with some influence is to move forward in an incremental way.

            I’m dying for someone to ask me what my “earthquake” idea is. Must start that blog.

        • Al Says:

          @ BRIAN

          I think we need to take another look at the distinctions between training and education. We also need to be more explicit when using terms like skill, upskill, skill development.
          I would also throw in a review of the NFQ.
          Sorry for being so vague in this.
          Time for a blog meself too ?


  6. As Rachel says, constraints on supply are also an important part of the picture here.

    In an ideal world, the lottery is an attractive proposal as it is cheap, fair and likely to be at least as good at picking out the ‘best’ students as current methodologies. In the real world we actually inhabit, though, admission to universities – especially prestigious courses at prestigious universities that are in high demand – is a critical component in defining ‘merit’ for the purposes of our ‘meritocracy’.

    Powerful social groups both inside and outside the university therefore have vested interests in preserving both the reality that admission (to the most favoured institutions) is largely about prior social privilege and the fiction that it is largely about ability.


    • @Andrew “In an ideal world, the lottery is an attractive proposal as it is cheap, fair and likely to be at least as good at picking out the ‘best’ students as current methodologies.” – how do you work that out? Perhaps it is true, but it certainly is counter intuitive. Points in the leaving cert would certainly be highly correlated with academic ability and dedication even if other issues influenced it also. This would suggest that it was better than random selection.

      I think what Ferdinand was suggesting is that the problems of random selection are less than the problems caused by the pints system (eg rote learning and concentrating on more easily measurable outcomes)


      • @Brian I don’t think you can even define – still less measure – ‘academic ability’ except tautologically (e.g. by reference to exam results), so not much point correlating it with anything. The ‘other issues’ you mention (such as wealth, for example) can be defined and measured so the correlation there is meaningful.
        I also put the scare quotes around ‘best’ for a reason. If I offer a course – why are students with more academic ability (even if you can measure that) ‘better’ than students with sufficient academic ability who will be stretched more by the course and therefore learn more from it? It seems that the second set of students is ‘better’ fitted to benefit from the course offered, whilst the first are ‘better’ fitted to benefit the course and/or the institution teaching it (e.g. by being easier to teach, or enhancing institutional prestige). So conventional conceptions of the ‘best’ students seem to me to rely on the implicit assumption that students are there for the good of their teachers, rather than vice versa.


        • @andrew By “Academic ability” I am really referring to what we would have traditionally called “cleverness”. Despite misgivings about IQ tests, there are definitely a number of innate mental traits that make people better learners, thinkers and problem solvers and these people may be better at certain types of jobs and able to take better advantage of certain learning opportunities with less effort. As I heard someone on the radio say “If I’m sick I’d prefer to go to a clever doctor than one with a good bedside manner”.

          Actually, medicine is generally trotted out when people are complaining about rote learning at school when in actual fact it may be one of the areas where the ability to remember may be of great value. People tend to think that engineering requires good problem solving ability and the engineering schools exploit this quite well by requiring honours maths which has shown to have the greatest correlation with general performace across the board in higher education.

          • Peter Lydon Says:

            then again..not only do I want my brain surgeon to remember what a ‘lobe’ is, I want her to be able to figure out what to do with it once she’s found it.


          • @peter Indeed, and that analytical ability would be quite well corellated with the points in the leaving cert. Certainly moreso than a random selection.

          • Wendymr Says:

            But if someone’s not a good listener, then they may be as likely to be a poor doctor as someone who isn’t all that skilled at rote learning – in fact, perhaps worse. If I don’t remember the significance of a particular symptom, I can always look it up. If I’m a lousy listener, either because patients feel they can’t talk to me, or I rush through appointments without giving them a chance to explain their situation, or I fail to ask the appropriate follow-up questions, then that makes me a terrible doctor.

            This is why universities in Canada, and now across the US, are using Multiple Mini Interviews for medical school selection, to get past the idea that high marks are all that matters and to emphasise the need in addition for good communication, listening and relationship-building skills.


          • @wendymr Yes, another good reason NOT to have random selection.


  7. I’d add two elements to this. First, some weight ought to be given to Leaving Cert results as compared to those attained in your school as well the national comparison. This would help even out socio-economic biases to an extent.

    Second, once you get the points you ought to be guaranteed a place, with the lottery deciding who gets in this year and who has to wait until next year. You may decide to go to your second choice etc as before or – if you’re inclined to wait – to opt in to the course for the following year. Surely that would be fair and would work for all but the most oversubscribed programmes.


  8. Part of the problem with the points system is the lack of correlation between what students can be deemed to have learned at Leaving Cert level and the skills needed for third-level. Universities ask that students have Cs or Ds in relevant subjects rather than Bs or As (and many courses have no specific requirements apart from the college’s standard requirements) – which is beneficial for students who find third-level suits them better than the examination methods at second level, certainly, but also emphasises the focus on overall points rather than needing to do well in certain relevant subjects. If there was a sense that the Leaving Cert results really indicated ability in particular areas, it would be logical to have courses asking for As and Bs in certain subjects – which would eliminate many potential candidates and bring down the points. It’ll be interesting to see what the bare minimum requirements are according to a lottery system, and how subject-specific they are.

    • Peter Lydon Says:

      That would be fine if a student who could get an A got an A but there can be such a huge variation in the quality of marking at LC that some deserving students could lose out on their place.

  9. Peter Lydon Says:

    Einstein said that everything should be as simple as possible but no simpler. The points system exists as a rationing tool for scarce places. If we got rid of the ‘golf course management’ diplomas etc we might have more places for more students for more serious endeavours (yeah, I know….)

    The point is (!)…universities have bound up the second level system and turned what should be nurturing and valuable learning experience into a rat-race. The two should be separated. The Leaving Cert should be an assessment of second level learning, not a pre-test for what university qualification.

    Scrap the points system – award university places to those who have the *aptitude’ – this could be the guy with a C and not the guy with an A.

  10. newtonheath Says:

    Whereas your suggestion is interesting the lottery seems somewhat unfair to me. You may have 100 people on the same number of “minimum” points and only 50 places. That’s means nobody has merited a place it is just luck which gets you your university place.
    What happens if someone of the 100 fails to get a place adn then repeats to get the course only to fail in the lottery the second time round?
    I don’t think the current system is necessarily the best but a lottery system isn’t as fair as you would like to believe.

  11. Jonathan Says:

    Here’s a question, I’m not sure if it’s been asked above or not, but if your goal is to funnel more capable students, or even just more students, into engineering or other more neglected courses, how do you figure that making the points requirement higher is going to do that? Something is already undesirable, so you make it harder to get into. That doesn’t make a great deal of economic sense. If DCU were to fix it’s points for entry into common engineering to 450 this year, how many places would be left unfilled? I’m guessing many of them, maybe the majority.

    As far as I can see, the proposal does nothing for science and engineering courses, and in fact it makes matters worse. So then the whole thing becomes an exercise in social engineering and nothing more, the goal is to grant access to higher demand courses to students with lower points, who we are to assume are poorer or disadvantaged in some way. We’ll ignore those students who are not disadvantaged, but who are genuinely less capable.

    This doesn’t help the third level system nor does it provide higher quality candidates, don’t dress it up as if it does. My own opinion is that the current system is the best available. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but it is a realistic representation of supply and demand. The only way to alter demand is to alter demand directly, not to play games with the system.


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