Understanding ‘merit’ in university admissions

During my ten years as President of Dublin City University, one of the myths with a particular grip on Irish public discourse that I tried to demolish was the idea that universities had always admitted students to their courses purely on ‘merit’. In Ireland, then as now, students succeed in getting their preferred degree programme on the basis of their final school examinations (the Leaving Certificate), or rather on the basis of the points score they achieve through their exam results. The points needed to get on to your course is determined by supply and demand: the most popular programmes require the highest points. I have explained previously that this often results in academically easier subjects requiring higher points (i.e. better results), which has resulted in a system so amazingly stupid as to be almost unbelievable.

And yet, it is regularly defended, most frequently by those who argue that it is ‘objective’, that it is not open to influence or corruption, and that it recognises only merit. I was unable, I think, to change many people’s minds on this despite my best efforts. However, in one setting we did break the rigour of the points system, and that was in our access programme: students from disadvantaged backgrounds who were admitted under the university’s access scheme could get in on lower points than those demanded of students recruited through normal channels. This practice has more generally become known as ‘contextual admissions’, in which the context of the student applicant’s situation is taken into account when assessing their performance.

Contextual admissions, which have become more common also in UK universities (see this example), have recently been heavily criticised by the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. In an editorial comment under the heading ‘Universities must select on merit’, the newspaper argues:

‘This practice is unfair, and must be ended. Students should be admitted on the basis of their qualifications. A systematic policy of preferring less well-qualified students harms universities, just as it harms candidates who are rejected because their background is deemed “wrong”. The deficiencies of many state secondary schools are certainly a serious problem, but penalising pupils who have been lucky enough to receive a good education in the private sector does nothing to address them. In fact, the policy only conceals and entrenches the failures of the state school system.’

Fair comment? The Telegraph, both in its editorial and in an article elsewhere in the paper, makes the assumption that qualification based on exam results is an objective assessment of ability, and therefore that a willingness to take other factors into account corrupts the system and introduces a new discrimination based on background (the article suggests there is discrimination against ‘middle class children’). Leaving aside entirely whether you can really ignore unequal outputs from schools differentiated by very unequal levels of resourcing, one needs to overcome the false assumption that different entry requirements for university courses reflect their intellectual demands. They don’t. They reflect supply and demand, which is often the product of parental social ambitions. As a result, universities generally have been dominated by the wealthier sections of society, but more particularly certain degree programmes leading to qualification for elite professions such as law and medicine have been close to no-go areas for the disadvantaged.

There is, as most (including the Telegraph) recognise, clearly a problem with the school system and its less than perfect ability to provide equal opportunities for young people from all backgrounds. While this needs to be resolved in its own right, the effect it is having in the meantime on opportunities for some of the population cannot just be ignored. I would not support admitting students to courses in which they would be likely to fail. But I think we need to look again at how we assess both the demands of degree programmes and the ability of students to succeed. Ultimately this is in everyone’s interest.

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12 Comments on “Understanding ‘merit’ in university admissions”

  1. Vince Says:

    It may seem odd but I wouldn’t have said the Telegraph would deal out that argument. It’s not really their segment is it. The Times, yes. Even the Guardian, but the Telegraph it’s a bit like the owners enclosure at a racecourse.
    And for what it’s worth, you confirmed my opinion about the Leaving Cert and the points system. So to lance it, when people argue for the points system, what they are actually saying is they know how to manipulate it.
    How the heck it wasn’t sliced up with the covenants.

  2. When I was involved with the BITE programme, it was clearly demonstrated that students with lower LC points could and did achieve as well as, and sometimes better than, those who entered university with higher points.

    Personally I think that we should abolish the points system altogether. If only the alternative was as easy to conjure.

    Part of the problem is with how we conceive ‘failing’. The current mode of examination, which relies a lot on memory, is not a fair test of ability, no matter the importance of memory and the advantage, in some cases, knowing information by heart has. The examination system requires student to ‘guess’ what it is the examiners want them to demonstrate what they know. So LC English students can fail if they focus on the poet that doesn’t come up. This is appalling.

    A test should always demonstrate competency. Perhaps a better university entrance exam would not be one where the student can show what they learned 2 years ago, but one which tests their ability to manage the material they will have to learn, i.e. e.g. here is a page from a first year undergraduate text book – what does it say/solve a problem etc.

  3. Isabelle Says:

    The “contextual” admission system you mention has been practised in both secondary school and university admission in Kenya for many years already, with lower thresholds set for applicants from the more remote parts of the country, where schools are poorly equipped. It has, on the whole, worked very well and given opportunities to young people who might not otherwise have had them.

    But the same controversy rages there too — the students from private schools and from Nairobi feel that they are unfairly treated by having to reach a higher threshold. So far, the current system has been maintained — and I hope it will continue to be so.

  4. no-name Says:

    Would you disagree as much with the Irish CAO points market if in a revision of its current form, honors English and honors mathematics were the only two subjects to be entered into the total score for any student, regardless of the target third-level course?

    (Specific qualifications in other languages, for example, as appropriate to the prerequisites of some third-level course might be evaluated in a binary fashion, with no contribution to overall points.)

    Do you think that if English and mathematics were the only two subjects assessed that second-level teaching and examination of them would acquire greater depth?

    In such a revised system, could the difference in formal qualifications, prior to third-level admission, between students arriving via “normal channels” and those provided “contextual admissions” be expected to diminish?

    The modified system might not significantly address the social inequities that you mention, but would eliminate some of the points cholesterol that seems to clog the normal arteries.

    • I’m not sure I see the purpose of such a change if there is still a competitive points score at the end of it, regardless of which subjects provide the metrics. Also, your proposal would almost certainly undermine the quality of teaching in other subjects (i.e. other than Mathematics and English). I do agree however that the search must go on for something better.

      • Vince Says:

        Why not set absolute minimum requirements tailored to each course, then a lottery. So if you only need a ‘c’ in geography or an ‘a’ in physics. Set the course for seven years. About the time a lecturer should be in one position, then refresh it. This would achieve a few things. It wouldn’t require a ‘constitutional’ change to get past anyone. The Uni’s could do this in the morning since the structure of matriculation is already in place. It would fix the 2nd level syllabus predictably so no book changes would be required over the seven years.
        Put simply, what’s going on at the moment isn’t suiting anyone, least of all the uni’s. And isn’t it marvelous for a country fixated with PR voting that they are so enamored with this version of FPtP.

      • no-name Says:

        Enacting this suggestion may well undermine the quality of teaching in subjects other than English and mathematics; however, some espouse the view that strength in English and mathematics underpins strength in all other subjects, and therefore one may anticipate that enacting the suggestion will not undermine, but strengthen, learning (distinct from teaching) in all other subjects.

        Yes, the suggestion retains a competitive score at the end of it, but notice that the playing field is somewhat more clearly defined since all would be competing with exactly the same two subjects, without scope for “easy” subjects to inflate points.

        In fact, with subjects the same for all, one could meaningfully re-define “points”, dropping the second-order sums over scores for the number of As, B1s, etc. and equating “points” with the total number of marks, instead.

        (Further, the assessment of the exams could be contracted to other nations, much in the spirit that Irish research funding authorities seek reviewers for research proposals to make the process such that the funding bodies can “argue that it is `objective'” and without influences arising from inherent conflicts of interest.)

        It is easy to imagine two possible outcomes. In one, with the greater depth in all of teaching, learning, and assessment, a greater range of marks will emerge, still normally distributed. Then a situation will have been achieved in which, supply and demand effects not eliminated, one may *fairly* give places within quota to students on the basis of descending rank order of marks earned. In another possible outcome, greater depth of teaching and learning are evident, but assessment does not keep up, and students are not as effectively as in the other case ranked according to marks earned. In this case, the determination of entrance to over-subscribed courses would, just as now, have some element of a lottery associated with winning a place for students competing with equally ranked peers. However, the students will have, unlike now, but just as in the first case, a useful and transferable benefit from the second-level education experience (rather than non-transferable memory of a few passages of Yeats and a version of the Pythagorean Theorem that does not endure alphabetic substitution of variable names). Either of those potential outcomes appear to provide an improvement over the status quo.

        The suggested change is an incremental step in the search for something better. Yes, competition remains, but what is eliminated is competition without tangible and lasting benefit to the student.

  5. iainmacl Says:

    It is a crazy system and I appreciate that all the more now that my daughter is going into Leaving cert stages at school. Total focus on what might come up, almost dispiritingly obsessive drive for rote-learning and memorisation. Yet this is all the students, teachers and politicians seem to know (or to be fair,all that they have experienced, since many of them do call out for change). And it most certainly is not a school ‘leaving’ cert, but rather a points-accumulation scheme for higher education. Breaking away from it though is going to require a pretty substantial culture shift in terms of the national conception of what education is and what it’s for. Not that this is impossible, at least some limited stirrings in terms of initial teacher education are happening at the moment, though quite the direction that’s headed in isn’t entirely clear other than in reducing numbers.

    I think though part of the issue is whether we see higher education as something which has become the norm. In other words whether rather than being in a system of ‘mass higher education’ we’re really moving into the realm of ‘universal’, in the sense that the vast majority might expect to go on to such. In that case, we need to not only re-examine the applications/entrance process (which were originally designed for lower participation rates) but also perhaps, I’d suggest, the nature of an undergraduate degree, along with decent recognition of alternatives to higher education for those who want to enter work and training.

  6. kevin denny Says:

    While this is a very interesting subject -since it is so important- it is also boring since these discussions recur frequently, the same opinions are aired and nothing much changes.
    The simplistic association of “merit” with LC points is risible though surprisingly common. Merit at what? There was a very good discussion of these issues at the conference held in TCD a few months back on admissions. Robert Sternberg’s talk and his work (“College Admissions for the 21st century”) shows that it is possible to do better than standard testing methods, if you are serious about it. Schwartz’s talk, based on his work on the UK, was also superb.
    However there are some influential figures in Irish education who seem peculiarly wedded to the current points/CAO system for reasons that defy comprehension. The elephant in this particular room is that the current system suits the middle class and any radical change will disadvantage them. And we can’t have that, can we?

  7. James Fryar Says:

    I can’t help but nod my head in agreement with pretty much everything that’s been said. But for me, the elephant in the room is actually the free-fees scheme. The selection process we have in Ireland will not change until free-fees is abolished. This is because of the simple bums-on-seats = cash funding formula our universities are tied into. Let me give an example to make the point.

    When demand was high for a particular computer science course in a northside Dublin university, no one cared about the ‘selection process’. Students were competing on the basis of cumulative points totals, and the points were high enough to ensure those entering the course had sufficient aptitude to progress through the degree. When the number of applicants dropped, so did the CAO cut-offs. Eventually a cap was placed on the points to prevent them falling to a level at which students with insufficient aptitude could gain a place.

    Now this course, like every other, had subject-specific minimum entry requirements. Clearly those requirements were far too low otherwise there’d have been no need to cap the points. So why were the entry requirements so low?

    The answer was primarily maths. With an HD3 or OC3 requirement, about two-thirds of ordinary level students, and virtually every higher level student, could meet those grades. The low ordinary level maths requirement ensured large numbers of applicants, which in turn ensured funding through the free-fees scheme.

    This is the dilemma that universities in Ireland face in terms of student selection under free-fees. Selecting students on the basis of cumulative CAO totals in subjects not relevant to the degree ensures large numbers of applicants and hence money. Changing it risks decreasing applicants, which is why the ludicrous system is maintained.

  8. litljortindan Says:

    I think what happens to contextual admission students in terms of leadership skills development is important; otherwise they could be looking at the slow track to the better jobs. That could even be a generations long problem with non contextual admissions graduates being the most likely to be making decisions on who to hire and if the decision makers have never been exposed to group work led by a contextual admission student who will they give employment opportunities to first? Exposure to group work where the role of team leader is rotated could be important for what happens after graduation.

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