Posted tagged ‘CAO’

Getting to the point

May 31, 2011

One politician who continues to impress is Ireland’s new Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn. Yesterday I attended an event organised by the Royal Irish Academy at which the Minister outlined the issues facing higher education and addressed certain challenges to the academic community.

Of particular significance is the Minister’s view that the CAO points system needs to be changed – a view I have been putting forward for some time. In his speech the Minister said that the points system is ‘designed around the dominant needs of a cohort of full-time, school leaver, entrants’, which no longer reflects the overall student body or how this is likely to be affected by demographic and other trends. He told his audience that they need to find ‘radically new approaches and alternatives to the current arrangements.’

Elsewhere in his comments the Minister refused to rule out new student contributions or tuition fees.

Irish higher education is clearly facing some very difficult times, and given the state of the pubic finances there are no easy solutions. But the country has an education minister with a genuine interest in higher education and a determination to get things done. That’s a good start.

Off the points

May 5, 2011

According to last weekend’s Sunday Independent, the new Irish Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn TD, plans to ‘axe the points race by 2014.’ I would wholly welcome the general intent, but I do need to point out (maybe to the Sunday Independent rather than the Minister, who will know this well enough) that the Minister cannot ‘axe’ the points system, as it is not his property. The only ones who can do that are the universities themselves, as owners of the Central Applications Office (CAO). Furthermore the Independent‘s article suggests that the universities have been complaining about the points system. Not so. I have, but I don’t know of many others in the higher education system.

However, the reported demand by the Minister to the universities to come up with an appropriate replacement is absolutely welcome. I have been saying for a long time that the points system distorts the Leaving Certificate curriculum and encourages the wrong learning methods, and furthermore it pushes young people into the wrong careers. In the interests of education reform it is now an urgent priority that the points system should go. As I have suggested previously, a lottery for all those who have met the minimum subject-specific entry requirements would be far preferable to the existing system, and would have the effect of distributing students between courses far more appropriately.

This is a good move by the Minister. The universities need to respond positively and quickly.

Understanding why students drop out

October 29, 2010

Just over two weeks ago I addressed the problem of student non-completion in this blog. Yesterday Ireland’s Higher Education Authority published a Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education, which set out some of the more detailed data on student drop-outs broken down by institution and by subject. The study is extremely useful, but on the whole it tells us a lot of things we already know, or certainly ought to know: that students with poorer Leaving Certificate (final secondary school examination) results are more likely to drop out of university; that woman are better at completing than men; that difficult programmes of study have a higher rate of attrition; and that institutes of technology have higher drop-out rates than universities. Perhaps less obviously, it also tells us that there is no significant difference in attrition between those from a better-off background and the less well off (though the latter are much less likely to get to university in the first place).

Yesterday afternoon I was invited by Radio Station TodayFM to be a guest, together with the HEA’s Muiris O’Connor, on the late afternoon programme The Last Word with Matt Cooper. In considering the report of this study, and also in assessing the comments made by Muiris O’Connor in explaining it, I was struck by the fact that one absolutely key message was missing: the impact of the CAO points system.

As Irish readers of this blog know, the points system is essentially a market in programmes: if you want to study a popular subject you will need more CAO points than if you are willing to go for one of the less popular ones. The level of difficulty of the programme is neither here nor there; and so because difficult programmes are by their nature less popular, you find bizarrely that you can get on to a difficult course with much worse Leaving Certificate results than you would need for an easier one. That this results in significant attrition rates for difficult programmes is hardly an earth-shattering surprise. What is a surprise, however, is that we know this and do nothing about it. And the reason why we do nothing about it is broadly the same reason why we won’t tackle fees – we are afraid of the wrath of the middle classes, who generally want to pour money into their children’s secondary education and then want them to be professionals rather than scientists, entrepreneurs or artists.

As I have mentioned before, the CAO points system is slowly but surely distorting and corrupting the whole Irish education system. We need to address this urgently. And as they own it, the people who need to tackle the points system head-on are the universities. It is time to act.

Chasing university places

August 24, 2010

As I have argued before, it now looks increasingly inevitable that the trend of recent years of a annual increases in the number of university places will come to an end. As public funding is cut, and crucially, as more and more teaching posts are taken out of the system, it is becoming impossible for universities to contemplate further increases in the student intake. This development, however, is coinciding with a significant increase in student demand, so that the impact may turn out to be a major increase in points and in the number of applicants who cannot find a place.

This development is not unique to Ireland. In England the head of UCAS (the British equivalent of the CAO) has warned that upwards of 150,000 school leavers will fail to get a university place this year. Meanwhile in Ireland he CAO’s website crashed yesterday, having fallen victim to a malicious cyber-attack early in the day, while it became clear that points for a variety of course were rising. All of these things help to pile on the pressure.

Our key concern must now be that the growing mismatch of supply and demand does not produce socially undesirable results. We need to ensure that access programmes are reinvigorated, and that university places do not disproportionately go to the children of wealthy families. We also need to ensure that young people are offered viable and attractive substitutes for higher education programmes. We should also look again at what level of participation in higher education is most suitable for this country in our current circumstances.There are many challenges ahead, but also many opportunities.

Educational anguish

August 22, 2010

Nobody could suggest that the Irish are not interested in education. I know of no country in which the annual final school examination results get as much coverage and as much in-depth analysis as is the case here. The quality of our schools, our higher education institutions and our students is the subject of public and private discussion in Ireland to a far greater extent than anywhere else. University stories of one kind or another (not always flattering of course) can be found in our media on a regular basis. Secondary school students write national newspaper columns. As a country, we have an intuitive understanding of the importance of education and of its significance in the achievement of our national ambitions.

Then why, one might ask, if we are so obsessed with education, are we getting it so badly wrong right now? The entire national discourse is about how standards are falling, funding is inadequate, teachers are de-motivated, the secondary school curriculum is out-dated and not fit for purpose, our national literacy and numeracy is declining fast, universities are in debt, the system is being bureaucratised, graduates are leaving the country, employers are dissatisfied with our educational standards, subjects vital to national recovery are being neglected.

In the face of this general dissatisfaction it is easy to become fatalistic about it all; or else we may become mesmerised by it and fail to act at all, because there just seems to be so much that needs to be done. Or we may become hyperactive ‘fixing’ things that ironically are not particularly broken (as I think is threatening to happen regarding higher education) while neglecting things that are.

It seems to me to be a good idea to start with something we know has gone wrong: my gut feeling is that as a priority we need to address the cocktail of problems arising from the Leaving Certificate and the CAO points system (which are closely related). The Leaving Certificate and its curriculum have been distorted by the perceived demands of the points system, pushing students into subjects they feel will maximise their points but for which they not have any real talent (for which there is often no strong national need) and into using learning methods that support them in this but which are inappropriate both as a preparation for college and for developing useful life or professional skills.

In fact, most educationalists tend to agree that the points system is not ideal, but there is no consensus as to what might replace it, and therefore nothing much happens. Politicians in particular seem to find it easier not to question it. The Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Mary Coughlan TD, drew some criticism from the education editor of the Irish Independent, John Walshe, when she indicated that the points system is the ‘fairest way’ of selecting students for third level programmes. In fact it is manifestly neither ‘fair’ nor functionally useful, but as so much of the educational edifice has been built around it, it is easier to let it be. Easier, but wrong.

The points system is the property of the universities (through the CAO), and if they act together they can introduce fundamental reform that might correct the distribution of students in higher education programmes and cause an over-due reform of the Leaving Certificate curriculum and pedagogy. Like everyone else, the universities seem to be paralysed by the whole thing and are unwilling to act. But the time to do so is now.

Planning a career

August 2, 2010

Before entering higher education most students – or if not the students, then their parents – have an extraordinarily clear idea of what they want to do professionally and what they need from their university or college to achieve this. I have lost track of the number of times that  first year university students have told me of their amazingly fixed expectations of their future professional life. Many of these young people are 17 years old or so, and their sense of certainty frightens me. A few of them are encouraged by their parents to have this sense of purposeful destiny.

But quite apart from the amazing clarity of intention, what also regularly strikes me is how they make their choices. Two things seem to determine this more than anything else: one is their anticipated points score, the other their interpretation of currents news and events. We have already covered the CAO points system previously, but in a nutshell students continue to feel obliged to go for whatever university degree course has a points requirement that most nearly resembles their own points score. If you have 550 points that is enough for Law in Trinity, so why should they consider doing philosophy in Cork, which you can do for much less – it would be ‘wasting their points’ (an extraordinary and destructive concept).

The second source of influence is the news of the day, and their understanding of it. Shortly after 2000 the dot.com bubble burst, for example, and a number of ICT companies experienced difficulties, and a few of them shed jobs. Oh no, said some ambitious parents, this means you shouldn’t do computing, or software engineering, or the like; numbers in those programmes duly fell dramatically. But this way of responding to events is uninformed and unintelligent. For a start, at no point was there a significant reduction in Ireland in demand for ICT professionals at the more qualified end of the market. But actually, what happened was that Ireland began to have significant number of unfilled job vacancies in the ICT field, creating some doubts about the country’s ability to provide human capital for new foreign investment. This is turn is likely to have profound effects economically.

The lesson is that today’s news about market activity gives you absolutely no clue as to what economic conditions will be like in four years time, either generally or in the sector. Basing a career decision on such current news is not clever. It is this kind of thinking that pushed thousands of young people into architecture, civil engineering and other careers in the construction sector, just before that sector collapsed.

Are points fair?

July 25, 2010

Over the past few days there has been a little debate in the pages of the Irish Independent about the CAO points system. Briefly, for those not familiar with the Irish education system, the CAO is the clearing house for university and college entry, and the points which represent a student’s currency as an applicant are based on his or her performance in the final secondary school examination, the Leaving Certificate. At the end of a report on Friday in the paper on the MacGill summer school, the Independent‘s education correspondent Katherine Donnelly made the following comment:

‘One of the problems with tinkering with the points system is that, while it may be brutal, it is fair – and it’s the devil everybody knows.’

On Saturday, this drew a response in the paper’s letters to the editor, in which an educationalist questioned the appropriateness and fairness of the points system, arguing in particular that it disadvantaged those who could not resource the exam preparations, and that it did not encourage critical thinking and holistic teaching and learning.

Katherine Donnelly’s comment is understandable, in that it represents what is still probably a majority view. She was probably in any case not voicing a personal opinion. But the author of the letter was right: the points system may be known and may by now be familiar or even predictable, but it certainly isn’t fair. And it is so hard to dislodge because, to cut to the chase, it suits ambitious middle class parents because they know how to play the system and have the resources to make it work for them. It disadvantages under-resourced schools or families, and it distorts the popularity of certain university programmes. In fact, I have tried and I cannot find a single persuasive reason to retain it, other than that changing it will be hard work.

I believe that the points system, and indeed the Leaving Certificate that it has helped to distort, undermine this country’s future, and I intend to repeat that message wherever I can for the next while. Reform is urgently needed, and it is time for us as a country to overcome our lethargy on this particular issue.

Getting to the point(s)

July 9, 2010

It is now just over a year ago since I explained in this blog why I thought the CAO ‘points system’ is undesirable. Let me recap, very briefly. For those who may not already know this, the CAO is the Central Applications Office, and it handles and processes higher education applications. It was founded by the universities and is jointly owned by them. In the 1990s it also took over the applications process for the Institutes of Technology.

The system used by the CAO to determine eligibility for particular programmes is the so-called ‘points system’. This attaches a points score for different grades achieved by students in the Leaving Certificate, the final school examinations. Because year on year  demand for places has outstripped supply on most programmes, the points system acts as a market currency. If you want to study a particularly popular subject, you need very high points to get in. Therefore the examination results needed to study the subject of your choice are not determined by academic criteria, but by the level of demand for the subject. This has over the past decade and more led to the absurd result that if you wanted to study law you needed much better results in the Laving Certificate than if you wanted to study chemistry. In fact almost by definition, the more difficult your chosen subject is, the lower the entry points – because difficult subjects tend not to be popular.

But it is worse than that. Irish families (and parents in particular) have tended to value the professions (law, accountancy, medicine etc) more than other careers, and so have tended to push their brighter children into these. And so the final stages of secondary education get consumed by social ambition and the resulting cramming of information by students to maximise their results, assuming (quite correctly) that rote learning memorising is what examiners are looking for. The result is that this whole framework makes secondary students study their courses the wrong way, make doubtful career decisions, and enter higher education programmes for which they may no taste or aptitude solely because they have the points. This in turn has pushed far more people into the professions than is good for this country, while neglecting areas that are vital for it; those latter areas also tend to get the less gifted students.

It has to be said clearly that this system is crazy. It makes young people study subjects for all the wrong reasons, and it has asset-stripped subjects that should be national priorities. It allows students with fairly mediocre academic credentials to study hugely complex subjects, and it pushes extremely bright students into subjects where their levels of intelligence will not particularly be needed.

But then again, why am I sitting here complaining? Why don’t I just use the little bit of time left to me as President of DCU to tackle the matter head on, and propose that we drop the points system. Doing so is in the universities’ hands. And if we did so, it would have a strongly beneficial impact on student learning methods and subject choices at second level. But in truth, while some of my complaints about the CAO and the points system are recognised as true by others, but mostly they don’t want to rattle this particular cage.

At an excellent event on the future of Irish education yesterday, organised by Intel in TCD’s Science Gallery, there was an overwhelming consensus amongst the large number present that the points system was damaging the education system in this country. It is time, I think, that the universities took notice of this mood and looked at major reform, in dialogue with secondary education. This won’t happen any more in my term of office, but it is something I shall press for before I step down. The country needs change.

Bonus points for mathematics?

March 1, 2010

As many readers of this blog will know, for some time now the issue of how to persuade more Irish students to take Higher Level Mathematics for the Leaving Certificate (Irish final school examinations) has been a topic of heated debate in Ireland. Part of the backdrop is that the number of those taking this option has been declining for some time, and according to an Irish Times report last summer is now below 20 per cent.

The key consequence of this trend is that the 80 per cent who have chosen not to pursue Higher Mathematics will be excluded from most science subjects at university, and this in turn will have a serious impact on our capacity to attract international investment. Some professional bodies have responded by urging the universities to offer bonus points for Leaving Certificate Mathematics, thereby providing an incentive for students. On the other hand, the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD – rather misunderstanding his role and powers in this regard – has indicated that he would not authorise such bonus points. Others, including some well-known academic commentators (including TCD’s Sean Barrett) argue that this should be a free market and that politicians and university leaders should not interfere: students should study whatever they want to, without inducements or pressures to do something different.

It may be worth noting that bonus points for mathematics have been applied in an equivalent setting in Australia.

I confess that I am one of those inclined to favour bonus points; but I am open to argument that this is wrong. My chief purpose in raising the issue here is to encourage a response from readers, as I am seeking to consider the arguments right now before contemplating further action.

For what it is worth, however, I do not believe that CAO points represent a ‘free market’, but rather a highly distorted one. I believe that the major cause that makes students turn away from mathematics is its perceived difficult nature, and I tend to think that we may need to compensate for this. I do however also accept that bonus points for mathematics may distort the CAO score if the student uses them to study something unrelated to maths: say, law. But there may be ways of addressing that.

And finally, what we are looking at here is a temporary expedient. The real solution, in my view, is to overhaul and apply radical changes (not excluding complete abolition) to the CAO points system. But that won’t happen overnight.

As I have said, comments on this would be very welcome.

Becoming a cramming factory?

February 4, 2010

It’s that time of year again, and the deadline has passed for applications to the CAO for student places in 2010-11. Of course we don’t yet know how this will be distributed across Institutions, programmes and courses, but what we do already know is that this year sees a record number of applications, as young people opt for the safety of a better qualification. We are told therefore that numbers of applicants are up 10 per cent on last year.

Of course, this is not just any other year, and any increase in the number of students could create problems, as the additional students will receive no extra funding at all. This means that the services – including teaching – that are offered to students will inevitably be affected.

It’s hard to know what universities should do at this point. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week the RTE radio programme Morning Ireland looked at the impact of additional student applications, and also considered information coming from students quoted on the programme. suggesting that, with previous cuts, higher education institutions were  becoming ‘cramming factories’. On Wednesday the chief executive of the HEA, Tom Boland, was on the programme accepting that the additional student numbers would cause a burden, but suggesting that during the current economic difficulties it had to be a case of ‘all hands on deck.’ He also suggested that students should be prepared – to a greater extent than in previous years – to receive an offer for a course that had not been top of their list.

It is hard to argue with Tom Boland’s call to the colleges to come forward and help. It is easy to see that for the next year or two, and maybe substantially beyond, the sum paid to colleges by the government for educating each student will be much lower than it was only two years ago. And it is likely (and probably right) that the institutions should support the drive to bring greater numbers into higher education, at least up to a point.

However, there are also some issues we need to address.

• Are we clear on how many students, or what percentage of the age cohort, we are able to take in without fatally compromising quality and standards? What steps should we be taking to avoid such erosion of quality?
• As funding continues to be much lower than before, and as both school leavers and mature students indicate a desire to go into (or return to) higher education in significant numbers, are we clear on what model of third level pedagogy we should now adopt, given that the traditional model is becoming less workable?
• As in all these circumstances it is becoming more important than ever that students leave secondary education well prepared for the methods and objectives of higher education, are we doing enough to enter into a dialogue with the secondary sector and with the Department of Education to ensure that we have a shared understanding across the education sectors and institutions of how this process of preparing students should be undertaken?

The main problem that we face at the moment is not that we are being asked to do more with the same or decreased funding, but rather that we are doing this without any consensus about these issues and therefore without any real understanding of the objectives and methods of higher education in this new climate. In short, we are muddling through. In the first moments of economic crisis this was understandable, but now it will no longer do. This isn’t about higher education structures or institutional issues, but rather about how we can offer our programmes with reduced resources while maintaining acceptable (or preferably, excellent) quality. If we don’t get this right, then we are probably heading for inadequate cramming factories. But I believe we have it in us to do better than that.