Posted tagged ‘university entry’

Avoiding early specialisation at university

September 9, 2011

One of the key features of many of today’s universities is that often they admit students into a wide array of highly specialised subjects. Students are expected to leave secondary school with their career choices clearly mapped out, and this is then reflected in their higher education roadmaps. But is this a good idea?

One of the ideas mooted in the recent paperEntry to Higher Education in Ireland in the 21st Century, prepared by Professor Áine Hyland for Ireland’s National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, is that universities should consider ‘reform [of] the configuration of first year courses to eliminate denominated courses and adopt a policy of generic first year courses unless there are compelling reasons not to do so (e.g. General Arts; General Science; General Technology; General Health Sciences).’ This would overcome students’ lack of insight into specialised areas of study and allow them to make choices when they are more mature and have developed more sophisticated study skills.

Given the proliferation of university degree programmes, and the tendency to keep introducing new programmes on top of old ones, this is a proposal worthy of consideration, and not just in Ireland. It may be time to push back career decisions to a somewhat later stage, not least because at that later stage students are more capable of forming a judgement of their own, with less reliance on parents and counsellors. The idea is worthy of reflection.

University entry in Ireland: decided by lottery?

September 7, 2011

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.

Assessing aptitude

August 25, 2009

As readers of this blog will know, I am no fan of the so-called ‘points system’ in Ireland, under which applicants for university programmes are admitted in accordance with the points score they achieved on foot of their final school examination results (the Leaving Certificate). The result of this system is that the points needed to enter a certain course are determined by supply and demand rather than the demands of the course. For example, one of the most popular degree programmes has been law, and so it has attracted very high points requirements; whereas science subjects have been less popular, and students have been able to get admitted on much lower points – yet few would argue that science students need to be less gifted intellectually than law students. I have written on this topic in the past. My view has been that almost anything would be better than the points system, as it is pushing young people into careers for which they may not be best suited and which they are choosing solely because of the points attached to the relevant degree programmes.

When therefore those universities with medical schools, under some external pressure, agreed last year to alter their selection processes for medicine by introducing an aptitude test, I was certainly willing to consider this as a potentially useful initiative. What these institutions did was to use the Health Professions Admission Test (HPAT), which has been developed by an Australian company. This consists of a multiple choice paper, which the student must pass and the results of which are then included in the computation of the points score (together with the Leaving Certificate results).

As the first group of would-be medical students has just undertaken this exercise, a debate has come alive as to whether it is a sensible mechanism, and indeed whether it might be applied to other programmes as well. In an article in yesterday’s Irish Independent newspaper it is suggested that the Department of Education and Science might like to see this kind of testing considered more generally, while in the same paper the leading oncologist (and DCU adjunct professor) John Crown expresses serious reservations about the capacity of this kind of test to measure aptitude (or perhaps anything very much), and argues that a it may end up ‘favouring the clever work-shirker over the diligent student’. And still in the Irish Independent, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, takes a very different view and argues as follows:

‘The approach taken by the HPAT, combined with the Leaving Cert, provides an additional means of predicting the aptitude of a student for a particular programme. It operates in a number of other countries as part of the selection process for higher education. Unlike an interview process, it is transparently objective…

Far from decrying the HPAT we should seek ways in which this approach can be used more widely in our education system in tandem with older tried and trusted models of assessment.’

I’m not altogether sure where I stand on this, in large part because I have not seen what the HPAT looks like (though I have just ordered a sample paper). On the one hand, I am very strongly in favour of finding something better than the points system, which has over recent years become more and more damaging to Irish society. On the other hand, an aptitude test consisting of a multiple choice paper, which can be (and will be) the subject of grind school preparation, probably isn’t the answer either. John Crown’s view that only the very best should study medicine (and the nature of that profession may mean he is right) can be met by attaching a very high minimum points requirement to that programme. But we need to move away quickly from the current idea that in order to study biotechnology you only need to be about half as intelligent as you have to be to study law.

I am still inclined to think that once you have set genuine performance thresholds actual selections could be made by lottery, as has been done in the Netherlands. It would be better than what we have now, and would avoid adding one more controversial and maybe dubious testing element.

Getting the point

December 16, 2008

For the curious, this blog now comes to you from California, where I am attending an event this evening before returning to Ireland tomorrow.

At this morning’s event with President McAleese in Phoenix, Arizona, the President of Arizona State University, Dr Michael Crow, made an interesting point. He said that the best predictor of final school results (SATs in the US, Leaving Certificate in Ireland) was not the student’s talents, learning or skills, but his or her zip code (or post code). If,  his argument was, you determine university access through examination results, you may think you are applying an objective standard that is blind to class, race and background, but in reality you are doing the opposite. So the first step to tackling educational disadvantage at tertiary level is to accept that a points-based system is inherently discriminatory. What is worse, it is discrimination masquerading as even-handed objectivity.

I don’t know, in any scientific sense, whether this holds true for Ireland also. I suspect it does. We know that, nationally, over 50 per cent of an age cohort go to university or college. But we also know that in certain areas (some of them very close to DCU) a significant majority of young people will not achieve the points needed to go to college. Is this because people in those areas are inherently less intelligent? Of course not. So if we apply a points system we are saying that the perceived (but unachieved) objectivity of examination results should trump social exclusion concerns.

I have pointed out in the past that the points system has a number of undesirable effects, including its tendency to push students into subject areas which are not national priorities. I should now add what I would regard the clincher: that it is a framework that entrenches social exclusion.

We urgently need a national debate on this, and to move towards getting something that is better, in the national interest and in the interests of equity and non-discrimination. The time for that debate is now.