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Column: The Leaving Cert ‘points race’ is bad – but it’s better than alternatives

‘Radical’ new proposals for interviews are really a return to the past, writes Joanna Tuffy TD. Instead, we need a much wider debate on third level education.

Joanna Tuffy

THE PRESIDENTS OF the universities this week launched a document about the points system. They timed their submission to coincide with the CAO publication of this year’s points, and the news that points went up significantly for many courses. The previous day, Trinity College Dublin had announced that it would be introducing a pilot scheme in 2014 for its law course that would involve alternative methods of selection to the CAO points system.

The presidents’ document is short on detail but contains one striking proposal – namely that Leaving Certificate subjects would be ranked according to difficulty.

To rank Leaving Certificate subjects according to difficulty will be a very difficult and hugely controversial task. The ranking of subjects would still involve a points system based on Leaving Certificate results and it won’t eradicate the phenomenon of high points for certain courses.

If the issue is that the points are too high for certain university courses, it should be remembered that points for courses offered through the CAO go up and down in direct correlation to the number of places on a college course and the numbers of students applying for that course. Therefore there is a straightforward way to reduce the points for college courses and that is to make more places available for those courses.

This self-evident fact seems to be ignored by many of those that contribute to the debate on the points system, including those that should know better. For example it is the university heads who determine how many places are offered by the CAO on the courses in their universities and yet some university heads approach the debate on the points system as if they are innocent actors in the process.

There are plenty of courses with high points on which it would be straightforward enough for the colleges to increase the number of places available, and hence reduce the points. But in reality it suits universities to make some of their courses exclusive and prestigious by restricting the number of places on those courses to an unnecessary degree.

‘Radical and groundbreaking’

In the case of the proposed pilot scheme that was announced by TCD’s Provost, the publicity was vague on detail, although newspaper reports mentioned that it would involve selecting students based on student interviews, personal statements and teacher references. Reports referred to the proposal for the TCD pilot scheme as radical and groundbreaking, seemingly forgetting that TCD used to hold interviews for courses many years ago. They were done away with because they were considered a flawed method of selecting students.

This is the crux of the problem with the TCD proposal. What about the personal biases and flawed assumptions that might creep into the adjudication of these interviews, statements and references? Could the scheme signal a return to the old school tie? The suggestion by the dean of undergraduate studies, Dr Patrick Geoghegan, that a student from a school in one geographical area might get a leg up because they were in a ‘disadvantaged’ school assumes, wrongly, that children from poorer socio-economic backgrounds only attend schools that have been labelled disadvantaged.

Questions would be bound to be raised if under this pilot scheme the child of a college lecturer got a place based on a good interview ahead of a child with a better Leaving Cert but no such connections. What if a teacher giving a reference knew the head of the relevant department personally? And the suggestion that a student’s extra-curricular activity could be taken into account could turn out to be discriminatory in practice.

If there is to be any semblance of fairness and impartiality in the pilot scheme proposed by TCD, there will have to be a scoring system of some kind for student interviews, personal statements and teacher references – and this just brings us back to the original problem. Unless you score highly enough in your interview, your personal statements and your Leaving Certificate, you won’t achieve a place on the course. It is a points system under another guise, but a less foolproof one than the one we have already.

The wrong question

TCD are also possibly answering the wrong question with their focus on law for their pilot scheme. After all while the TCD law course may be hard to get into, there are so many different courses in law, so many different ways to study it and so many routes into the legal profession that there are already many other options for students that wish to study law but don’t make the grade for TCD. Maybe the question that TCD should be trying to answer is: Why is there less demand for other courses that, as a country, we need more graduates from?

There is another aspect of the debate missing from the university heads’ statements to date. Almost half of undergraduates are studying at Institutes of Technology. This debate should be about more than access to university. It should be about access to third-level education and also the need to retain students within the education system. Third-level education should not be a one-off chance for those that have just completed the Leaving Certificate.

While it is true that the third-level sector has introduced more flexibility over the years, much more can be done – especially by the universities – to deliver a more flexible model of education that would in turn ease the pressures on Leaving Certificate students. This would include more routes into professions such as medicine, more fluidity between courses, colleges and full-time and part time study, and more opportunities to study other than the full time nine-to-five on-campus model of third level education that still, despite some changes, predominates in our third level sector.

A more flexible model of education would be more inclusive and could also be used to address the high numbers of third level students that drop out of college, and the difficulties colleges often face in filling all of the places in some of their courses that despite being less popular offer good prospects for employment on graduation.

This debate should not be the preserve of academics; the wider public should be involved. And it should not just focus on the points system which has been found in previous studies to be the fairest and to be considered trustworthy by the public. The points system is very like how Churchill described democracy – it isn’t perfect, but it is better than all the other systems that have been tried.

Joanna Tuffy is a Labour TD for Dublin Mid West.

Read more from Joanna Tuffy on TheJournal.ie>

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