Colleges are fuelling the points race, warns university president

Date Uploaded: 16/08/2016

Third-level colleges have not done enough to take the heat out of the CAO points race, according to a university president.

Professor Philip Nolan says school-leavers still face too confusing a choice of CAO courses, despite a pledge to simplify the process.

Prof Nolan is president of Maynooth University and also heads up a universities' task force charged with bringing reform to the third-level application and entry system.

But as close to 60,000 school-leavers await their results on Wednesday, he admits that promised changes - which are supposed to be in place this autumn - are happening too slowly.

The proliferation of courses, including new ones with catchy titles, piles pressure on sixth-year students, who are driven by a mistaken belief that high-points courses are necessarily of better quality.

The MU president said the current system "perpetuates the fallacy of prestige around high points courses which exacerbates exam time pressure".

"It is completely untrue to say that high points automatically mean a course is of a higher quality or that lower points courses are less worthwhile."

There has been ongoing growth in CAO offerings with a small number of places - which drives points up - despite a commitment to cut choice at point of entry and allow students to specialise in second or third year.

Some universities have reduced the pathways for entry and have broader offerings, such as common entry science, but others have not - while institutes of technology have increased the number of honours degree courses.

This year, school-leavers faced a bewildering array of more than 1,400 CAO courses - including 937 "honours" (Level 8) degree programmes - up from about 1,286 five years ago.

Prof Nolan is concerned that there is still an attempt in the university sector to "compete inappropriately to attract students, through using the CAO system as a marketing tool".

He is a strong advocate of broader entry routes and insists: "If all universities adopt this approach, the beneficial impact on Leaving Certificate students will be immense."

University College Dublin (UCD) led the way in cutting entry routes and Maynooth University followed suit, while the University of Limerick (UL) is reducing its undergraduate offering from 72 to 43, for 2017.

Other universities have not made similar progress, but Prof Nolan is particularly concerned about trends in institutes of technology, where the number of "honours" programmes has jumped from 319 to 426 since 2011.

He said it was "disappointing to find their number of Level 8 courses have actually grown".


Journalist: Katherine Donnelly

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