“We need to value applicants’ unique aptitudes and reward them for selecting relevant courses.”
In an opinion piece published by The Irish Times, Dr Derek O’Byrne, Vice-President for Academic Affairs at South East Technological University (SETU) says the growth in Leaving Certificate grades exposes how the points system needs urgent revision.
If we do not change how we allocate third-level places, we risk a chasm forming between applicant aptitudes and the programmes they choose.
Over the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between applicants as more students trend towards similar point scores.
This problem is exacerbated by points being conflated with course quality or job opportunities in many students’ and parents’ minds.
As points expectations inflate, this creates a knock-on effect on how students choose their courses and, creates a psychology of matching their expected points score to previously published cut-off points, thus creating a form of course selection inflation.
In practice, we know that students excel when they pick courses that match their skills and aptitudes, and when they select a university that matches their needs, rather than their points total.
The CAO system has served the expansion of education and student admissions well since its inception in the late 1970s, growing from under 15,000 to about 85,000 applications. A direct outcome is that Ireland has high participation and achievement rates.
For instance, in 2021, 62% of 25-34-year-olds had a tertiary level qualification compared to the EU-27 average of 41%. This has served us well in generating and sustaining a knowledge economy and inward investment.
The CAO’s strength is its transparency and ease of understanding, allocating places based on performance in the Leaving Cert. But increasingly, our challenge now is not getting students into university, but getting the right students into the appropriate course for them.
We need to draw a difference between efficiencies, the cost-effective, transparent, and timely process that the CAO system provides, and effectiveness, matching students’ aptitudes and course choices to ensure the best outcomes for the learner, the university, and the State. The CAO system works well, but perhaps we need to start considering modifications that re-emphasise the link between aptitudes and course choices.
Better matching of aptitudes and courses will inevitably result in greater study performance and enjoyment for the student, an increase in completion rates, and a better, more focused talent pool for employers and entrepreneurs. It can also reduce the focus on high points and help distinguish candidates that are more suited to particular courses or study routes.
In practice, this means we need to ask the question of whether aptitudes, beyond academic performance in the Leaving Cert itself, can or should be included in the points total.
It may come as a surprise to some, that this practice is to an extent already embedded in CAO processes. For instance, selection for medical courses requires a HPAT score, which augments the Leaving Cert grades when calculating CAO points totals. Similarly, certain portfolio entry programmes such as art or design, have additional points added to the candidates’ score based on a portfolio submission to the higher education institution.
We also see entry routes for higher education that reflect discipline-related specificity, for example through direct entry from further education.
Indeed, recent Government announcements of more integrated tertiary education will accelerate these additional routes beyond traditional points entry, creating a greater link between prior study and university programmes. We also modify points totals through schemes such as the Hear and Dare for disadvantaged students.
These are all examples of ways discipline aptitudes, knowledge or ability amend the entry routes. They allow entry routes to remain objective, transparent, and clear yet taking the focus off a single point total. They allow the student to focus on the skills needed in the profession, rather than narrowly on the Leaving Cert results.
Our focus on a terminal second-level result as a sole entry requirement for further study is not universal. Internationally, many systems of third-level entry use vastly different admission mechanisms, especially where course places are limited, and demand is high.
In the Netherlands, a weighted lottery system is used. Others use a bundle of assessment tools such as aptitude tests, personal statements, or personal interviews. Most people will be aware of the use of the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) in the US.
We also see the use of additional factors considered in admission for universities closer to home. For instance, The University of Warwick bases admissions not only on the academic profile, qualifications, and predicted A-level grades, but also on a personal statement and an academic reference.
There is no perfect admission system and universities throughout the world struggle to ensure the right students are making the right course choices. However, the best admission systems should facilitate decisions that allot the student to the course of study that best interests the student, and which best suits them.
To that end, it is time to take a hard look at additional ways we can revise admission processes to value the applicant’s unique set of aptitudes and reward them for selecting relevant courses. Higher education has already tacitly changed the dependence on Leaving Cert performance, and I believe this has had positive effects on many students and their course choices.
We can recognise the need to ensure the stability of the CAO system and the transparency that it provides to society, but I think we can also make slight changes that might have a radical impact on what students choose to study and change much of the negative narrative on grade inflation.
By extending what is already working we should be able to offer more aptitude-based points to support candidate decision-making and support the excellent guidance given in second-level schools to greater effect.
We do not need to be radically different from what we do now, but there needs to be stronger recognition that academic performance needs to be augmented with a score for real skills and abilities that match programme choice. Perhaps, an aptitude point addition for relevant courses.
This is not an overnight change but one that must be planned appropriately, building on what we already do. This is a core challenge for higher education and one that we must prioritise now.