Head to Head: Is the CAO a good system for deciding university admissions?

YES by Manasa Bramhanya

Education can be defined in simple words as the process of acquiring knowledge, skills, values and applying the same for innovation purposes. Education undoubtedly enhances people’s lives and plays a key role in a country’s development.

Every country in the world has a different approach to the education system. Ireland follows a distinguished system which has been laid out by the regulatory bodies and one part of this is the CAO points system. Central Applications Office, abbreviated as the CAO is an establishment whose primary function is to supervise the applications to various colleges and universities for undergraduate courses in the Republic of Ireland.

The CAO has aspects which make it reasonably unique compared to systems in other countries. Through the years, the CAO process has been very fair and transparent and mainly emphasizes on the academic performance of the prospective student. When the CAO was created in 1976, its goal was to centrally process all the received applications in a structured and equitable manner. It does this in two ways.

The first is that students apply to the CAO instead rather than applying to individual universities. This makes the application process much easier for students and universities alike. The CAO goes through each application and ensures that they have the minimum requirements for their various courses. It then distributes courses based on which students get the most points, and whether they gained enough points for their preferred course.

This means that all students have to do is fill in their application, do their exams and then accept or reject their offer. On the university side, there is no need to organise interviews or go through applications. This simplifies the whole process for everyone involved, reducing manpower requirements, and potentially creating more time for the development and improvement of courses.

This is a much more equitable approach because it uses such an objective metric to decide which students get in. Each student has an equal opportunity and no other factors such as family connections or economic status play a direct role in deciding which prospective students get admitted. This is because there is no way to construe one individuals points total as better than anyone else's just because they have the correct accent.

Other methods of choosing students such as interviews or extra curricular activities obviously bias the system in favour of wealthier students to a significant extent. If you have a certain accent, are a certain gender, or simply look a certain way, many interviewers are likely to judge you excessively in ways which should not matter. Evidence of this bias can be seen in how few students of colour and working class students get into Oxbridge. If you went to a private school, an interview process generally helps you disproportionately.

There are obviously problematic factors with Leaving Cert results which disproportionately advantage students from certain demographics. Going to a private school or having parents who can afford to send you to grinds obviously helps improve people's points tally enormously. Despite this, it is still less directly biased than other metrics.

If talented students put sufficient work in it is easier to bridge the gap than in an interview where their exam results are counted to an extent but more likely to be overshadowed. To a large extent, it is a metric which measures the effort students put into their secondary education. Given this, it can be argued to be a pretty meritocratic system.

Of course, the CAO does not take extra-curricular activities or students' suitability for the course into account. However, this could be argued to be less important than having a system in which everyone gets a fair shot. Extra-curricular activities are important but if the CAO means that more students who work hard get access to third level, then that seems to be a net positive. 

Rebuttal by Adesewa Awobadejo

The CAO system hinges on educational prowess, which puts certain (classes of) people at a deficit. The CAO is a simplified process but it is too simplified. The mention of objectivity still brings about the question of whether or not applications should be subjective, catering to an individual’s personal situation. ‘Equal opportunities’ in fact rarely ever serve the purpose intended. Class and social issues will always persist. Perhaps what students from disadvantaged areas need isn’t grinds or an elevated economic status but is extra support via interviews.

The interviews themselves are not the problem. The flaws reflected in interview processes are part of a larger societal problem. If interviews are given the correct focus, and seen as a way of supporting applicants, the chances of bias may be slim.

NO by Adesewa Awobadejo

In comparison with other countries, the CAO system can be considered to be quite lenient. Applicants can apply to any course and if they make the requirements, they are in. However, this processing method can prove to be faulty.

According to the CAO themselves, they are only responsible for processing applications and recording acceptances for higher education institutes. However, it is the processing of the applications that can be considered questionable.

Before an applicant can be deemed eligible for any course, the CAO checks if the applicant meets the minimum requirements for each of their chosen courses. In some cases, the grade and subject requirements for courses can be quite undemanding. Science courses in UCD such as Biochemistry and Molecular Biology do not require you to have studied a laboratory science at second level, as geography or applied maths can be used instead. The absence of specific subject and grade requirements causes people to focus on overall points rather than subjects.

No subject taught at secondary level is exactly the same as university courses in that field, but the subject can lay a foundation. It can prepare and give students insight. Not having studied a specific subject in school and majoring in it in college is by no means crippling but it can be a slight disadvantage to students as they attempt to catch up.

One could still argue that a system that focuses on points when awarding applicants with university entries can be detrimental in many ways. Let’s take nursing for example - For applicants to gain admission into general nursing, applicants would need to have a minimum of grade of O6 / H7 in English, Irish, Maths and one laboratory science for most universities in Ireland.

In comparison with the UCAS system, the British equivalent of the CAO, when processing a nursing application, candidates are required to undergo a formal interview and write a personal essay which is considered as part of their application. But unlike other systems, personal essays or interviews are not needed for level 8 courses under CAO. This can be harmful as it leads people into courses with little preparation or prior knowledge. One could argue that the onus should be on the applicant to research and prepare themselves, but the CAO system undoubtedly aids the lack of mental and physical preparation to courses like nursing.

This system wrongly measures the capability and suitability of an applicant by their grades and their grades only. Simply making the point requirements is not always enough on all spectrums, especially for healthcare courses, like nursing, that are mainly practical and completely foreign to what the vast majority of students would have been exposed to.

This problem can be reflected in the dropout rate. There are many reasons students may drop out, but it is not hard to see how the CAO system might be partly to blame. Students may expect something completely different from a course. Although it seems inevitable that some students will be surprised by their course, ensuring that students are a bit more prepared could make the difference. Essays, work experience, and interviews all improve this in different ways.

Another major problem that renders the CAO unreliable is that it becomes merely a probability game. If there are more applicants to a specific course with identical points than there are spaces remaining the CAO will pick the successful applicant randomly. Instead of the CAO being an individual and personal application, it is more about numbers and algorithms. Which becomes more about chance than anything else. The student’s aspirations and are replaced by a ‘luck of the draw’ type of system.

There should be more. People should have the opportunity to express their interest in a course through things other than their performance in a series of exams. Just as they deserve to be assessed not only through marks tallied in each exam and ultimately how many points they get. We’ve seen cases of people missing their courses through the CAO by as little as 5 points, for cases like this, if supporting content could be considered, it might make all the difference.

A lot of people believe that the Leaving Certificate is a bad method of deciding who gets what course. The CAO system is partly to blame. The system is not particularly subject orientated, nor does it allow grace through interviews/extra curriculum work. This means that you get people into courses they should not be in and people missing out on courses in which they might prosper. 

Rebuttal by Manasa Bramhanya

In the article, it is mentioned that the CAO system is quite lenient and faulty. However, it is not the case. If it would have been the case, then the same system would not have been followed until today. In fact, the CAO is proved to be very fair and gives utmost importance to only “merit”, thereby ruling out the other factors completely.

The CAO has often been in the limelight for other reasons such as, not conducting personal interviews for the students and solely giving importance to only “grades”. Grades are the main reflection of a student’s sincerity, hardwork and dedication towards studies.

Throwing some light on personal interviews, statements of interest and so on, it is a known fact that the students are informed of the interview well in advance. This means that they have ample time to prepare for it rather than offering an honest portrayal of themselves. The same goes with writing statements of interest. It is very easy to paint a rosy picture when the reality is very different.