With Ireland’s University presidents arguing for an overhaul of the Leaving Cert CAO points system, Ciara Gilleece argues for the need for change.

The effectiveness of the Leaving Certificate as a means of measuring academic ability is something that has been questioned almost annually since its inception in 1992. However, this year, the debate seemed to come to a climax as the CAO points for 56% of university courses rose across the board, despite a drop in applicants. In UCD alone, 17% of courses rose by 25 points or more. This has been linked to the introduction of bonus points for higher-level mathematics.

In order to address this issue, following the first round of CAO offers, the presidents of Ireland’s seven universities submitted a report to Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn. The report focuses primarily on how students are selected for entry to college courses; however, its recommendations would affect the established teaching and learning methods, should they be applied.

The report recommends changes that would make Ireland’s university entry system similar to the American style, with more common denominated entry courses and some highly competitive courses, such as Law, reserved for graduate entry. This is to combat high dropout rates at present, which are not only a result of the failure of the current education system to prepare students for their college courses, but also are a huge burden to the Irish taxpayer. The Irish Independent recently noted that 26% of science and technology students in UCD failed to progress to their second year, indicating discrepancies between the type of learning expected at Leaving Cert level and that expected at a university level. It was suggested that students are choosing college courses based on the number of points they think they will get, rather than what they will actually enjoy.

However, the assertion that the “reputational perceptions” of certain courses will be removed by overhauling the points system is unsubstantiated. High point subjects such as Medicine and Law are not so purely because of high demand and competitive places, but also because of the secure career prospects that go along with the award of such a degree. This is reflected in this year’s increase in points for science courses, as young people are recognising that demand for such graduates is steadily on the rise, while points for humanities subjects have been dropping in line with the fall in demand for teachers.

If anything, this year’s CAO points demonstrate a degree of awareness among prospective students that was lacking during the Celtic Tiger. Before 2008, fees were much lower and jobs were aplenty, ensuring that dropping out of college was not as big a deal as it would be now, when a significant number of students rely heavily on gaining a HEA grant and cannot even secure part-time employment to aid their studies. This year’s first years appear to be conscious of the fact that a degree in Philosophy may well be interesting if one had the money to spare but that in the current economic climate it seems more sensible to choose something practical like Medicine, Science or Commerce.

Despite this, it is evident from the Leaving Cert results that the current system has many inadequacies. Studying for the Leaving Cert consists mostly of learning things by rote, combined with risky predictions by students and even teachers. The simple fact that only 0.1% of 116,000 students managed to get six A1’s or more this year does not indicate that 99.9% of Ireland’s pupils are academically incapable of being high-achievers, but rather it demonstrates that the teaching and learning methods promoted by the Leaving Cert system only suits a minority of students. In comparison, 7.9% of the 335,000 students taking A-Levels this year achieved three A* or more.

By doing this, more emphasis could be placed on subject content in relation to the desired university course. Rather than all subjects currently weighted equally in terms of points, the report calls for incentives to be given to students to study in specific areas. There were also suggestions that examinations, similar to those of AS-Levels in the UK, could be implemented at the end of 5th year in subjects that are basic entry requirements, such as Maths and Irish. It is hoped that this would give students a chance to focus more on achieving higher grades rather than worrying about meeting minimum entry requirements.

Ultimately, the report submitted by Ireland’s university presidents is a long overdue step in the right direction; however the notion that it is the points system at fault, more so than the Leaving Certificate exam, is misguided. The dramatic rise in points this year was not merely a result of higher level maths bonus points, but rather an awareness among students that certain courses have better career prospects in today’s economy. Furthermore, the fact that points have reached unprecedented high levels in Science for example indicates that universities are unprepared to offer more places due to financial constraints. Students should welcome the overhaul of the current education system; however, more focus should be placed on the process of learning and maximising exam results to facilitate university entry, rather than seeking to amend a system that is dependent on the stability of the currently inadequate educational structure.