The colleges may administer the Central Applications Office system but students themselves once again have ultimately decided where and how places on courses are offered.
Their responses to career trends and skills shortages are evident in both the demand for certain courses, but also in how colleges have distributed places on those higher education programmes.
It is already evident from statistics published last week by CAO that the average-performing Leaving Certificate student this year got just under 350 points, around two or three more than last year.
Despite the 54,440 doing the exam being 1,330 fewer than last year, the 20,231 with at least 400 points out of a maximum 625 was 42 more than a year ago.
As a proportion of each year’s school leavers, this score was achieved by 37.2%, or 1% more than in 2017.
Although 617 fewer students got over 300 points, those 33,773 people make up 62% of the Leaving Certificate class of 2018, slightly higher than a comparable 61.7% last year.
While such trends might point to a widespread increase in CAO points, supply and demand of places under different course categories also play a strong role in such matters.
For example, 100 extra places have been offered this year on courses leading to a second-level teaching qualification, with an increase to 861 offers being made by the universities this year.
This is partly in response to calls for more concurrent teacher education degrees that mean students receive a teaching qualification at the end of a four-year primary degree, instead of having to do a two-year postgraduate course after their first college programme.
Some colleges have already begun extending their offerings in this area, and further expansions of these programmes are likely in the coming years in response to shortages of second-level teachers, particularly in the sciences.
The addition of extra places on Maynooth University’s science-teaching degree contributes to a slight fall in CAO points from 441 to 434. There are also lower points for entry on science education programmes at Dublin City University and University of Limerick, evidence again that demand is not the only factor influencing entry thresholds in the CAO system as increased supply is clearly behind these drops.
Despite the extra places, CAO points for many second-level teaching courses are higher than this time last year.
Astute Leaving Certificate students appear to be following likely career paths, as physical education becomes a Leaving Certificate subject from this year.
Three of the four university degrees qualifying graduates to teach PE have seen points rise by between 10 and 24 points, with the minimum requirement across the board being around a dozen points either side of 500.
Last year’s fall in points for most primary teaching courses have been reversed, and are up by between two points (to 464) at Dublin City University and 14 at Maynooth University, where entry requires at least 499 points this year.
This reflects increases in demand for these courses while places remain practically unchanged.
Although nearly 800 more people listed one of the 10 primary teaching degrees on their CAO application, including an 8% rise to 2,893 listing one as their top choice, the colleges only increased offers on those courses by four to 1,129.
Undergraduate medicine degrees are at the same cut-off as a year ago or just below, except in the case of Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, where the CAO threshold is a single point higher than a year ago.
If colleges have cut back anywhere in particular, there is a clear drop in numbers of places offered on arts level 8 degrees. The 6,188 places being offered on such programmes are nearly 1,400 fewer than the 7,574 offered this time last year, a drop of 18%.
The resultant impact on CAO points requirements is not too significant, however, as there were 1,300 fewer students placing one of those 231 arts degrees top of their level 8 CAO application lists. In fact, entry to arts is possible with just 300 points at NUI Galway and at University College Cork, where the threshold is 46 points lower than this time last year.
While the 381 cut-off for arts at University College Dublin appears to be 55 points higher than this time last year, the country’s largest college has split its intake in 2018. The course named ‘Arts’ covers the retained option for a three-year degree and has obviously proven more popular than the optioned added this year to do a four-year degree with the option of an internship or study abroad.
Students with as low as 301 points have been offered places on this entry route under the ‘humanities’ title, with around 570 students likely to be registered through these two routes.
Even with around 500 students coming in under a new social science degree heading, overall intake corresponding with that under the ‘arts’ CAO code at UCD a year ago is likely to be down around 100.
With demand down by one third across more than 30 level 8 physical sciences degrees, points for more than half are down on Round 1 in 2017, including drops of between 33 and 67 points for some physics and geoscience degrees at Trinity College Dublin.
Points fell for a good number of the 36 degrees in biological and related sciences, despite 14% more students than last year listing one of them as their top choice. However, among those with higher Round 1 points this year are several related to nutrition, including a 52-point rise to 455 for public health nutrition at Dublin Institute of Technology and University College Cork’s nutritional sciences degree up 23 points to 507.
The 2018 and 2017 CAO Round 1 points for all courses are listed in the 12-page Choices for College supplement in today’s print edition of the Irish Examiner.