Students who have just started fifth year should face less of a scramble for college places if a new system of fewer Leaving Certificate grades, a revised points system, and broader entry-level courses has its intended effect.
The final piece of the system has yet to be outlined in detail by the universities but the points to be used by the Central Applications Office (CAO) from 2017 were revealed yesterday by Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan.
Rather than differences of five points between the award for each current sub-divided Leaving Certificate grade, a range of points increments will be used to try to minimise the practice of random selection on courses with high numbers of places.
So, for example, the new H3 grade for 70% to 79.9% in a higher-level subject that will be awarded by the State Examinations Commission, also from 2017, will be worth 77 points. Currently, a student with 75% to 79.9% gets a B2, worth 80 points at higher level under the existing CAO system, or 40 points on ordinary level exams.
The new system will give 33 points to students who get 30% to 40% in higher level papers, a mark currently equivalent to an E grade or a fail, and for which colleges award no CAO points. Ms O’Sullivan said this change recognises students who are willing to attempt honours exams, as those of a similar standard can currently get 35 points for an ordinary level B3.
The shift away from points in multiples of five and 10 is aimed at reducing the chances of large numbers of students who apply for a particular course ending up with the same CAO points score. This could be a problem that would otherwise force colleges to use the random selection process sometimes employed to decide which of those students would be accepted and which are turned down, particularly with plans to widen the system of generic-entry degrees that would each admit more students than many current courses.
Those details are expected within weeks and should see an extension of the practice already the norm at University College Dublin (UCD), where various engineering and other specialities are no longer offered as CAO entry courses. Instead, a far bigger number of places are available on broad-entry courses, and students decide which field to focus on in second or later years.
The number of honours (level 8) degrees offered by all 45 colleges that select students through the CAO was 942, almost 100 more than in 2005, and up from 581 a decade ago. While UCD leads the way in offering fewer but more general CAO entry routes, Trinity College Dublin applicants faced a choice of 240 CAO codes this year, 180 of those being for subject combinations
The combination of changes will kick in from 2017, six years after unanimous agreement at a major conference of second-level and third-level education figures on the need for reforms.
A new scale for Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme grades has also been decided, meaning that from 2017 a distinction will be worth 66 CAO points (currently 70), merit will be worth 46 points (currently 50), and students will get 28 points instead of the current 30 for a pass.
Maynooth University president Prof Philip Nolan, who chairs the Irish Universities Association group co-ordinating entry reforms, said the new points system was carefully designed to be fair to students, recognise achievement and minimise random selection.
He welcomed the agreement to award 37 points for the H7 grade, or 30% to 40% at higher level, saying it would encourage students to accept the challenge of higher-level papers.
Meanwhile, it has been suggested that the trend of more children starting primary school later, highlighted this week by the Irish Examiner, could also help reduce third-level dropout rates as students tend to make better informed course choices if they are older when applying for college.
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