Increase in common entry degrees among reform ideas

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn

Three areas of reform were identified for closer examination by the Irish Universities Association in a report 18 months ago on overhauling college entry systems.

Among them was the idea of more common-entry degrees, as universities acknowledged that this could help reduce pressure and allow students more time to think about areas in which they would like to specialise.

The principle was put forward by Áine Hyland, a former professor of education at University College Cork, in a report that formed the basis of discussion at the 2011 Transitions conference. At the behest of Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, it was organised by the Higher Education Authority and National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, to examine college entry issues.

The idea was not just to try to eliminate the focus purely on points for some of the 50,000-plus school- leavers annually but to have them better prepared with skills and aptitudes needed for higher education and work.

Reforms of the Leaving Certificate, including the possibility of removing the sub-grades that award five CAO points for every 5% in each exam, were among key recommendations. But the idea of broader and fewer courses at entry stage was one of the main proposals to emerge.

Instead of large numbers of very specific courses, students would start in first year on more general entry programmes in disciplines such as arts, science, engineering, and law, with a view to specialising in second year and beyond.

The idea is that such broad-entry courses would require lower Leaving Certificate points because they would have more places, though it could mean a lottery for places at, or near, the minimum points requirements.

Mr Quinn is disappointed that courses offered through the CAO have risen in number in the intervening three years. From fewer than 850 in 2011, there are now more than 950 level 8 degrees for college applicants to choose from.

“While we appreciate that this process needs to be done in a managed way and universities are autonomous bodies, we are happy that progress has been made and we expect to see concrete proposals on this area this year,” said a spokesperson for Mr Quinn.

While some colleges joining the CAO system and growing institute of technology offerings may account for most of the increase, higher points commanded for entry to university courses have been the focus of reform.

Mr Quinn had expected a report with recommendations on addressing this and other college entry issues from the Irish Universities Association in early 2012.

In August that year, a report by the association signalled a move towards more common entry programmes, along with a desire for reduced numbers of Leaving Certificate sub-grades, and the idea that students be given incentives such as bonus points for higher- level maths, to encourage the study of particular subjects.

Final changes have yet to emerge from that process. A report is expected this year.

There is the added complication that any changes will require approval of the academic councils, and not just the governing bodies, of each university before being applied universally.

In the meantime, three universities have increased CAO course offerings to Leaving Certificate students. Trinity College Dublin has 237 codes for prospective applicants to pick from — 40% of all university degrees.

Dublin City University says it has consistently offered more specialist and applied programmes than traditional universities. Its expected first-year intake of 2,500 in 2014 is almost a quarter more than the 2,043 undergraduates enrolled in 2011.

“In 2013, DCU academic council, along with all other universities, adopted principles that commit it to bringing its number of entry routes in 2015 down to or below its 2011 level and to further reduce the number of entry routes by at least 20% in the following years,” said a spokes-woman. “Across all faculties, we have under-taken the implementation of schemes involving broader, common entry to programmes.”

UCC registrar and vice- president Paul Giller said a slight increase in courses was largely due to targeted arts and humanities programmes being introduced, while intake to the general arts (BA) degree was reduced.

“This has helped us offer students in the BA all four of their subject choices in year one. The changes were planned, strategic, and fall under the principles agreed within the university sector,” he said.

Professor Giller said large-scale generic entry routes are not the panacea some commentators think.

“We have modelled this in a number of cases and sometimes entry points can actually rise. The Irish Universities Association is working as a sector on a number of inter-related areas to address issues raised by the minister and to improve the offerings and opportunities in universities and simplify — not lower standards in — the entry mechanisms.”

He said the impact of any university changes will be limited without significant engagement by the institutes of techn-ology sector, as well as major change in second-level senior cycle and the Leaving Certificate assessment system.

NUI Maynooth admissions officer John McGinnity said the university has had an increased intake. But he said course numbers offered through CAO are unchanged since last year, in response to wider discussion of third-level entry. “There are no new courses this year; there was active consideration that it’s not about new courses, but rather about aggregating courses. We’re looking at it in the context of universities taking steps collectively, and not just in the context of Maynooth on its own.”

Prof Giller said generic entry can potentially be valuable in some areas, offering students the chance to sample subjects and specialise later. But he said guidance counsellors and others indicate that school-leaver demand is more often for specialised entry, particularly where prospective students know what academic area they want to study.

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