University places could be decided by lottery

STUDENTS could be selected for college by lottery instead of having to compete just on the basis of their Leaving Certificate results, according to one proposal for reform of third-level entry.

It is the preferred strategy of Prof Áine Hyland, former head of education at University College Cork, who has prepared a discussion paper to begin a major consultation on reforming the points system. If the debate leads to public agreement, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn says changes could be in place for students sitting the Leaving Certificate as soon as 2014.

Although the system operated for the colleges by the Central Application Office (CAO) is widely considered transparent and fair, the pressures it puts on students to perform well in the Leaving Certificate has long been criticised.

The exam itself is also to come under the spotlight at a conference this month to examine ways of changing the focus of the final years of second level and ensuring a fair system of college entry.

Prof Hyland chaired the Commission on the Points System whose 1999 report favoured retaining existing selection methods. But, she said yesterday her personal preference has always been to devise a system combining an element of lottery but also fewer course choices that could drive down points requirements.

One of her key suggestions is that students with a prescribed set of points from their Leaving Certificate results would be eligible for entry to one of a much narrower number of courses and would then be picked randomly. However, she said, students with very high points or with strong grades in related subjects might be given preference.

By allowing students take a common first year in a discipline such as science or engineering for example, the idea would be that students could avoid being stuck in the wrong course or dropping out of college.

“Because there has been an explosion on the number of honours degree courses in the past decade, competition has become greater.

“There were about 280 honours degree courses, there are now 880, and that growth means students are facing this enormous choice which can be quite daunting, and they often make the wrong choice,” Prof Hyland said.

While Mr Quinn has instigated the debate, it is being led by the Higher Education Authority and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment in the first significant coming-together of the second and third level sectors on how students progress from one to the other.

“I have no preconceptions about the outcomes. While we need to be prepared to think in terms of radically new approaches and alternatives to the current arrangements, we also need to be conscious of the need to maintain public confidence in the integrity and fairness of any selection system,” the minister said.

lStudents, teachers, parents and others can have their say and find out more on a dedicated website — www.transitions.ie — where the Transition or Transaction? conference will be streamed live on September 21.


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