Add to this the increased proportions of Leaving Cert students scoring at least 450 points in this year’s exams — as reported in this newspaper last Saturday, up from 21% to 22%, or 700 more than a year ago — and it would seem natural that a raft of courses that traditionally command points in the upper range might have even higher thresholds than in 2014.
But the fact that first preferences for science degrees were down slightly this year might lead you to expect points to be steady for that category. Instead, Round 1 CAO points are up for over half this year, although not to the same degree as the increases in engineering or technology. It might be, of course, that more higher-performing students have applied for those places than last year.
So why, if demand is down, and even if students have done moderately better than last year across the board, have points gone up for so many science degrees?
The third factor to help determine CAO points — other than demand and the points scores of applicants for each course — is supply. And the numbers offered science places at level 8 degrees are down on last year, albeit a very small drop of 14 to 6,496.
It is no secret that colleges have been limiting places on some programmes for many years to keep up the calibre of students undertaking them. It can be argued that this is required to ensure only those capable of keeping up are registered, but there is also the fact that some colleges do not want their courses to appear less prestigious by having a lower entry cut-off.
None of the universities’ press releases are trumpeting drops of 20 or 30 points for certain degrees; they point instead to courses for which points are more than they were a year ago. They flag this as a sign of jobs-linked demand by savvy students, but the shift is also symptomatic of intense competition between higher education institutions.
Actively marketing certain degrees at the brightest second-level students can push points up further.
But so, too, can restricting places; either in the days after Leaving Certificate results issue, or much earlier when prospectuses are drafted, and college faculties split discipline into two or more CAO codes. As highlighted in the Irish Examiner over the last two years, instead of ending the latter practice, universities in particular have expanded it.
UCD has led the way in the right direction by ‘collapsing’ entry codes — in other words, offering common entry routes into engineering or science degrees. So instead of vying for one of dozens of engineering CAO codes, applicants come in under one code and can decide later which branch to focus on in later years.
This avoids having large numbers of courses to apply for through CAO, each with limited numbers of places and most with higher points decided by the standard of the last students admitted.
The practice is being slowly imitated elsewhere, chiefly at Maynooth University, where college president Philip Nolan acknowledges the institution’s relatively smaller size makes it a little easier to amend academic structures for such a move. Most university leaders will privately acknowledge change has been limited because they do not want to be first to take the leap.
There is more than prestige at stake, to be fair. Research proves that lower-performing students at Leaving Cert are more at risk of not completing courses, and higher dropout rates means lower Government funding.
That funding question is a growing elephant in the higher education room, and will have to be dealt with by the Government when it gets a report on the issue from Peter Cassells later this year.
Next month, universities will collectively proclaim ‘bold steps’ to ease the points race for Leaving Certificate students from 2017. But when they do, remember that most have done little to address the issue since loudly agreeing with concerns about it four years ago.