Since a 2011 drive to ease the points race that helps define how students prepare for exams and learn at second-level, one long-standing recommendation has been to eliminate the high numbers of specialised CAO courses.
In some colleges, most notably University College Dublin (UCD) and now also at Maynooth University, several courses in some disciplines have been merged for first-year entrants.
Engineering at UCD, for example, is now a single ‘undenominated’ CAO code, unlike in the past or at other colleges where students must choose on their CAO forms whether they want to do electronic, mechanical, civil, or another category.
While this should ease the pressure on 17- and 18-year-olds to make crucial decisions without clear understanding of the distinctions between them all, only those with at least 515 of a maximum 625 CAO points are offered places on UCD’s engineering programmes this morning.
There will still be relatively limited places on many of these broad-entry CAO routes, so points might not necessarily drop significantly in those subjects areas. If, on the other hand, colleges respond to the apparent demand for these broader entry method, then cut-off points may fall as more students on lower CAO scores gain admission.
By contrast, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) this morning has a dozen humanities courses for which applicants must have at least 575 points to guarantee a place, meaning an average of all Leaving Certificate As or very high B grades.
This is unusual when other universities admit well over 1,000 students to their general arts programmes. Many will have those high results anyway, but lowest-scoring entrants on larger BA programmes are in the 300-350 CAO points range.
The labyrinthine range of choices for prospective humanities students at Trinity means its 230-odd courses open to school leavers account for nearly 40% of around 600 level 8 CAO courses at all seven universities.
Last week, Maynooth University president Philip Nolan told the Irish Examiner there was an obligation on all universities to meet a collective commitment to significantly reduce CAO course choices.
Similar sentiments are expressed today by UCD deputy president Mark Rogers, highlighting gradual reductions in CAO-listed degrees there in recent years.
“Reducing the number of entry routes actually gives students more choice and more opportunities as they are free to specialise at a later stage in their degrees when they have more experience and more knowledge of subjects,” he said.
At UCD and elsewhere, a swing in demand towards business and administration degrees was met in many cases by increased provision of places. But at UCC, points are higher than this time in 2015 for most business programmes, in some cases by as much as 30 points.
Dublin City University has increased the places being offered to students in a range of courses, particularly in education and arts.
As long as third-level colleges can still increase capacity to meet demand, the CAO points race may slow a little. But as funding cuts and Government restrictions on staffing continue to dictate how colleges’ money is spent facilitating students’ interests might not be able to continue much longer.
While numbers with a science degree as their first CAO preference are barely higher than in 2015, many colleges had to increase points for these courses. This suggests high-performing Leaving Certificate students are pursuing study and careers in this area.
The 400 people being admitted to UCD’s broad-entry science degree all have at least 515 points, five more than a year ago.
With fewer students than in 2015 achieving this level of CAO points, and with one in ten of the rising numbers who study Leaving Certificate physics and chemistry failing these subjects, questions also need to be asked about government and industry campaigns to have students take them.
In a more general call to review entry to universities, Mr Rogers argues for the removal of subject requirements that are not essential for student success in a particular degree. “Educationally, it is better for students to take subjects that interest them at school rather than forcing them to take subjects purely to matriculate for university,” he said.