Pointing the way

The points system has served Ireland well but change is needed to encourage positive educational values — not just for college but for lifelong learning, writes Ned Costello

EDUCATION is an immensely powerful force which enriches lives and is the cornerstone of civilised society.

Ireland has a rich tradition of respect for education. One of our great successes has been the progressive democratisation of education, turning both second and subsequently third level from elite to mass-participation systems.

Nevertheless, the demand for higher education continues to increase, both in the aggregate and even more so for particular courses, which are seen as highly desirable.

The points system has served the country very well in efficiently and transparently matching the available supply of education places to demand. This ensures that the valuable resource of a place at college is not squandered.

In isolation, it could be said that the points system works extremely well.

However, the truth is that system cannot be disconnected from the second-level curriculum and assessment that precedes it.

From our perspective, the central concern is that the system is not doing enough to encourage positive educational values and the kind of rounded, adaptable learning behaviours needed to flourish at college and through a lifetime of work and continuous learning.

It is for this reason that the Irish universities, working collectively through the Irish Universities Association (IUA), were glad to respond to the invitation from Education Minister Ruairi Quinn for proposals on how the system might be reformed.

Our new report contains both a menu for change and some clear strategic recommendations which we wish to take forward. In the latter case, we have identified three priorities.

The first of these is the collapsing of the Leaving Certificate grading scale from 14 to eight points. This will allow a different approach to marking the exams and it, we believe, could be a significant help in making the exam less predictable. A less predictable exam in turn should help unwind the current problem of rote learning.

Secondly, we are looking at a move towards more common entry. While our system is not especially unusual in a European context, large numbers of highly specialised courses can have the effect of raising point levels due to strong competition for limited places. More common entry can help reduce that pressure and allow students more time to think about the areas in which they want to specialise.

Thirdly, we are looking at whether there should be more incentives built in to the system to encourage students to study particular subjects. While there has been some debate over bonus points for maths, we are satisfied that it has achieved its primary goal of broadly increasing performance in maths which we see as an essential foundational skill not just for college but for lifelong learning.

In our report, we explore other avenues, such as the possibility of moving toward a ranking-based approach to awarding points. Under this approach, success would depend on how the student performs in the subject relative to their peers.

One advantage of this is that any differences in subject workload, real or apparent, become irrelevant, since the competition for points is among peers seeking to achieve within the individual subject. On the other hand, it may have collateral implications for behaviour in relation to subject choice which need careful consideration.

This example is illustrative of the findings of our report that, while change is needed and will be forthcoming, there are no simple solutions. It is also true that what may seem attractive in theory can throw up some curve balls when it comes to implementation.

It is for this reason that we are establishing an expert task force to be chaired by Professor Philip Nolan, president of NUI Maynooth, and with input from key players in the curriculum and assessment space, to take the detail of our report and deliver a precise, sequenced set of interventions to build on the current system’s strengths but also address its weaknesses.

Selection and entry for university is a profoundly important part of the education jigsaw. Successful reform will see students better prepared for college and also continue to effectively utilise scarce educational resources.

However, the quality of the education we are able to provide depends on a comprehensive overhaul of how higher education is funded and regulated.

Securing a place at college is only the first step. We need radical solutions across a whole range of areas to ensure that the quality of student experience and the outcomes achieved are best in class, and that our institutions are likewise.

In the coming months, we look forward to bringing more proposals to the Government on how this can be achieved.

* Ned Costello is chief executive of the Irish Universities Association


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