CAO crunchtime as bonus points and points system come under the spotlight

20 Aug 2012

What a difference a few days can make. Last week the nation of Ireland rejoiced when there was a 35pc surge in the number of students taking higher level maths and bonus points were credited with being an influence.

Today as CAO results indicate higher than ever demand for college places from Leaving Cert students, those very bonus points are suggested as having a distorting effect.

The first round of college offers were announced this morning via the CAO (Central Applications Office) system indicating that 56pc of all higher degree university courses saw an increase in points.

Points required for science courses breached the 500-point barrier and across the board points for technology courses, life sciences, computing and agriculture have seen a rise.

Points rose 81pc, 68pc and 61pc at Trinity College, DCU and UCD respectively.

This should be good news for Ireland’s booming technology sector which has seen more than 4,000 new jobs announced since January this year and is hard-pressed to attract qualified graduates.

Staying the course

There are many that argue that the points system itself is having a distorting effect on our third level education system and there are many in third level who argue it is funneling the wrong students into the wrong courses.

There is also evidence that many students make their decisions around where they perceive the jobs to be and this year the surge in science and technology course decision reflects an earnest desire to pursue careers that guarantee employment.

This is in one sense a welcome development because many students up until the economic crash were highly influenced by their parents to go after glamour jobs in areas like law and property.

But if we want to be truly realistic about this a question needs to be asked about how decided people are at the age of 17 or 18 about the directions their lives will take. Many don’t know and are going with their gut as well as fueled by fears they will be unemployable in five years.

One thing we need to avoid is the ‘drop out’ scenario where young people may take up computer science, for example, and one year in may realise they don’t have the enthusiasm or aptitude for coding. You have to love it and genuinely want to succeed in that area.

Much of this goes back then to career guidance at secondary level and ensuring students know all they can about a given course or career choice. Anecdotally one of the reasons so few students took up computer courses in Ireland over the last 10 years wasn’t so much down to their parents being scared silly by the bust and the anti-geek bias in Irish media – it was because career guidance teachers simply weren’t aware of the opportunities for great careers in the technology or pharmachem industries and hence weren’t telling the students.

Like I said, there are many who will argue that the points system itself is wrong and in itself distorts decisions – some students opt for the fashionable courses, others for the courses with easy points levels – while students with a genuine interest and aptitude in a field may be blocked.

But the most interesting argument to arise today is the suggestion that the 25 extra points awarded for pursuing higher level maths distorted the points race. Some 11,000 students obtained 25 bonus points, but according to various reports these extra points only benefited 3,000 students.

I believe the fact that more students opted for higher level maths is a good thing and in that sense the bonus points incentivised students to try harder. And they did.

For real impact and to ensure the correct decisions are made into the future, the points system as a whole needs to be studied.

It is understood that the Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn TD plans to review the points system and that the colleges themselves plan to do so in 2014.

The key objective to strive for is a fair system that ensures realistic decision-making on the part of students and that those with the ability, aptitude and genuine desire to succeed in an area can do so.

John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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