Sunday 25 September 2016

Time to end the 'Rotten Game' - we need more college places to meet the demand

John Walshe

Published 17/08/2015 | 06:00

Leaving Cert students with their results last week – the choice of CAO courses is bewilderingly broad for most young people choosing their future
Leaving Cert students with their results last week – the choice of CAO courses is bewilderingly broad for most young people choosing their future

It's more of everything this year - more students taking the Leaving, more getting better grades, more applying for college, more being offered places and more points needed for more courses.

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But is it time to end what a senior academic has now called "The Rotten Game"?

If press releases issued by the universities are anything to go by, that's going to be hard to do. Most of them boast about higher points for their courses, rather than celebrate the success of students in achieving their dream of going to college.

And the attempts to reform the system are slow.

Four years ago, there was heady optimism that change would come quickly. All of the players agreed that the rise in CAO course options was out of control, leaping to 1,286 from 759 a decade earlier.

The proliferation of new courses - often with little to distinguish between them - was adding to the pressure on students in choosing their options.

Many of the newer courses had very limited intake, with the result that they commanded high entry points, which colleges could then brag about. There was a general acknowledgement that the higher education institutions should move back towards broad entry routes into areas like engineering and the sciences, rather than insisting that 17- and 18-year-olds sign for very narrowly focused courses.

The then minister, Ruairí Quinn, put pressure on the colleges to reduce the number of very specialised options and go for broad entry into engineering, science, etc - a policy endorsed by his successor, Jan O'Sullivan.

So what has happened over the past four years? A Transitions Group was set up in the Department of Education and Skills, chaired by secretary-general Seán Ó Foghlú, which brought together the various players, including the universities and institutes of technology.

Great strides have been made on a new grading system for the Leaving and a new points system but agreement has not been reached on the key issue of the growth in courses.

Last year, the number of CAO courses reached a record high at 1,415. This year it dropped, but by just two.

NUI Maynooth president Dr Philip Nolan, remains optimistic, however. He is tasked with trying to convince his colleagues to go for broader entry routes.

A set of principles has been agreed as the basis for change.

"I can't guarantee it will happen but if everyone adheres to those principles, for 2017 we should be seeing 100 to 200 courses dropping out the system" he said.

An overall drop of 200 honours degree courses or more will be welcome but it will come as the numbers applying to the CAO continue to rise. The next government will be under pressure to come up with hard decisions to find the money to sustain growth in the system.

Getting political agreement on how to fund the expansion is the hard part as the options of higher taxes, a return to fees, more charges or some form of graduate payback scheme are not exactly political winners with the general public.

Not alone are more students taking the Leaving and applying to college, they are also getting better results.

We may not be back to the heady days of grade inflation, but the points gained on the basis of Leaving Cert results are climbing back up again.

In just five years, the percentage getting the maximum 600 points (excluding bonus points for maths) has doubled to 0.4pc; those getting 550-595 went up from 2.5pc to 2.9pc; those getting 500-545 went up from 5.6pc to 7pc - and there have been other gains too. In fact, there has been a steady rise in the numbers and percentages achieving 300 or more points.

Despite the cuts in funding over the past decade, the colleges are planning to take in slightly more students than last year. But the system is fast approaching the tipping point where the quality of what is on offer begins to suffer from the cumulative effect of those cuts.

What future students need are more properly funded places - and fewer CAO choices.

Irish Independent

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