Is it time to scrap the points system once and for all?
Colleges want to use personal statements and school rankings when choosing students. Kim Bielenberg reports
College lecturers, students, teachers and parents all complain about the Leaving Cert points race.
But, until now, successive ministers and colleges have resisted the temptation to break it apart and try something new.
Now colleges are considering a dramatic alteration to the points system where the Leaving Cert is supplemented by other assessment techniques.
In the future, according to a recent submission by the universities to Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, these assessments could include a personal statement written by an applicant.
The universities are also considering the greater use of standardised personality tests similar to the HPAT (Health Professions Admissions Test), used for admission to medicine. These could be added to Leaving Cert results.
Trinity College Dublin (TCD) announced this week that it is introducing a feasibility study in three courses in 2014.
Under this scheme a certain number of students will be assessed using personal statements as well as the Leaving Cert. Applicants for the courses in law, history, and ancient and medieval history will be able to choose whether they want other information to be taken into account when they are applying.
This would include a personal statement or essay. Applicants could provide details of extra-curricular achievements, or details of special circumstances such as the illness of a family member that might affect their performance in exams.
Under this scheme, TCD would also look at an applicant's ranking in the Leaving Cert compared with other college applicants from their school. This could reward students who may not have received the required number of points but are among the top performers.
This new route into the TCD courses will be provided for a small number of students who fail to get the required number of points in the Leaving Cert.
Since the mid-1970s, places in the vast majority of college courses have been allocated by the computer in the CAO and have been based purely on Leaving Cert results.
Places are simply handed out, with the most popular courses going to students with the most points.
Ireland's university heads want to reform this system. College heads are finalising proposals for changes to the points race. Their report will be presented to the minister in the coming weeks.
A preliminary report from the university bosses last year proposed extra types of assessment as well as the Leaving Cert.
Professor Áine Hyland, emeritus professor of education at UCC, has studied university admissions closely. She welcomes moves by TCD and other colleges to explore other types of assessment, but is sceptical about whether some of them would work.
The use of personal statements by TCD for certain courses offers pointers to where other colleges may also be heading.
Prof Hyland doubts whether personal statements are a practical solution unless they are done in conjunction with an interview.
In a discussion paper on college admissions from 2011, she said: "Without an interview it would be difficult to verify the truth of such a statement or to ensure that the statement was the unaided work of the applicant."
She noted that personal statements for a wide variety of courses can be downloaded from the internet, and there could be a problem with plagiarism if they were introduced here.
In order to overcome this, TCD will require applicants to certify that the information is their own work. In an outline of its plans published this week, it stated: "Submitting someone else's thoughts and ideas could very well prove counterproductive."
The move by TCD to reward students for their Leaving Cert ranking in their own school has the potential to take away some of the advantage enjoyed by fee-paying schools.
It has been suggested that it could even encourage pupils to move in their last year to a school where the number of college applications is low.
Some universities abroad use interviews as well as exams to select candidates, but these do not form part of the TCD proposals.
Prof Hyland says carefully structured interviews with two or more interviewers can add some insights into student suitability, but it is difficult to guarantee objectivity. She told the Irish Independent: "When I was involved in selecting students who wanted to train to be teachers, we were interviewing 600 candidates a year, but I do not believe it was a great selection method.
"Candidates can be coached for interviews. We had people who had us totally convinced that their lifetime ambition was to be a teacher. We offered them a place, but then a week later, we found they had chosen another course."
Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the former president of Dublin City University, favours interviews as a selection technique. They are used for some courses at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, where he is vice-chancellor.
"They are the best method, but not practicable," he said. "Outside of Oxford and Cambridge, I doubt any university could afford to do interviews for all applicants – the time it would take and the resources needed would be horrendous."
Von Prondzynski supports a lottery system where each college sets a points quota for each course.
If a course is over-subscribed, the places are distributed by lottery among the qualified candidates.
This system is used in the Netherlands, but an element of chance in the selection process would be controversial here.