Should sporting high achievers get CAO bonus points?
NUI Galway is the latest university to make admission easier for the country's top young athletes. Kim Bielenberg reports
As a top-class rugby player, Robbie Henshaw can see the benefit of giving extra CAO points to high-achieving sportsmen and women.
The second-year Arts student at NUI Galway says: "It acknowledges the hard work that people involved in sport have to put in."
Henshaw, who has played for Ireland three times, entered NUI Galway through the normal CAO route in 2012 after doing his Leaving Cert at Marist College, Athlone. He now studies Economics and Geography.
If he was starting at the university next year, the Connacht professional could expect to get a bonus of 40 points. The university recently announced that it will give the "performance points" to a limited number of athletes who go through an interview process.
NUI Galway is joining UCD, DCU and NUI Maynooth in giving extra points for high sporting achievers, and UCC is expected to follow suit.
Henshaw, who got his first cap for Ireland last year at the age of 19, says: "The performance points should help to even things out for those who have to devote a lot of time to sport.
"When I was studying for the Leaving Cert I was not only playing for my school team, I was also playing for Connacht under-20s and the Irish under-19s. I missed a lot of study time."
So why should there be extra points for those who excel at sport?
Gary Ryan, NUI Galway's Elite Sports officer, says: "If someone's talent is art or music, that is recognised at the Leaving Cert. I don't see why it should be different with sport.
"Athletes give an inordinate amount of time to what they do, and some are giving up sport because of the pressures of the Leaving Cert."
The performance points are being awarded in conjunction with the improved sports scholarship schemes now running in the universities.
The idea of sports scholarships is strongly identified with American colleges, where the schemes can be highly lucrative. Students with a prowess at American football, for example, can get grants as high €200,000, and there may not be onerous academic standards. In the US, there are even scholarships for rodeo riding.
The money on offer in Irish universities is a fraction of that, and the colleges here offering bonus points are keen to emphasise that there is no "dumbing down" of their courses.
UCD offers a top-up of 60 points to members of its Elite Athletes Academy (EAA).
Professor Colin Boreham, director of the EAA, says the points derogation is to compensate for the enormous commitment to training and competition experienced at this level of sporting achievement.
"Almost all the scholars are either international athletes or Senior County players, and performing at this level requires huge expenditures of time and energy," says Prof Boreham.
To join the UCD scheme, sports people have to do an interview with a college dean about their chosen course.
Professor Boreham says: "Less than half of the scholars require any points derogation, and of the remainder, many do not require the full 60 points."
Students still have to meet the minimum requirements for courses, and have to progress academically from one year to the next.
As a full-time rugby professional with Connacht, Robbie Henshaw says it can be difficult at times to combine his career with being a student.
"Being a rugby player is a full-time job. As well as playing, training and travelling to and from matches, you have to do your own preparation work.
"So it is not always easy to juggle the commitments. However, the college is very accommodating. The course gives me something to do off the pitch outside rugby.
"It is also something to fall back on in case I was injured or for when I retire. Eventually I hope to become a teacher."
While America remains the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for sports scholarships, there are still substantial benefits here.
Athletes who qualify at NUI Galway after an interview will get a grant of €1,000-€1,500. The scholarship scheme includes sports coaching, medical and physiotherapy support, nutrition advice, psychological support and academic mentoring.
Students hoping to study medicine are not yet eligible for the scheme, but NUI Galway may include it in the future.
The elite athletes at UCD get a cut of 50pc in fees, a grant of €1,000 per year and an allowance for accommodation on or off the campus.
As well as access to a raft of experts, including coaches, physiotherapists and psychologists, students have an academic mentor.
The mentors help them to fit their training and match demands with the course.
Prof Colin Boreham of UCD says: "The academic mentor helps them to balance the demands of studying and sport – for example by negotiating alternative arrangements if lectures are missed due to sporting commitments."
Neither Trinity College nor the University of Limerick offer points concessions for elite athletes, but they do have sports scholarships.
And now. . . a points waiver for the creative arts
Yesterday, NUI Galway announced a similar 40 points waiver for higher achievers in selected disciplines in the creative arts, on a pilot basis.
It is aimed at students with a record of excellence in creative writing, digital arts and media, drama, theatre and performance, film or non-fiction writing, including journalism.
There will be 15 scholarships available for this autumn. Medicine is excluded.
Students must attain a minimum requirement of 350 CAO points from a single sitting of the Leaving Certificate in six subjects.
Applicants will be interviewed and those who are successful will be made a conditional offer of their performance points in May.
Whiteboard Jungle: Trinity rebranding
We are sorry to report that the rebranding of Trinity College has not been greeted with universal acclaim.
The board has decided to use "Trinity College, the University of Dublin" in official communications.
Ferdinand von Prondzynski, a former candidate to be Trinity Provost and currently Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, is unconvinced by the new label.
On his blog he said: "Nobody will ever, and I mean ever, use the name in actual speech . . . you'd feel stupid if you did."
Reports that the closed Bible on the Trinity crest is to be replaced by an open book have also prompted criticism.
Michael Kelly, editor of the Irish Catholic, commented via Twitter: "Maybe now that Trinity College is getting rid of the Bible they'll give the Book of Kells back."