UNIVERSITY presidents are preparing to introduce major changes to the CAO college-entry process from 2015.
The initial step will be a dramatic reduction in the number of courses available to CAO applicants.
Students entering fifth year in September would be affected by the reforms.
The idea is not to reduce choice but to simplify the application process and take the heat out of the points race.
An increase in the number of highly specialised CAO courses – with a limited number of places – has been blamed for driving up points.
Changes will centre on broader-based courses at entry level, with greater specialisation coming after first year.
The seven university presidents are currently finalising a set of recommendations on college entry as part of a wider exercise aimed at reforming the points system.
Institutes of Technology Ireland (IOTI), the State Examinations Commission (SEC), the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) are also exploring options.
Issues under consideration include taking the predictability out of Leaving Cert exam questions, changes in the Leaving Cert grading system, incentives for certain subjects and graduate-entry only for certain professional courses such as medicine.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn requested change because of concerns that there is too much focus on achieving points to the detriment of proper teaching and learning at second level.
While the points system is praised for its transparency, it is criticised for encouraging rote learning and punishing study regimes among students pursuing an extra five or 10 marks.
Teachers and students become so concerned about notching up points that the focus of Leaving Cert classes is "teaching to the test" rather than ensuring that pupils get a sound education.
There is also evidence that Leaving Cert students select certain subjects because they are seen to be easier for achieving points.
A massive growth in the CAO offering, particularly the number of specialised degree programmes, has been recognised as a factor in the points race.
The number of CAO courses has trebled in 20 years to more than 1,300, including around 800 at honours degree level.
There is particular concern about the proliferation of highly specialised degree programmes with only a small number of places. The competition for such a tiny number of places pushes up the points.
While colleges welcome the competition among students and high points courses enjoy a certain cachet, the points often bear no relation to the academic requirements required for a particular programme.
Under the proposal emerging from the university presidents, instead of individual colleges offering half-a-dozen or more separate degree programmes in, for instance, engineering, science, arts or business, there would be a common entry route into each of these broad areas.
The benefits would be less confusion, or CAO applicants and students could put off specialisation until the end of first year, when they would also be in a better position to decide on their preferred option.
The forthcoming recommendations from the presidents follow a discussion paper pub- lished by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) last August.
Reducing the number of course offerings at entry level is one of the options for change being explored by the presidents, but the first on which they are close to agreement.
Proposals emanating from an IUA task force, headed by NUI Maynooth president Prof Philip Nolan, also have to be approved by the academic council of each university. To allow for time for that process of approval and to give students fair notice, 2015 is the earliest date by which change could be implemented
The transition from second-level to third-level was also the subject of a day-long conference yesterday organised by the Institutes of Technology Ireland. Among their recommendations is that any changes must take account of the diversity of learners and of the wide spectrum of CAO point levels that characterise entrants into higher education.
The institutes said that any review of degree programmes should ensure a mixed portfolio with both specialised and common entry routes.
They also recommended research into the feasibility of connecting Leaving Certificate choices to entry to third-level, and a forum for the enhancement of the first-year experience for students.