THE points race for sought-after college courses is set to be hotter than ever this year, as demand for third-level places hits a new high.
When the main deadline for CAO applications closed yesterday, 74,499 people had applied for a place, which is a record for this time of year.
It is up about 1,500 on the same time in 2014, reflecting the ongoing rise in school-leaver numbers and the general growth in demand for college places.
A degree or similar qualification is increasingly being seen as essential to meet the needs of the modern workplace.
Despite recent measures to cool the points race, the surge in applications for college is likely to trigger a rise in points needed to get on courses with increased competition for places this year.
Catering for such numbers will also sorely test our higher education system – which has been stretched with a 9pc cut in income, an 11pc cut in staffing but a 16pc increase in student numbers over recent years.
While 5.15pm yesterday was the standard deadline, the CAO also allows for late applicants so the overall figure is expected to rise in the months ahead.
The statistic released yesterday are only the raw applicant numbers.
There is no indication just yet of the demand for the various disciplines, such as engineering, science, health or teaching.
When the breakdown of applications by discipline becomes available in a few weeks, it will show the trends in full.
This will list student choices and give a clear indication of where the pressure points will be this year.
The ongoing rise in school-leaver numbers and the consequent rise in demand for third-level qualification is expected to continue for another decade at least.
This year's applications figure is up from the 73,063 recorded last February, and up more than 3,000 from the 71,151 seen in 2013.
Given the improving economic situation, it is likely that construction-related fields - such as surveying and architecture - will see a further surge in demand this year.
For instance, last year applications showed a swing back to areas such as construction, which had seen an enormous dip in popularity after the economic crash.
Other areas that have seen a swing in student preferences in recent years include agriculture and engineering and technology, on the back of buoyancy in those sectors.
In fact, last year colleges laid on extra places in computing courses in a bid to address the shortage of graduates being experienced by companies in information and communications technology (ICT) fields, and soak up the renewal in interest among school-leavers in this area.
As the economy started to show the first shoots of recovery, there was also a bounce back in interest in business and professions such as law among the class of 2014, which may very well be repeated this year.
However, students who are concerned about the points race have been urged not to panic.
Changes introduced by a number of colleges this year may help to counter the rise.
Some universities have, for instance, introduced a single engineering programme for new entrants this year, instead of having a number of specialised programmes at point of entry.
Universities sometimes use the niche attraction of a specialised entry route for marketing purposes.
But it can have the effect of driving up points, only for students to find themselves sharing lectures with others in the same broad discipline that may have come in on lower points.
As well as taking the heat out of the points race, the switch to more generic entry routes would allow students to put off specialisation until the end of first year or second year, when they may have a better idea of what they want to do.
The other challenge facing third-level institutions is financial, as pressure of numbers raises concerns about the ability of the system to deliver a quality service.
An expert group has been set up to consider how higher education in Ireland should be funded into the future.
The first report from the export group, published last week, repeated warnings that, in light of the continued demand for a college place, the current funding model for third-level is not sustainable.
Its final report is due later in the year and is likely to raise the prospect of higher student contributions.
Currently, 56pc of 18-19-year-olds go on to third level, and if that rate was to continue, the demand for first year college places would rise to about 56,000 in 2028.
But, according to the report, if a lack of funding forced colleges to hold first year places at current levels, it would mean a cut to about 35,000 new entrants,. That would mean only 45pc of school leavers would be going to college, rather than 56pc.
While the overwhelming majority of CAO applicants for 2015 have now registered, the process allows for changes to course choices, at no extra cost, between May and July.
Typically about half of applicants take up that option.
The CAO also offers a late application facility from March, but certain courses are excluded.