THE Leaving Certificate points race is set to intensify as the number of students going to college hits a record high.
A surge in demand for college places is being put down to the lack of jobs for school-leavers.
There has been an 8.6pc jump -- the largest ever -- in third-level acceptances. This has pushed the first-year intake up to 45,582
This figure represents a 22pc rise since 2000 and brings the number of full-time undergraduates in Ireland to over 110,000. This means there are more college students than the total number engaged in farming and related activities, according to a Higher Education Authority (HEA) report.
But the extra competition for places has led to a drop in the number of applicants getting their first preferences. This knock-on effect is certain to put pressure on upcoming Leaving Certificate students, who will seek to avoid disappointment by striving for higher points.
Thousands of students were caught out this year when the points rose for almost half of CAO courses.
The proportion of students accepting their first preference also fell from 64.5pc to 61.8pc, but the drop was particularly noticeable in the university sector, down to 56.4pc. This compared with 68.2pc for the institutes of technology (ITs)
A surge in demand for college entry is attributed to the economic downturn and the lack of jobs for school-leavers who might otherwise have gone straight into the workplace.
The recession has also put a new focus on the need for higher qualifications in order to have the necessary skills for the workplace of the future.
For the first time, the numbers accepting places in ITs -- 46.5pc of all acceptances -- has outstripped the numbers starting in the seven universities, which stands at 44.5pc.
Although university acceptances are up 600 on the previous year, these institutions are probably closer to capacity than the ITs, which had more flexibility to soak up extra demand.
The popularity of the ITs may be explained by the lower level of academic competition for many of their courses and the more vocational type programmes they offer.
HEA chairman Michael Kelly described the increase in numbers as "phenomenal".
"They clearly show the strong demand for higher education. Up to two out of every three 18-year-olds are now taking a place in third level."
The rise in college entrants -- up from 42,117 last year and 39,915 in 2007 -- means that as well as school-leavers, growing numbers are also accessing higher education through routes other than the CAO.
Meanwhile, the Irish Federation of University Teachers has called on the Government to reverse the embargo on staff recruitment in third-level colleges.