Wednesday 23 October 2019

CAO's five-year-plan hopes to keep evolving with our expanding system

Mary O'Donnell

It is appropriate that today's Going to College column should touch on two topics of recurring interest over the years: the start of the 2013 school-leaving exams next week, and news from CAO, the central applications office, whose processes loom large over school leavers and other college applicants and their journey to college.

Their final school year is punctuated for college applicants by a series of interactions with CAO, from the publication of its handbook in the autumn prior to college entry, through the various stages of the application process, to the allocation and acceptance of offers principally during the month of August.

At every step of this process, CAO adheres to its core values of efficiency, impartiality, transparency and honesty, a remarkable achievement by any standards anywhere.

CAO's services have developed over a 35-year period from its introduction in 1977, when it processed applications from about 14,000 applicants to the first year of undergraduate degree courses in five higher education institutions, to last year, 2012, when more than 77,000 people applied to the first year of 1,380 undergraduate courses in 45 different higher-education institutions

CAO has efficiently handled many developments during that time, from its expansion to include almost 10 times the original number of HEIs, including all the universities, colleges of education, institutes of technology, many private independent colleges, and more; the expansion of courses offered, with the inclusion for example, of nursing degree programmes, of ordinary degree and higher certificate programmes (Level 7 and Level 6) in every discipline, as well as the original (honours) degree programme (Level 8) list.

It has also coped with many new categories of applicants apart from the conventional school leavers, with increasing numbers of mature applicants; applicants from further education courses (eg FETAC), from entry routes such as HEAR (Higher Education Access Route, for school leavers from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds) and DARE (Disability Access Route to Education); as well as international applications.

CAO has moved seamlessly from a pen and paper application process in its early days to a system whereby 99.7pc of last year's applicants applied online.

But CAO believes it can do more. It has published a five-year strategic plan from 2013- 2017, (available on its website,

It wants to offer the premier national system for processing online applications to all post-secondary education in Ireland. The post-secondary and higher-education sectors have other entry points, both direct and indirect.

Within the higher-education sector, for example, there are advanced entry routes for people seeking to transfer from courses at Level 6 or 7 to the next level; there are application stages to post-graduate courses and to masters' degrees and beyond. Many of these could be handled by a single central-applications office.

Tens of thousands of applications are made to further-education courses each year, usually directly to the FE colleges themselves. Most of the applicants have also applied to courses through CAO, where another list of courses could be a relatively simple matter to handle. There are courses through initiatives like Springboard and Bluebrick.

CAO plans to engage with additional post-secondary school education providers and to other professional bodies, to explore opportunities to secure their participation in a more streamlined, efficient, application system.

To return briefly to this year's school leavers, who start their written Leaving Cert exams next Wednesday, it just remains for me to wish them every success in their exams, and in their future.

This message always comes from the heart, but perhaps never more so than today, as I sign off my Going to College column for the last time. Goodbye and thank you.

Irish Independent

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