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Is the CAO the fairest way to allocate college places?

As students knuckle down to the last two weeks of study for the Leaving Certificate written examinations, many of them anxiously wonder how many points their exam results will convert into, and what college course these will entitle them to. People ask: Is the points system the best selection mechanism for higher education -- or just the fairest system of an imperfect lot?

Many people believe that it is difficult to devise a selection mechanism that can match the objectivity and transparency of the points system. Although it is sometimes described as a blunt instrument, it is about as fair as one can get in an unfair society. But is it the only way to measure a student's capacities?

Colleges have been using a centralised application system since 1976. However, it is not a static system and there are constant changes happening.

The debate about the fairest and best ways of college admissions is still actively pursued. Last autumn the HEA and NCCA organised a major conference on 'Transition from Second to Third-Level Education in Ireland'. It examined the Leaving Cert and the use of the school-leaving exam as the key determinant of access to higher education. A report on the outcomes of this conference was presented to the Minister for Education and Skills last December.

Last week, Trinity College hosted a conference on the theme 'Undergraduate Admissions for the 21st Century'.

Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice Chancellor of Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, who spoke on the theme 'Fair Admissions for All', argued for diversity of student intake, including diversity of socio-economic background, diversity of race, gender, of ability or disability.

Such diversity is vital for universities, it is essential for social mobility, and is very difficult to achieve, he said. He suggested that a more comprehensive set of predictors than just exam results was necessary to achieve such diversity.

University admissions offices might also look at factors such as the type of school a student had attended, their family background, work experience, hobbies, and family history. Professor Schwartz's work as chairman of a UK review group studying university admissions made him a most appropriate speaker to address the conference.

Conference participants were asked to consider 10 questions relating to college admissions procedures.

How acceptable are such mechanisms as interviews, subject weightings, aptitude tests, portfolios, school performance, assessments by colleges, references, lottery, contextual data (such as family background), or any other means of allocation?

In fact, as Dr Aine Hyland pointed out, many of these selection mechanisms have been tried, or are still in use for some courses in the CAO system. Many changes recommended by the 1999 commission had been made.

There have been increases of students admitted under such entry routes as mature student pathways, routes such as HEAR (the Higher Education Access Route for students from disadvantaged backgrounds), and DARE (the Disability Access Route to Education), as well as through FETAC qualifications, rather than simply on the basis of Leaving Cert points.

Open days: Today, Wednesday May 23, Killester College of Further Education, Dublin 3, holds an Open Day/Course Interviews from 10am-1pm Monday next, May 28, Dundalk Institute of Technology hosts an Open Evening from 6pm-8pm. (For college applicants who may want to use the CAO change of mind)

Irish Independent