Monday 18 February 2019

Obsession with college entry points and university rankings will only intensify

Minister Jan OSullivan TD, Minister for Education and Skills addressing the Times Higher Education (THE) Young Universities Summit at DCU
Minister Jan OSullivan TD, Minister for Education and Skills addressing the Times Higher Education (THE) Young Universities Summit at DCU

John Walshe

Points and international rankings have become the new educational obsessions in Ireland in recent years. Students worry about if they have enough points for the course of their choice, while universities agonise over where they are in the latest world league tables.

Both are under increasing pressure to do better. The competition for places in college is intensifying as more students apply, meanwhile the universities are scrambling to see how they can get further up the rankings. The importance of both was brought home at two events attended by Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan yesterday.

It was all so much simpler years ago, when the results came out in August and students were asked: "How did you get on in the Leaving?" Now the question inevitably is: "How many points did you get?"

It may be brutally fair, but the points system has what the experts call a 'backwash' effect on all of secondary schooling. Students often chose subjects just to maximise their grades in the Leaving Cert, which measures a relatively narrow range of skills in largely written exams.

When students get their results they are often a whisker away from getting a higher grade. But the fact is that we have too many grades - B1, B2, B3, etc. The majority are separated by just 5pc of marks. It's no wonder that so many students appeal their grades in the hope of a higher grade and more points.

Yesterday morning, Minister O'Sullivan held a press conference to announce measures to ease the pressure on students. One element is reducing the number of grades from 14 to eight. Out with As, Bs, and Cs and in with 1, 2, 3, etc at higher or ordinary level. This will bring us more into line with other countries. England, Scotland and Wales use six grading bands for their A levels while Scotland uses five and New Zealand has four.

The plan is based on recommendations from the transition reform group chaired by Department of Education Secretary General Sean Ó Foghlú. It comprises representatives of the Department, National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, Higher Education Authority, State Examinations Commission, Quality and Qualifications Authority, universities and institutes of technology.

Attending those meetings - as I did when I was special adviser to former minister for education Ruairí Quinn - was always fascinating, watching policy slowly evolve from many diverse contributions. And it is a slow process, securing agreement and then managing change in education.

Reducing the number of grades means a new points system that has yet to be formally agreed by the college academic councils. Doubtless, there will be concerns raised over the proposal to give points to students who get 30-39pc on higher level papers. This is designed to encourage students to have confidence in taking higher-level papers. It was defended by the minister, who said "we have created a situation where a student who could achieve, say, 39pc on a higher-level paper will get absolutely no CAO points while a student with the same ability - but unwilling to take the risk - who gets a C on an ordinary-level paper gets points for that result."

Shortly after launching the new plan Minister O'Sullivan headed to a rankings conference in Dublin City University (DCU), which was rightly pleased with its move up the ranks from 92nd to joint 75th place in the Times Higher Education (THE) top 100 table for new universities under 50 years old. DCU's engagement with employers and its 'international outlook' were key factors that drove its success. DIT has held steady in 94th place, while NUI Maynooth has just slipped out of the top 100.

THE rankings editor Phil Baty remarked that "although Ireland's old guard are struggling to make their mark in the traditional World University Rankings, two of its young institutions have made this forward-looking list - encouraging news for the nation".

One of the speakers at the THE Young Universities Summit was Prof Ellen Hazelkorn from DIT, an expert and a critic of rankings. In a new publication she says the annual publication of rankings has perpetrated a "feeding frenzy that sends shock waves throughout the higher education system worldwide".

"Love them or loathe them, higher education presidents and senior leaders take the results of rankings very seriously," she writes in the second edition of 'Rankings and the Reshaping of Higher Education', published by Palgrave Macmillan.

She pointed out that the criteria used are modified regularly, which results in changes in rankings for many universities.

Not alone is there competition among students for places, there is also competition between different rankings agencies for attention and earnings. The number of conferences about rankings has multiplied in recent years.

So has the number of spin-off surveys. For instance, the latest QS discipline rankings - in which UCD, Trinity and UCC did particularly well - were released just hours before its competitor's conference began in DCU. Hardly a coincidence.

But rankings have also made universities more outward looking. They are helping to promote world-class excellence in a globally knowledge-intensive economy. Irish universities cannot afford to ignore them. Nor can the government. Hazelkorn cites numerous examples of countries where governments are "harnessing higher education to the wagon of economic development and global competitiveness". The aim, she notes, is to enhance attractiveness for investment and hence economic growth. Many of the countries she mentions are in competition with Ireland for that inward investment.

World rankings have only been with us since 2003, when a small team from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University produced an international table which became a game changer. Now rankings, like the points system, will always be with us.

Irish Independent

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