I have written quite a bit recently, both here and in the papers about honours degrees, CAO entry points and the IoTs.
My fundamental point is that there is a CAO points limit below which honours degrees should not be offered – a blurred limit to be sure. I have no issue with IoTs or any other institutions per se; it just so happens that most of the low demand courses are offered from within the IoT sector. So, the IoT issue is essentially peripheral to my main point.
I suggested the 300 points mark was a good marker, but that was a rather arbitrary choice on my part. It could be higher; it could be lower. Just to get our bearings, below is the cumulative distribution of CAO points for the year 2012. The median, coincidentally, is close to the 300 point mark.
As we all know, the CAO system is a supply and demand system. There is no correlation, in principle, between CAO points and the difficulty of the particular degree program. The fact that mechanical engineering, for example, has a low points requirement in some institutions is by no means an indicator that it is an ‘easy’ subject. But if a degree program has a low demand, its students will have a low points scores. Places are allocated on the basis of performance and if your performance is not as good as others, you are inevitably allocated a course that is not in high demand. This may sound very ‘David McWilliams’, but it is a bit like being picked for a football team when you were a child. If you’re not great at football, you’re picked last and you go ‘in nets’.
Some people argue that the Leaving Cert is a flawed exam and is not a good indicator of a student’s performance at third level. I disagree and I suspect that many of my colleagues would also. In the last two or three years, the entry points for science and engineering degrees have increased significantly and the effect is very noticeable. On the degree where I teach in DCU, we will have a hugely reduced failure rate this year and I expect things to improve next year. Of course, there are students who defy the trend and some people may have had particular circumstances that made them perform poorly at secondary school, or they may simply be late developers. But, on average, my experience tells me that CAO points are a reasonably indicator of a student’s potential to progress through an honours degree program. (Of course, a problem with the system is that there is often a mismatch between the course a student chooses and his/her aptitudes and interests.)
Furthermore, if the points drop for a program, something important, but subtle, happens. The standard drops. This occurs both consciously and unconsciously. Academics hate high failure rates. It is not that we are under any ‘political’ or managerial pressure to maintain pass rates, it is simply that teaching to students who are not learning anything is demoralising. As a result, we both consciously and unconsciously adjust the standard at which we teach to match the level of the student. It’s better to ensure that they learn something of a lower standard than nothing of a higher standard.
This brings me to the broader issue of whether I would not be better to concern myself with outputs rather than inputs. Theoretically, yes. But, in many walks of life, inputs are taken to be an indicator of future outputs. When academics are recruiting PhD students, they normally require the student to have attained a 2.1 or higher. They believe, based on experience, that someone with a 2.2 probably does not have the ability to work to PhD level – and they are usually right. Employers use degree grades all the time in recruiting because they believe that the degree grade is a measure of the graduate’s potential to be an effective employee. Granting agencies look at researcher’s track record as an indicator of their ability to deliver on a project. Postgraduate scholarships are awarded on the basis of academic performance.
The future is the inevitable consequence of the past and I find it very hard to believe that a program for which the entry points are 470 in one institution is taught to the same level as a similar program in an institution where the entry points are 270. Maybe the issue of standardising standards is one that needs some further discussion and action. The good thing is that people are now beginning to discuss issues of substance rather than waffling about the knowledge economy and 21st century skills.