When academics look at the CAO numbers at the end of August they are inevitably delighted when the points increase for their own particular course. Why? Because they know from experience that a CAO points score is a relatively good marker for basic intelligence and, crucially, work ethic and commitment. The course I teach on in DCU is now at 470 points but a few years ago it was down at 365. Teaching the 470-pointers is much more fulfilling because the students are far more engaged and committed. Anyone who says the CAO system is meaningless and a measure of nothing in particular is out of touch with the thinking of the vast majority of those who are actually doing the teaching at third level.
Notwithstanding all of that, it is interesting to look at 2014 numbers because if you do you will see some mad stuff. The sheer number of courses is extraordinary, something that has been well flagged for a number of years now and has been pretty much ‘outed’ as a reflection of cynical practices by the various institutions. But there is further madness in the detail:
- The number of Law+ or Arts+ or Business+ courses is almost farcical.
- The continued and excessive use of random selection in TCD, even for courses like English and Law, continues to go largely unnoticed.
- The IoTs have huge problems in attracting students of sufficient calibre. There are about 120 Level 8 courses offered by the IoTs that have entry requirements below the 300 point mark. Indeed, the figures show very strongly that the idea of merging ITB and ITT with DIT in order to create a supposedly stronger Technological University makes absolutely no sense. ITB in particular cannot attract ‘good’ students and it will only weaken DIT’s case for TU status. Furthermore, it would be interesting to see the statistics on completion rates for the sub-300 courses.
- There is huge disparity in the points required for similar courses in different institutions and this raises obvious questions about the standardisation of standards across the sector.
- There is a huge amount of duplication in the system and this needs to be examined on a discipline-by-discipline basis. The teaching of engineering, for example, needs to be made much ‘tighter’. Every state-funded institution in Dublin has engineering courses of some kind.
- There are some bizarre-sounding and ludicrously specific courses out there (Bar Studies, Nutraceuticals, Outdoor Education etc.) and an obsessive tendency to use the ‘bio’ prefix and ‘forensics’ in the title of programmes.
- The supply and demand nature of the CAO system means that there is often a mismatch between the entry points and the difficulty of the degree programme. There are examples of maths and engineering courses where the entry points are such that I, for one, cannot see how the students can possibly survive if the subject is taught at the appropriate level.
No doubt some of my comments will come across as a bit rich seeing that I am a DCU academic. It was DCU, along with UL, who pioneered the concept of denominated entry and multidisciplinary degree programs. But the difference in our case was that our programmes were very much focused on emerging sectors of the economy and were a response to a perceived need. Our programmes in Biotechnology, Analytical Science, Accounting and Finance, Applied Languages, Communications etc. were all based on a rational assessment of the needs of the economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were deliberately designed to be different from the traditional programmes offered by the NUI and TCD. Nowadays, however, many degree programmes are designed simply to attract students with, I suspect, very little real assessment of whether they make pedagogical or economic sense. Hence we have ludicrously specific and ludicrously vague degree programmes throughout the system.
So what should we do? The current response is to suggest the effective merging of programmes and to go down the non-denominated entry route. This has a certain appeal as we all tend to be seduced by simplicity. We equate simple systems with good systems. But non-denominated entry has the potential to create a pressure cooker effect at the very time when students, perhaps away from home for the first time, are at their most vulnerable. For example, if my own faculty went completely non-dominated, I suspect we would have fierce competition to get into our Genetics and Cell Biology degree programme and many students would end up disappointed at the end of the year. So we need to do more than just going headlong towards generic entry. We have to do this carefully. Yes, get rid of many denominated programmes that have ‘with’ or ‘and’ in the title and eliminate courses for which there is little or no demand. But you do need to tread very carefully in some areas, notably the sciences. ‘Science’ is a very broad term (as is the acronym STEM) and physics, for example, is quite different from most of the biological sciences. It doesn’t make sense, in my view, to admit someone who is strong in mathematics and who has his/her heart set on a career in physics, into a class with students who are far less mathematically inclined and who want to study microbiology. In other words we shouldn’t become obsessed with non-denominated entry.
Of equal importance is the on-going problem of matching students’ interests and aptitudes with the course on which they embark. It is obvious that a supply and demand system is not going to do this. When you factor in all the various influences on school leavers it is not surprising that many end up in courses for which they are not suited. But that’s another day’s discussion.