The Madness in the CAO System

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.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
This entry was posted in education, Leaving Cert, Third Level. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Madness in the CAO System

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The Madness in the CAO System

  2. Ben says:

    “ITB in particular cannot attract ‘good’ students”

    I can’t believe I’m reading this! In most cases there is a 10-15 point gap between ITB and ITT. While its true to say that many of the ITB courses are between the 250 and 350 range, some of the level 8 offerings are around the 325 – 350 mark (depending on year) which is not too far below where your own offering was a few years ago!! Points are a measure of where the lowest student in the class is as per applications. The points is seldom a reflection on the majority of students in a group.

    Your labeling of students as poor based on their CAO performance is blunt and frankly narrow minded. If you cant engage students who have achieved less than 400 points then perhaps the issue is with your teaching methods and delivery. If its a poor as your blog then I sympathise with them.

    • Greg Foley says:


      A few things:

      (i) You will notice that I suggested that ITB has trouble attracting ‘good’ students not good students which was an implicit acknowledgement of the dangers of labelling students on the basis of CAO points score only.

      (ii) I am probably being a little unfair in singling out ITB – there are other IoTs that have a similar problem and, as you say, ITT is one of those IoTs. Go to and just have a look at the points for ITB and other places and track them over the years. There is consistent evidence of poor demand (low points) for Level 8 courses in many of the IoTs. (Bear in mind that if you go below 300 points, you are in the bottom 40% of the population in terms of academic achievement and Level 8 education is academic.) By the way I understand that the points represents the bottom of the intake and the median would be a better measure of class standards but we don’t have those numbers to hand at the moment; but I prdict that if we had access to the median data, we would see exactly the same result: points scores in the IoT system that are significantly lower than those in the university sector.

      (iii) I have a stacks of exam broadsheets from more than 15 years which show quite clearly that there is a correlation between CAO points score and pass rates – and not just in my courses so there is no need to personalize this. If you have data to suggest otherwise, then I’d genuinely like to see it because then the whole CAO system is meaningless and that is, as they say, an appalling vista. On top of that, I have considerable experience teaching the same courses to classes with a wide range of entry points and my judgment is that higher points correlates with better work ethic, enthusiasm and engagement. It is entirely your right to question my professional judgement and put what I say down to personal bias or elitism or whatever but all I can do is give my professional opinion on this.

      On a general note, it is very easy to just sit back and criticize anyone who tries to look at the education system in a dispassionate way – and you would not be the first to do so. It’s a complete cop out to effectively say that all students are talented and committed and poor outcomes are a reflection of poor teaching. It’s the blame the system mentality. The reality is that many young people are essentially forced to enter college when they are unable for it or just don’t like it. I see this with my own eyes year in year out and guess what: I feel sorry for students trapped in this way. It is interesting for example that the IoTs have by far the highest drop-out rates, something that in my view is consistent with the low CAO points at intake.

      Keep reading my blog even if you think it’s crap.


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