Ok, a one off…probably
Over the last four or five years we have heard many interested parties encourage school-leavers to study STEM subjects. Not surprisingly, the entry points for STEM courses have risen steadily. Unsurprisingly, the points for Arts and Humanities subjects have dropped but nobody seems concerned about this despite the rich arts heritage in this country.
Now, in response to the rise in points for STEM subjects, commentators are, somewhat oddly, becoming fixated on courses that have a very low student intake and blaming them for all the points inflation that is going on. These courses account for about 12% of the total number of CAO courses and given their small intake, they probably impact on a relatively small number of students. However, we can’t be sure as we don’t have access to 1-2-3 preference data. But I would bet a large sum that the first preference numbers for these courses are tiny, except perhaps for some of TCD’s programmes where they seem to use random selection an awful lot.
In addition, Philip Nolan and Tom Boland have been out in force pushing the ‘generic courses’ agenda. The belief is that more generic entry will take the heat out of the points systems, although the rise in points for generic entry courses (like Common Entry to Science in DCU) would make one question this argument. Regardless, the media is jumping on this particular bandwagon and the third level institutions are being portrayed as ‘dragging their heels’.
In addition, there is an increased tendency to invent all sorts of pedagogical reasons for generic entry; encouraging better second-level study habits and avoiding over-specialisation at an early age are two of the usual arguments. The first is guesswork and the second ignores the fact that most third level courses are pretty ‘generic’ in the early years anyway and only become very specialised in third and fourth year. Thus, doing a BSc in Neuroscience, for example, doesn’t preclude you from a science career outside neuroscience. And anyway, what ever happened to all the talk about lifelong learning and how in this 21st century everyone has to be flexible and adaptable.
What is really going on here is that policy makers are being political. They want to be seen to be doing something about the points race but in doing so want to pass on the problems of an under-funded, over-crowded education system onto the third-level sector. The CAO system will look nice and tidy but the pressures on students will be postponed until third level where they will be less visible. For example, if, in DCU, we admitted all our science students into a generic, common entry first year, there would be a right old dog-fight to get into two or three high-demand programmes whose numbers must be capped for logistical reasons. Are first year students equipped to deal with the pressures? That is a question that nobody is asking. Indeed, nobody is asking how the student experience, failure rates and drop-out rates might be affected by a more generic entry system. Maybe there will be no effect at all but shouldn’t we be thinking ahead rather than slavishly following the agenda of a small number of parties?