Commission on the Points System Final Report and Recommendations

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Contents

Foreword by Chairperson

The Commission on the Points System was set up by the Minister for Education and Science, Micheál Martin, T.D., on 15 October 1997. The establishment of the Commission met an important commitment in the Government's Action Programme for the Millennium which included as a key priority, the appointment of a high-powered group to examine the system of selection for third-level entry in this country. The membership of the Commission, which is set out in Appendix B, included representatives of students, parents, teachers, school management, employers, third-level institutions, guidance counsellors, the Central Applications Office and the Department of Education and Science.

The Minister decided on the following terms of reference after consultation with the education partners on the remit of the Commission:

  1. Having regard to the necessity of ensuring a transparent, impartial and efficient system for entry to third-level institutions, to review the present system with particular regard to:
    1. its effect on the personal development of students;
    2. its impact at the post-primary level, particularly on the senior cycle, in terms of its influence on teaching, learning and assessment techniques;
    3. its impact on selection of third-level courses;
    4. its effect on access to third-level of students who have experienced significant educational disadvantage;
    5. its effect on access to third-level of non-standard students, e.g. mature students;
    6. international experience of entry systems.
  2. In the context of the review, to make recommendations as appropriate.
  3. To draw up an implementation strategy for all recommendations which will include details of the cost, timing and other practical considerations.
  4. In the course of its work, the Commission will take account of the need to ensure equity by institutions as between candidates with the Leaving Certificate and other comparable international second-level terminal examination certification and will make recommendations to that effect.
  5. The Commission will consult widely in its review of the present system.

During the course of its deliberations, the Commission carried out wide-ranging consultation. Submissions were invited from members of the public and the education partners and these submissions were made available on the Commission's website. Over 120 submissions were received. In September 1998, the Commission published a Background Document which provided the basis for a series of public meetings around the country - attended by over 600 people. In addition to these public meetings, members of the Commission attended meetings which were held by teacher, parent, management and other bodies with a view to contributing to the debate. We greatly appreciate the contribution of all involved.

A meeting was also held by the Convocation of the National University of Ireland in University College Dublin in November 1998. All these meetings proved to be a very valuable source of information for the Commission. In addition, the Commission met with different people to discuss various options and to explore alternative selection systems. These included Professor Pieter Drenth from the Netherlands, who subsequently produced a research paper for publication. On a number of occasions, the Commission was represented on radio or television programmes in which third-level selection and entry were discussed.

The Commission met on a total of 32 occasions. From the outset, it was agreed that any changes which might be recommended would need to have the support of the general public and particularly of the users and providers of the education system, if they were to be implemented effectively. It was also agreed that the recommendations of the Commission should be based on accurate information and that if necessary, research would be commissioned to make such information available.

Four research papers were commissioned and published by the Commission:

We would like to thank the authors for their most valuable contributions to our understanding of the complex issues concerning third-level selection systems. In addition, we greatly appreciate the participation and co-operation of students and staff in these research projects. Without their contribution, our work would have been impossible.

The Commission would like to thank the secretariat for its willing and ongoing support during the two years of its work. We are particularly grateful to Seán O Foghlú, who was secretary to the Commission from October 1997 to June 1999 and who was the driving force behind the publication of the Commission's Background Paper and the Research Papers. He also played a major part in the public meetings and in the consultative process. We would also like to express our thanks to John McCullagh, who took over from Seán in June 1999 and who played an important role in drafting this final report. Our thanks are also due to other members of the secretariat:- Rosaleen Killian, Feilim McLaughlin, Jackie O'Brien and Marian White.

As Chair of the Commission, I would like to thank the other members of the Commission who contributed constructively and enthusiastically to the deliberations and discussions throughout the two years of the life of the Commission. At all times our priority was to ensure that selection and entry to third-level education would be fair, equitable and transparent and would have the confidence of students, their families and teachers and the general public. We hope that our recommendations will achieve these aims.

Áine Hyland.
Chairperson, Commission on the Points System.
November 1999.

Chapter 1: The Changing Context of Third-level Education in Ireland

Third-level institutions in Ireland have certain rights and responsibilities, enshrined in legislation, to determine their own admissions policies. In relation to institutes of technology, the Regional Technical Colleges Act, 1992, and the Dublin Institute of Technology Act, 1992, contain provision for academic councils to make recommendations to governing bodies "for the selection, admission, retention and exclusion of students".

The Universities Act, 1997, provides that academic councils shall make recommendations to governing authorities on the admission of students. Section 14 of the Act states that a university shall "have the right and responsibility to preserve and promote the traditional principles of academic freedom in the conduct of its internal and external affairs, and be entitled to regulate its affairs in accordance with its independent ethos and traditions and the traditional principles of academic freedom". The section further states that in exercising these rights and responsibilities, a university

"shall have regard to
  1. the promotion and preservation of equality of opportunity and access,
  2. the effective and efficient use of resources, and
  3. its obligations as to public accountability"
.

In addition, section 47(1) of the Universities Act, 1997, states that the National University of Ireland determines the basic matriculation requirements for the constituent universities but that each university is empowered to prescribe additional requirements generally or in respect of particular faculties of the university.

1.1 Second and Third-Level Education in Ireland in the 1960s and the 1990s

Until the mid 1960s, entry to third-level education in this country was open to those who satisfied the basic entry requirements (matriculation) and who could afford to pay the fees or who were in receipt of a scholarship.

With the introduction of free second-level education and the third-level grants scheme in Ireland in 1967, enrolments grew rapidly in second-level schools and the numbers in third-level education expanded significantly. The total number of students in third-level education increased from 21,000 full-time students in 1965 to over 116,000 in 1998/9. In 1965, just over 12,000 students sat the Leaving Certificate. Today, that figure is in the region of 64,000. However, in spite of the impressive increase in numbers taking the Leaving Certificate, it is estimated that about 19% of the relevant age-group leave school annually without completing senior cycle.

Secondary education in Ireland today is non-selective and comprehensive in character, i.e. all second-level students at junior cycle follow the same curriculum and the majority follow the (established) Leaving Certificate programme. In terms of the curriculum at second level and the examination taken, the vast majority of second-level students in this country are eligible to apply for third-level entry. This contrasts with the situation in some other EU countries, e.g. the Netherlands and Germany, where students are selected for (academic) secondary education on the basis of academic attainment at the end of primary school or during the early years of second-level education. In such countries, only a relatively small proportion of the relevant age group is eligible to apply for university entry on completion of second-level education.

1.2 Origin of a Points System for Third-Level Selection

When demand for third-level places exceeds the number of places available, some mechanism of selecting students has to be devised. University College Dublin was the first of the Irish universities where demand exceeded the number of places available. In 1964, entry was unrestricted in the Faculties of Arts, Music, Philosophy, Celtic Studies, Law, Commerce, Social Science, Science and Agriculture. There were some restrictions in Engineering and Architecture, and in Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Medicine and Pharmacy, the number of persons accepted at the end of first year was limited, so that the first year, in addition to providing "the basic fundamentals in Science (Physics and Chemistry) and Biology (Botany and Zoology)", also served as a competitive entrance examination to the Medical School proper. Except in Dentistry, all who passed the first year examination were accepted in the respective schools up to 1964, while those who passed the Pre-Dental but failed to gain places were accepted in Medicine. As regards treating the first year of university as a "trial year" for students in the healthcare areas, the then Secretary/Bursar of UCD, J. P. McHale, in an article written in Studies in autumn 1964, stated that "the continuance of acceptance of Leaving Certificate and Matric for purposes of entry, and the treatment of first year as a trial year, although theoretically not necessarily the best available system of entry, in practice is the best system available."

A points system was first introduced as a selection system by the Medical Faculty in UCD in 1968 and was gradually extended to other faculties as demand began to exceed the number of places available. Demand grew for third-level places and with the introduction in the late 1960s of free second-level education and third-level grants for students below a certain income limit, the need for a coherent selection process for university entrance became apparent. In 1971, the Secretary/Bursar of UCD wrote : "As one year follows another, the number of faculties open to students leaving school with minimum university entry requirements becomes smaller and smaller."

In the early 1970s, three faculties in UCD - Arts, Commerce and Medicine, examined the problems of selection. Among the criteria which they took into account was the relationship between academic performance at the end of second-level education and performance in university, especially at the end of first year. All came to the conclusion (independently) that performance in school-leaving examinations was the best criterion of probable success in university and should be used for selection purposes.

It is of interest to note that in 1972 and 1973, University College Cork selected students for Medicine, Dentistry, Agricultural Science, Dairy Science and Science on the basis of a Common First Science course and examination. Before 1972, the selection of students for these courses had taken place on the basis of school leaving examination results (e.g. Leaving Certificate, Matriculation, and/or GCE 'A' level results). However, from 1974 onwards, the college reverted to the earlier practice of selecting for individual courses, including Medicine and Dentistry, on the basis of school leaving results.

At the end of the 1970s, Martin Newell wrote:

As competition for places increased, the practice of application to more than one institution became widespread. This practice brought attendant problems with it. The task of applying to several institutions was burdensome to the applicants themselves. Post-primary school counsellors were obliged to supervise the completion of increasing numbers of applications. At the time of allocation of places a given applicant might obtain places in several different colleges thereby depriving other applicants of places unnecessarily. Some applicants found themselves in the position of having to decide whether or not to accept a place in a given college before they knew whether a place would be available in another (and more desirable) college. It was apparent that much time and material was being wasted due to duplication of applications.

1.3 The Establishment of the Central Applications Office (CAO), 1976

The Central Applications Office (CAO) was founded in January 1976 and a common application system was put in place for universities for the first time in the academic year 1977/8. The CAO is a limited company set up by the third-level institutions as an administrative mechanism for dealing with applications and admissions. Initially, the CAO acted on behalf of the universities but in the early 1990s it expanded to include the colleges of education and regional technical colleges (now the institutes of technology). Within the past two or three years, a number of private third-level colleges have also used the services of the CAO. While the CAO administers a common applications system, all institutions retain full control over their own admissions policies.

1.4 Consideration of Different Selection Systems, 1970s

Leading up to and following the establishment of the CAO, a number of reviews were carried out in different universities to consider alternatives to the use of the Leaving Certificate as the sole mechanism for university selection. A review carried out by a committee of the Medical Faculty of UCD in the late 1970s concluded that a points system, based on attainment in the Leaving Certificate "is the fairest selection measure we have so far devised". The committee considered measures which might provide supplementary information for selection, measures such as personality and motivation tests, interviewing and the use of head-teachers' reports. It also investigated the selection procedures used in a number of other countries. The committee concluded that although tests of personality and motivation might be very informative when applied to groups, the value of individual scores was limited. It did not consider the assessment of personal qualities by routine interview to be sufficiently objective and was concerned that in addition to being unreliable, it would be expensive in time and manpower and would be open to the criticism of nepotism even if the interviews were well standardised.

Monica Nevin of UCD carried out a study of students in the Faculty of Science around the same period and found that the Leaving Certificate was a good predictor of subsequent academic performance. Her findings echoed those of other studies carried out both in Ireland and in the UK at the time. She considered the use of aptitude tests, personality and motivation tests, interviews and personal statements in addition to the Leaving Certificate but did not recommend that any of these should be used for selection to third-level courses. She concluded that "there is really no satisfactory alternative to the use of the school leaving examination as a selection measure for university". She warned against the practice which was developing, of students repeating the Leaving Certificate to accumulate sufficient points for entering their chosen faculty and stated that "students should not be allowed to repeat the examination until by cramming they obtain the appropriate number of points". She concluded: "I am emphatically of the view that students should be judged on results in a single examination".

Around the same period a study was carried out by M. A. Moran of UCC on a sample of First Year UCC students. He examined the students' performance on the Leaving Certificate and on some other measures and found that the Leaving Certificate was the best predictor of first year university results. Among the measures he considered were school principals' reports and personality tests. As regards the former, he reported that a small scale study carried out as part of an undergraduate project in UCC found that the predictive validity of the reports was poor. In relation to personality tests, he found that if anything, there was a negative correlation between personality tests and university performance. He concluded that performance in the Leaving Certificate was "the best of a bad lot of predictors of subsequent academic performance". While he favoured its retention in some form for matriculation purposes he did not favour it as a criterion for entry into individual faculties. He stated that he would prefer a common first year course across a range of areas, e.g. Engineering, Science and Medicine with specialised selection at the end of first year and felt that a similar procedure should be possible in the case of Law and Commerce.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the CAO system developed and grew, with an increasing number of courses being offered and more students applying every year. Different selection systems were used by different universities at first. For example, while UCD accepted the best six subjects as the basis for points, Trinity College accepted only five and UCG accepted seven. Similarly, different colleges gave different weightings to different subjects. Some colleges continued to interview their applicants within the CAO framework and some continued to request applicants to provide a portfolio of work. In 1991 the regional technical colleges entered the CAO system and the colleges of education followed suit in 1992. In 1992, a common points system was agreed by the higher education institutions. This development was influenced by the benefits for institutions in terms of administrative convenience and in some cases by a questioning of the academic justification of the previous selection practice. In addition, the introduction of a common points system meant improvements in clarity and transparency for higher education applicants.

Research undertaken at the request of the Commission shows that there is a clear relationship between Leaving Certificate attainment and performance in higher education. In general, students with high points tend to obtain higher grades on graduation. However, the relationship is not linear and various factors such as type of institution, field of study and gender have an impact on performance. The research findings are outlined in more detail in chapter 3.

1.5 The Current System of Selection for Third Level

The Commission takes the view that each institution, by setting out the basic entry and special subject requirements for a course is making a statement about the necessary requirements to take a course. In principle, the institution would, therefore, take any applicant who met those requirements, provided that there were enough places available.

The Commission has pointed out in the Consultative Process - Background Document that third-level institutions do not generally attempt to determine suitability for courses other than by setting minimum entry (or matriculation) requirements and (in some cases) special subject requirements. It should be noted that whereas a student's points are calculated on the basis of one (and only one) sitting of the Leaving Certificate, the one sitting rule does not apply to basic entry (or matriculation) requirements and special subject requirements. It is possible for applicants to obtain some of these requirements in a year other than the year in which the points requirements are met.

It is a matter of concern to the Commission that some students obtain their basic entry requirements and special subject requirements for a course in one sitting of the Leaving Certificate and the points needed for the course in another sitting. Sometimes, students attempt to optimise their chances of success by taking subjects in the second sitting in which they believe it is easier to achieve high grades and thereby get higher points. A mechanism to address this issue is proposed in section5.3.2 which deals with repetition of the Leaving Certificate examination.

1.5.1 Basic Entry Requirements

All third-level institutions set down basic entry requirements for the various courses which they offer. The basic entry requirements differ somewhat in different colleges. The constituent universities of the National University of Ireland require applicants to have passed six subjects (including English, Irish and a third language), and to have obtained at least grade C at Higher Level in two subjects. However, one grade E on a higher paper is accepted if the candidate has among his/her other subjects 3 grade Cs on higher papers or at least one grade B and one grade C on higher papers.

During the consultative process, it was argued by some that the three language requirement for all entrants to the constituent universities of the National University of Ireland (English, Irish and another language) should not apply across all courses. There are some exceptions to the general rule. A decision has recently been taken that the third language requirement will be waived for nursing courses in constituent universities and recognised Colleges of the NUI. Also, applicants to the National College of Art and Design may substitute Art for a third language. In addition, students who suffer from a specific learning disability may apply for exemption from the third language requirement and each case is considered on an individual basis.

Trinity College also requires six subjects, with grade C on three Higher Level papers and with a pass in Mathematics, English and another language. In the case of Dublin City University, six subjects are required, with grade C on two Higher Level papers and a pass in Mathematics and English or Irish. The University of Limerick requires a pass in Mathematics, English, and Irish or another language, for all courses and for degree courses six subjects are required, with grade C on two Higher Level papers.

In the case of the colleges of education for primary teachers, minimum entry requirements (since 1992) are three grade Cs on Higher Level papers (including Irish) and three grade D3s (including Mathematics and English). Grade C is required in English if that subject is taken at Ordinary level.

The National Council for Educational Awards sets basic entry requirements for its courses which predominate in institutes of technology. These requirements are generally grade C in two subjects at Higher Level and grade D in four other subjects (including Mathematics and Irish/English) for degree courses and five grade Ds in the Leaving Certificate (including Mathematics and Irish or English) for Certificate and Diploma courses. (These requirements are not absolutely consistent across the sector, e.g., for National Certificates and Diplomas in Dundalk Institute of Technology, five grade Ds in the Leaving Certificate, including Mathematics and English, are necessary). For a small number of courses in institutes of technology, e.g., accounting, professional bodies set more stringent entry requirements.

In view of the variation outlined above, the Commission recommends that as far as possible, institutions should endeavour to ensure that basic entry requirements across the third-level sector are similar.

1.5.2 Specific Subject Requirements and Special Course Requirements

In addition to the basic entry requirements listed above, some courses require specified grades in certain subjects. Examples of these are set out in the Consultative Process - Background Document. For example, French Language and Cultural studies in University College Cork, requires a C1 in the Higher French Leaving Certificate examination as does Trinity College for a similar course. For a similar Arts course in National University of Ireland, Maynooth, a C3 in Higher French or German is required. In the technological sector, differences in special subject requirements also exist for similar courses at National Certificate or Diploma level and examples of these are given in the Consultative Process - Background Document.

Courses such as Architecture in the Dublin Institute of Technology require applicants to show aptitude for this area of study. Applicants may be required to sit an aptitude / suitability test, which is then used to determine which applicants are called to interview. Applicants can receive up to 100 points for both the suitability test and the interview. Applicants who do not meet the required standard in the suitability test are not called for interview and are not considered further for the courses involved. Applicants for Music courses in some third-level institutions are required to sit a practical test and applicants for some Art courses are required to submit a portfolio of work and attend an interview.

Apart from a small number of courses such as those mentioned in the previous paragraph, a characteristic of the system of third-level selection in this country, unlike countries such as the United Kingdom or the USA, is that applicants are not required to demonstrate any particular interest in, knowledge or understanding of, or motivation for, the course or courses for which they apply.

Concern was expressed during the consultative process about an increasing tendency towards setting additional special subject requirements for some courses. A significant driver of this trend is the increasing complexity of knowledge. This problem is addressed in Science and the Humanities by an increasing proportion of students progressing to postgraduate study. However, where there is less scope for this approach in other areas, the options are to extend the duration of third-level courses or to assume a greater level of knowledge on the part of entrants and design courses accordingly. Extending courses has cost implications both for institutions and for students themselves.

The attention of the Commission was drawn in particular to the requirement (which will be in place from 1999 onwards) that applicants for Veterinary Medicine in University College Dublin have at least a grade C in Higher Level Chemistry. This requirement is being introduced to reduce the need to cover basic Chemistry at third level and thereby free up room on the curriculum for other areas. A similar requirement will come into effect from the year 2000 for Medicine in UCC and possibly for other medical courses. The issue was a matter of considerable concern at some of the public seminars and has more recently been the subject of discussion at the annual CAO conferences for guidance counsellors. The Commission is aware that over a quarter of second-level schools do not offer Chemistry as a Leaving Certificate subject and that students in these schools will be precluded from applying for courses in Medicine and Dentistry if the proposed requirements become widespread.

The general question arises as to whether a third-level institution should set a requirement in a subject such as Chemistry which is not offered in all schools. The view of the Commission is that this practice should be avoided. Where it is considered that a certain minimum grade needs to be reached in a specific subject area for successful involvement in a third-level course, there are a number of ways in which this can be addressed. One possibility would involve the third-level institution in restructuring its first year course to provide a foundation course in that subject area for students who had not studied it to Leaving Certificate level. Another possibility would be to accept candidates who have not taken the required subject to Leaving Certificate (provided they have obtained the required points), and to require them to take the subject at Leaving Certificate the following year. In that situation, they would be given a guarantee that their place on the course would be available to them the following year, subject to their reaching the required grade in the specified subject. Unless this issue is addressed, there is a danger that the subject requirements of the third-level system could distort the balance of the curriculum in second-level schools to an increasing extent in years to come.

The Commission recommends that special subject requirements for similar courses should not differ to any great extent. It suggests that the third-level institutions should discuss these issues with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and with the National Qualifications Authority. In particular, the Commission recommends that before any new entry requirements are introduced by third-level institutions, they should consult with the Department of Education and Science and/or the NCCA and the Higher Education Authority. In making this recommendation, the Commission recognises that the setting of entry requirements is a key part of the academic freedom of third-level institutions, but suggests that there needs to be a balance between the academic freedom of third-level institutions and their responsibility to ensure the integrity of the second-level curriculum. The Commission considers that it is undesirable that special requirements for individual courses should be set either on a departmental, faculty or institutional basis in isolation and without reference to the second-level system upon which such decisions will inevitably impact.

1.5.3 Current Points System

When the number of (school leaver) applicants for a course in a third-level institution in this country exceeds the number of places available on that course, the places are allocated on the basis of Leaving Certificate examination results of eligible applicants. The system operates by giving a points score to each grade allocated in the Leaving Certificate. The grades are determined in the Leaving Certificate depending on the percentage mark attained by a candidate.

The number of points is calculated for each subject and the applicant's six best subjects are added together to get the points total. Applicants are then ranked according to their points scores in any single sitting of the Leaving Certificate and the available course places are filled from this ranked list. The points level required for any specific course is determined by the number of applications for the course, the points received by the applicants and the number of places available on the course. Since this situation changes from year to year, it is impossible in any particular year to know in advance what points will be required for any particular course. Therefore, if there is a large number of applicants for a course and a small number of places, the points required for the course will be relatively high and if there is a large number of places on a course and a small number of applicants, the points will be lower.

The points value of each Leaving Certificate grade is as follows:

Table 1
Points Scheme - 1998/99
Leaving Cert Grade Higher Level Ordinary Level Bonus for Higher Maths*
* bonus points are awarded by UL and by DIT for certain courses.
A1 100 60 40
A2 90 50 35
B1 85 45 30
B2 80 40 25
B3 75 35 20
C1 70 30 15
C2 65 25 10
C3 60 20 5
D1 55 15 -
D2 50 10 -
D3 45 5 -

Third-level institutions do not award points for results in certain subjects of the Leaving Certificate, e.g., Foundation Level Mathematics or Foundation Level Irish. Home Economics (General) does not count for points in the constituent universities of the National University of Ireland.

From 1999 onwards, third-level institutions will award points for the Link Modules of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme, in lieu of a sixth Leaving Certificate subject. The universities will award 50 points for Distinction; 40 for Merit and 30 for Pass, as will the Dublin Institute of Technology. Institutes of technology have since 1996, awarded 70 points for Distinction, 50 for Merit and 30 for Pass.

1.6 The Implications of a Policy of Lifelong Learning for Third-Level Education

In the past, learning was regarded as a once-off occurrence, something that took place during childhood and teenage years. Once one finished formal education at the age of 15 or 18 or 21, one was regarded as having completed one's education. The emphasis has shifted in recent years to the concept of lifelong learning. In the preface to a recent Green Paper on Adult Education in this country, the Minister for Education and Science, Micheál Martin stated:

Lifelong learning marks a critical departure from the traditional understanding of the role of education in society. Providing learning opportunities over a life-span rather than only in the early years, widening recognition to embrace new forms of learning, recognising that learning takes place in a range of settings wider than schools and colleges, encouraging greater links with industry, and between the formal and informal sectors, and developing more flexible forms of provision are all key elements of the concept. Above all, it means ensuring that quality services are accessible and responsive to the needs of young and adult alike, and that education policy and practice is designed to meet the diverse range of needs this entails.

While the rhetoric in relation to education nowadays emphasises the concept of lifelong learning, the reality on the ground does not yet reflect this. The authors of a recent study of mature students in University College Dublin wrote:

The lack of participation of mature students in Irish higher education is not just a question of social inequality, it is a reflection of the way we look at and understand education. It is a reflection of how we operate as a learning society. There is a world-wide movement towards the development of lifelong learning. But looking at higher education in Ireland, one realises that we still have a lot to learn about developing such a society. Our approach to higher education reinforces the traditionally held belief that education and learning is something that occurs when you are young. But there is a sharp reality to this belief... If you do not go to college when you are young the chances of your doing so later in life are slim... For those who do consider it an option, trying to gain entry can be a long, hard, demanding and traumatic experience. Third-level education is not something which adults can step in and out of with ease. It may not be deliberate or intentional, nevertheless higher education institutions create sufficient barriers which not only prevent adults going to college, but which make most people not even consider it a possibility.

Twenty years ago, an educational commentator in this country made the point that "school leavers hold a virtual monopoly of third-level places". In spite of the more than fourfold increase in the overall number of third-level places since then, the situation for mature students has not changed very much. The most recent available figures suggest that only about 5% of those entering full-time undergraduate higher education courses in this country are mature students (i.e. over 23 years of age). In 1998, mature students accounted for 3.9% (1,364) of all CAO acceptances of certificate, diploma or degree places. Mature students also applied and entered some higher education institutions directly without applying through the CAO.

The number of places reserved for mature students in third-level institutions in this country is quite limited compared to other countries. As a result, many eligible mature applicants do not have access to third-level education. While there has been an increase in the number of mature students in third-level education in recent years, the Commission notes that participation rates in Ireland are still low by OECD standards. Figures published by the OECD in 1997 (Education Policy Analysis), show that on average, 19.3% of entrants to universities in all OECD countries were aged 26 or over. This compared to an Irish figure of 2%. In the case of non-university tertiary education programmes, the Irish figure was 1.1% compared to an OECD average of 36.8%.

The small number of mature students enrolled in Irish universities is not a result of lack of demand. A study of mature students in University College Dublin, referred to earlier in this chapter, points out that there is a "staggering" demand by mature students for entry to UCD. In 1997, 1,347 applications were received from adults who wished to enter full-time degree courses on the basis of mature years. However, only 81 applicants (6% of applications) were offered places. Almost 100 applicants sought places in Medicine and Veterinary Medicine even though entry to such courses on the basis of mature years is not allowed. While the situation is better in some other universities, many mature applicants are turned away.

In general, the rate of rejection of mature applicants who are deemed qualified and suitable is a good deal higher than the rate of rejection of school leavers who achieve the minimum requirements but who do not reach the necessary points level. The UCD study showed that nearly half the survey respondents had fulfilled basic entry requirements. The report recognises that UCD attempts to cater for mature students through the part-time B.A. Modular Degree programme but points out that there is no fee remission for this programme and that it is timetabled in the evening which does not suit some mature applicants.

Major changes in patterns of access to and participation in education, including third-level education, will be necessary in this country if the concept of lifelong learning is to become a reality. A greater level of flexibility of access to and progression within education will be required than is currently the case. This will require improved access for mature students and enhanced routes of progression for PLC graduates. In countries where there is a tradition of flexibility of access to third-level education, school leavers do not feel under pressure to enter a third-level institution immediately on leaving school as they are aware that they can avail of the opportunity to do so in later years. Thus, a more flexible approach to access and progression can reduce the pressure both on school leaving students and on third-level places.

In this regard, the Commission welcomes the passing of the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act, 1999, which aims to provide a system for coordinating and comparing education and training awards and for promoting and maintaining procedures for access, transfer and progression. The Commission notes that there was widespread support during the consultative process for these new developments.

The Commission agrees with the points made in the submission of the Higher Education Authority in this regard and welcomes the following statement from the Authority:

...the development of a national framework of qualifications will help make access to higher education possible throughout an individual's life. There is a need for third-level institutions to respond by providing suitable courses, both full-time and part-time, to facilitate this and to set aside an appropriate number of places on these courses and on existing courses. The Authority looks forward to working with the new structures proposed under the new legislation including the proposed National Qualifications Authority of Ireland. It will be the aim of the Authority to continue to make incentive funding available for progression into universities and the Authority will continue to encourage university involvement in such arrangements.

It is likely that there will be an even greater demand among mature students for access to further and higher education as a result of the new arrangements in the Act. While some of this demand may be met as a result of reduced demand from school leavers because of the changing demographic situation, it is likely that additional third-level places will have to be provided. The Commission believes that the State has a responsibility to provide third-level places for adults who did not have access to third level when they left school, as well as having responsibility for providing third-level places for school leavers. In this regard, the Commission notes the proposal of the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities that the following statement in the UNESCO Declaration on Higher Education for the Twenty First Century be adopted as the basis for government funding of provision for access to universities:

In keeping with Article 26.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, admission to higher education should be based on the merit, capacity, efforts, perseverance and devotion, showed (sic) by those seeking access to it and take place in a lifelong scheme at any time, with due recognition of previously acquired skills. As a consequence, no discrimination can be accepted in granting access to higher education on grounds of race, gender, language or religion, or economic, cultural or social distinctions, or physical disabilities.

In chapter 9, various issues related to access and participation by mature and part-time students in third-level education will be explored.

Chapter 2: Supply of and Demand for Third-Level Education - Implications for Selection

2.1 Numbers and Places in Third-Level Education

There are currently about 116,000 full-time students enrolled in third-level education in this country. The Report of the Steering Committee on the Future of Higher Education, which reported in 1995, projected that numbers in third-level education will increase to around 117,000 by 2002/03, although it now seems likely that that figure will be reached before that year.

The number of applicants applying through the Central Applications Office for a place in higher education each year has increased from about 55,000 in 1992 to 66,000 in 1998. The number who received an offer of a place has also increased - from 38,000 in 1992 to 52,000 in 1998. As will be seen later in this chapter, about 7,000 in 1998 were not eligible to receive an offer i.e. they did not achieve the minimum requirements for any of the courses for which they applied. A further 7,000 or so, while eligible, did not receive an offer of a place as they did not obtain the points required for any of the courses for which they had applied.

Many of those who contributed to the consultative process felt that the number of third-level places in this country is inadequate and that additional places should be provided - some went as far as suggesting that all eligible applicants should be enabled to access third-level education. Others identified specific areas or disciplines in which more places should be provided. Whereas in Ireland approximately 17% of the cohort of school leavers enrol in universities and a further 19% or so enrol in institutes of technology, a recent publication by the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities has pointed out that many other OECD countries "are experiencing or envisage the phenomena of mass participation from which universal participation may be projected. Whereas two decades ago "universal" was taken to mean 50% of the age cohort, now it may be 80% or more."

However, some submissions to the Commission pointed out that while current levels of educational disadvantage remain, priority in funding should be given to the compulsory period of education and the number of places available at third level should not be expanded unless there is a concerted attempt to increase the overall proportion of places taken by disadvantaged students.

In this regard, the Commission notes that there has been a major expansion of third-level education over the past 25 years and that it is likely that this expansion will continue, given Ministerial commitments in this regard. For example, on 27 July 1999, the Minister for Education and Science, Micheál Martin, T.D., pointed out that 10,000 extra places had been created in third-level education over the past two years.

The more detailed question of the number of places which should be available in higher education is not within the remit of this Commission. A Study Group, under the chairmanship of Dr. Donal de Buitléir, has reviewed the projected need for third-level places and its report will be published shortly. It is however self-evident that since the number of places available impacts in a major way on the relative supply-demand ratio in various subject areas, the issue of the number of places available cannot be ignored in this report.

Issues of supply of, and demand for third-level places are complex. It is unlikely that an overall increase in the number of places would reduce the demand for popular courses. There have always been courses where places are limited, both in Ireland and internationally, and this situation is likely to continue.

In determining the provision of third-level places in this country, policy-makers must also take account of the increasing internationalisation of third-level education and the openness of third-level institutions to applications from within the European Union and from other countries. These issues are discussed further in section 5.4.1 which deals with applications for places in third-level institutions from applicants outside the State and from applicants with qualifications from outside the State.

2.2 Trend in the Number of Applicants for Third-Level Places during the 1990s

The CAO publishes detailed statistics every year on the applications for and acceptances of third-level places. Table 2 below summarises, for the period 1992 to 1998, the number of applicants, the number who received an offer of a place, those who accepted offers and related information:

TABLE 2
CAO Statistics 1992 - 1998
1992 1993 1994 1995 1996* 1997 1998
Applications to CAO 54,877 57,465 60,548 62,913 59,778 63,677 66,012
Applications with Leaving Certificate Grades attained in the previous year 12,514 11,481 12,468 12,627 13,465 10,639 12,138
Received an Offer 38,165 41,640 44,424 48,267 47,491 48,841 51,928
Accepted Degree Offer 14,488 14,506 14,900 15,923 16,667 17,021 18,872
Accepted Dip/Cert offer 12,274 13,061 13,559 16,268 17,644 15,655 16,189
Offered a Place but did not accept any 11,403 14,073 15,965 16,076 13,180 16,165 16,867
While eligible, did not receive an offer 10,760 10,016 10,074 7,559 5,992 8,245 7,177
Ineligible/unassessed 5,952 5,809 6,050 7,087 6,295 6,591 6,907
*The figures in relation to 1996 reflect the introduction of the transition year option two years previously and that demand from school leavers for third-level places in 1996 was reduced because of smaller numbers leaving school that year.

Table 2 shows that the number of applications for third-level education places through the central applications system has increased steadily during the 1990s from about 55,000 in 1992 to over 66,000 in 1998.

The table shows that the number:

It should be noted that there is a difference between the number who accept a place in higher education and the number who subsequently register. This is particularly the case with certificate/diploma courses where the discrepancy can be in the region of 15%, i.e. there can be 15% fewer registrations than acceptances.

It should also be noted that there is an increasing number of courses, nearly 60 in 1998, which accept all qualified applicants, the majority of these being at certificate level or in private fee-paying colleges.

2.3 Applicants who are offered Places but do not accept them

One of the more surprising figures in the above table, is the relatively high number of applicants who are offered a third-level place but who do not accept it. In 1998, almost 17,000 applicants fell into this category. The Commission welcomes the survey recently carried out by Professor Patrick Clancy for the Higher Education Authority in which he set out to elucidate the process whereby in a climate of apparent scarcity, a large number of students do not accept the offer of a place in third-level education. In the context of the work of the Commission on the Points System, it is of interest to note that of those who did not accept an offer of a third-level place, 23% decided to repeat the Leaving Certificate; 19% took up employment; 15% accepted a place on a PLC course; 12% accepted a place in a third-level college in Northern Ireland or the UK; and 4% accepted a place on a nursing training course.

It is also of interest to note the factors which influenced the respondents' decision not to accept the CAO offer. Almost a third of those not accepting were unhappy with the place or places that were offered; 25% had changed their minds about career plans; and 10% were concerned about the financial costs of going to college. Less than 6% felt they had not been adequately informed about choices when applying to the CAO.

2.4 High Points Courses

As already mentioned, there are about 60 courses on the CAO list, mostly certificate courses and courses in private colleges, where all qualified applicants are accepted. At the other end of the scale, there is a relatively small number of courses, mostly professional courses, where the demand for places far exceeds the number of places available. As a result, the points level for many of these courses can be very high. Much of the pressure surrounding the points system arises in the context of the small number of courses where demand considerably exceeds supply. In other cases, high points requirements may be generated by extremely limited numbers of places. The Commission is aware of certain third-level courses where as few as 10 places are provided, leading to artificially high entry points.

The Commission accepts that in the case of some professional courses, especially those where the unit cost to the State is very high, there is a need to ensure that there are not too many students taking courses relative to the employment opportunities available. However, at the same time, output from publicly funded third-level courses should not be less than the need for graduates from such courses.

Courses where places are currently capped by the HEA include Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Physiotherapy and Teacher Education (i.e., Bachelor of Education courses in colleges of education and H. Dip. in Education courses). In the case of some courses, e.g., teacher education courses, requirements are regularly reviewed. In other cases, limits appear to have been set by a review carried out a number of years ago and some of these reviews do not appear to be revisited on a regular basis.

For example, the current limit of 305 medical places was introduced in the early 1980s. A committee of the Higher Education Authority set up in 1977 took into consideration the following factors:

In its report in 1979, it recommended that an upper limit of 300 be placed on Irish admissions to medical schools (including entrants from Northern Ireland). The recommended allocation between the medical schools was UCD - 105; UCC - 55; UCG - 55; TCD - 60; RCSI - 25. This recommendation was accepted by the Authority, and the Ministers for Education and of Health and Social Welfare were so advised. The Minister for Education decided that the maximum number for UCC should be increased to 60, and the overall total of 305 has been the upper limit ever since.

Since the introduction of the cap on numbers, EU regulations have been introduced which require that places on all courses be equally accessible to all EU citizens. Table 3 shows that a significant proportion of places is offered to applicants who are applying with a school leaving qualification other than the (Irish) Leaving Certificate. On this basis alone, it would appear to be desirable to review the number of undergraduate medical places in this country. Increased mobility within the EU limits the effectiveness of the manpower planning strategy in another way since unsuccessful applicants may opt to study abroad and return to seek employment in Ireland. Similarly, graduates from other EU countries may compete for positions on equal terms with Irish graduates.

The Commission is aware that a review of the supply of and demand for Pharmacy graduates is currently being carried out. It is also aware that the Government has set up an initiative to promote dialogue between Government, business and the education institutions, in relation to the education and training needs of the economy, to develop and facilitate the forecasting of skills requirements and to provide mechanisms for the speedy implementation of decisions.

While the Commission recognises that manpower planning is an inexact science and that it can be very difficult to project, with any degree of accuracy, the long term or even the medium term needs of a specific profession, it nevertheless considers that there should be a regular review of places on courses with capped numbers. The findings of such reviews should be in the public domain and the basis on which decisions are taken should be open and transparent. In undertaking such reviews, it will be important to ensure that no single interest group should have an overriding voice in fixing intake quotas.

Table 3 attempts to give some picture of the relative demand for places on different courses based on the preferences of CAO applicants in 1997. This table illustrates the "pressure points" in third-level admission based on a study of CAO application data. It should be seen merely as a tentative effort to "guesstimate" demand for different courses. It does not nor cannot pretend to project how relative demand can and will change from time to time depending on a range of both predictable and unpredictable factors.

TABLE 3
Estimated Relative Demand by Leaving Certificate Applicants for Degree Places Based on Round One Offers in 1997
SUBJECT Actual Round One Acceptances 1997 Round One Acceptance Rate (%) Number of eligible Applicants Projected Places required if Places were to be made available for all interested eligible Applicants Ratio of projected Places to actual Places
Arts/Social Science 4,400 72 8,549 6,155 1.4
Science/Applied Science 2,830 69 4,210 2,905 1.0
Agric./Horticulture 185 78 372 290 1.6
Education 851 83 3,326 2,761 3.2
Admin./Business 3,240 70 7,577 5,304 1.6
Engineering/Technology 2,233 62 4,610 2,858 1.3
Architecture 88 91 404 368 4.2
Art & Design 19 68 76 52 2.7
Law 570 87 1,467 1,276 2.2
Human Medicine 252 97 1,155 1,120 4.4
Veterinary Medicine 49 89 493 439 9.0
Dentistry 47 80 117 94 2.0
Pharmacy 65 92 349 227 3.5
Physiotherapy 39 85 461 392 10.1
Other Healthcare 79 71 407 289 3.7
ALL 14,947 33,573 24,530 1.6

As can be seen from table 3, there are many more places available in Arts/Social Science, Science, Business and Engineering courses than in professionally-oriented courses in healthcare, Law, Education and Architecture. The relative supply-demand situation is much greater in the latter courses than in the former. For example, in Physiotherapy the demand is ten times greater than the number of available places and in Veterinary Medicine it is nine times greater. In the case of Human Medicine, the relative demand/ supply situation is 4.4 : 1. In Arts and Science on the other hand, the number of eligible applicants more or less matches the number of available places.

It is apparent then that a relatively small professional sector generates considerable demand, the number of potential entrants exceeding places by a factor of between 3 and 10. In the business and technology sectors, excess demand can to some extent be satisfied by entry through the Certificate and Diploma route. This is not the case with healthcare courses, where currently the only route of entry in this country is directly on to a degree course and where all but an insignificant number of places are allocated on the basis of school-leaving results. Furthermore, a third-level qualification in Law or Accountancy does not of itself guarantee entry to the legal or accounting professions and additional examinations are required. In contrast, no examination subsequent to the attainment of a relevant healthcare degree is required for entry to the healthcare professions. In view of these factors, the Commission is of the opinion that particular consideration should be given to the question of access to healthcare courses.

2.5 Healthcare Courses

The courses for which greatest competition occurs and in which the cut-off points are consistently high are healthcare courses. This situation is not unique to Ireland. As mentioned above, there are 305 places annually for school leavers in human medicine degree courses in Ireland. Table 3 above shows that on the basis of the 1997 demand, if all eligible applicants who applied for such courses were to be accommodated, at least 1,200 places would be needed. Healthcare courses generate much of the admission pressure though they account for only about 2% of all third-level admissions. Very high points scores are necessary to gain admission to them and high special course requirements are also specified for many of them. It is also of note that 22% of those with more than 500 points had Medicine as their first option in 1997.

Analysis of Intake into Healthcare in 1998 The Commission has undertaken an analysis of the intake into the healthcare area in 1998. Table 4 below outlines the patterns of acceptances of places in the healthcare courses in the different colleges. The table shows the number of places accepted by students on the basis of:

TABLE 4
Analysis Of Principal Healthcare Admissions 1998
Course Code Candidates admitted based on Leaving Certificate Results Candidates admitted on other basis Total
First Sitting Other Sitting(s) Of which (mature students) Mature Years GCE Other
A B C D E F G
CK701 MED 46 11 (1) 1 2 2 62
CK702 DENT 19 12 (1) 31
DN002 MED 64 47 (1) 3 2 116
DN005 VET 27 28 12 67
DN006 PHYS 25 9 2 36
GY501 MED 26 21 (1) 10 57
RC001 MED 13 10 (1) 3 2 28
RC002 MED 2 1 3
RC003 MED 5 2 7
TR051 MED 24 11 1 27 63
TR052 DENT 10 5 13 5 33
TR053 PHYS 27 2 3 2 34
TR072 PHAR 58 8 1 5 72
ALL 346 167 (5) 6 79* 11 609
*Of the 79 successful GCE A-Level candidates 53 (67%) took Northern Ireland A-Levels.

It can be seen from the table that less than two per cent of all those accepted into healthcare courses in 1998 (11 out of 609) were mature students and of these, five were accepted on the basis of their Leaving Certificate results. The table also shows that repeat students (167) account for almost a third of candidates admitted on the basis of Leaving Certificate results (513). Table 5 gives a breakdown of the above figures in percentage terms.

TABLE 5
Analysis of Admissions to Principal Healthcare Courses in 1998 (%)
% of Admissions % of admissions
Course with one LC sitting with more than one LC sitting presenting GCE A-Levels % Others Admitted
CK701 MED 74 18 3 5
CK702 DENT 61 39 0 0
DN002 MED 55 41 3 2
DN005 VET 40 42 18 0
DN006 PHYS 69 25 6 0
GY501 MED 46 37 18 0
RC001 MED 46 36 11 7
RC002 MED 67 33 0 0
RC003 MED 71 29 0 0
TR051 MED 38 17 43 1
TR052 DENT 30 15 39 15
TR053 PHYS 79 6 6 9
TR072 PHAR 81 11 7 1
All Healthcare Courses 57 27 13 3
All Non Healthcare Courses 79 16 1 4
(Applicant Body) (81) (13) (3) (3)

It will be noted from table 5 that 13% of places on these courses were accepted by GCE A-Level applicants, 27% by repeat Leaving Certificate applicants and 57% by first time Leaving Certificate applicants. In the case of some courses, a minority of places were accepted by first time Leaving Certificate applicants, e.g. only 38% of successful applicants for TR051 (Medicine in Trinity College) and 30% of successful applicants for TR052 (Dentistry in TCD) were first time Leaving Certificate candidates. These figures raise a number of key issues in relation to the allocation of places on healthcare courses.

2.6 Diversity of Practices in Healthcare Training

The Medical Council is the body which oversees the medical profession in this country. Over the past couple of years, the Council has reviewed every medical school in the State - UCD, UCC, NUI Galway, TCD and the RCSI - and has made recommendations for change. The Council has proposed that a new integrated six-year programme which would incorporate the intern year, should become the standard undergraduate course. Some universities have already moved in this direction and are phasing out or have phased out their preliminary or first year. Other universities are more reluctant to move in this direction. Universities which have phased out the preliminary year require students to have attained at least a grade C in Chemistry at Higher Level in the Leaving Certificate. While some people welcome the recommended reduction in the number of years of undergraduate medical training, others are concerned that dropping first year, which focused largely on the Science aspect of the course, could discriminate against pupils in smaller schools who have less access to Science subjects at Leaving Certificate. This issue was addressed in the context of special subject requirements (section 1.5.2).

However, it should be mentioned that the Medical Council is not opposed to different medical schools offering courses of different length provided the right targets are met with the right methods. The Council's president, Professor Gerard Bury, has been quoted as saying that in this regard, it is happy to encourage diversity.

2.7 Selection for Healthcare Training - Some International Examples

In considering the issue of healthcare courses, the Commission looked at developments internationally. In some countries, healthcare courses are undertaken after a primary degree has been obtained, e.g., the United States of America. In others where this is not the case, various practices are used to select students.

2.7.1 The Netherlands

The Netherlands is an interesting example in this regard. In that country, less than 10% of the age cohort attend pre-university academic secondary schools. Admission to third-level education is open to all who attain a VWO certificate (a national certificate awarded to those completing academic secondary education). For most courses, all eligible applicants are accepted. Where there are more applications than there are places, e.g., Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine, places are allocated on the basis of a weighted lottery

The system of entry to the courses with limited numbers was reviewed within the past two years by a national committee chaired by Professor P.G.D. Drenth. A new system of selection has recently been agreed by Parliament and is currently being put in place. The Commission on the Points System invited Professor Drenth to attend a meeting of the Commission in January 1999 to discuss recent developments in the system of entry in the Netherlands. Following the meeting, Professor Drenth was invited to write a paper on the matter and this paper was published by the Commission in July 1999. From the coming academic year onwards, changes will be made in the weighted lottery system of selection for medical courses in the Netherlands. Under the proposed new system, the highest achievers will be guaranteed a place on such a course. Those who are less high achievers but are eligible will be allocated a place on the basis of a weighted lottery. Applicants will not be allowed to re-sit their VWO exam nor will they be allowed to apply more than twice. 30% of places will be allocated at the discretion of the institution. Applicants offering an examination other than the VWO will be considered within this 30% quota, as also will mature students and special case students such as refugees and immigrants.

2.7.2 Germany

In Germany, approximately 40% of students enter the gymnasium at the age of 10. These students take the Abitur examinations at the end of their second-level studies. This examination is set at a national level and marked by teachers in schools. Those who have passed this examination have a right of admission to third-level education and the limit of places on certain courses serves only to delay entry. The Higher Education Admissions Service monitors the process of admission to third-level education. Where there are limited places, these are allocated on the following basis:

There is a compulsory psychological aptitude test for those intending to study Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Science which is designed to identify applicants who can successfully complete the course of study. Places in these cases are allocated on the following basis:

2.7.3 The Accelerated Graduate Entry Programme (AGEP), proposed by the University of London

While medical training in the UK is generally similar to Ireland, with most medical places in universities being competed for by school leavers, a novel approach is being proposed by the University of London. It proposes to introduce a four year "fast-track" medical graduate programme from the year 2000 which will be open to all graduate entrants. The course is designed to respond to the need to train more doctors in the UK by widening access to people from other walks of life than the traditional 'A' level school leavers with Science qualifications. AGEP students will have the same amount of practical clinical teaching and experience as their colleagues on the five-year programmes, but their course will be structured around Problem Based Learning. The final examinations will be taken in Year 4 and will be the same as the finals for the students on the five year course.

Entry to the AGEP will require knowledge and understanding of the sciences underpinning the study of Medicine, as well as more general skills of problem-solving, critical thinking and writing. Admission will be in three stages:

  1. A good degree or equivalent evidence of the ability to study successfully in higher education.
  2. A professionally-designed and marked written entrance test based upon that designed for Australian graduate-entry medical schools (GAMSAT). This tests basic knowledge, reasoning skills, and communication across a range of disciplines.
  3. Those performing well in GAMSAT will be invited to a selection day to include a series of structured interviews to select applicants.

Subject to approval, the course will start in October 2000, with an intake of 35 students.

2.8 Proposal for delaying Entry to Medical Training in Ireland by requiring Applicants for Healthcare Courses to complete a Preliminary Third-Level Course in Life Sciences

A submission was received by the Commission in 1998 from Dr. Martin Newell, Secretary of the CAO, (available on the Commission's Website) in which he proposed that medical training courses in this country should be at post-graduate level. This proposal has been further refined and developed by him and is published in full in Appendix C.

Dr. Newell proposes that there should be no direct entry in this country by school leavers to the prestige healthcare professional courses but that aspirants should take a preliminary course in Life Sciences and then apply for a place in the particular healthcare discipline that they seek. He proposes that those seeking admission to the healthcare professions (Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, Physiotherapy and Radiography courses), would first embark on a course in the Life Sciences (or Healthcare Sciences) and would be eligible for the award of a Certificate after two years study. There would be opportunities to proceed to a Diploma after three years or a Degree after four years involving more advanced or more specialised study. He suggests that at least the Certificate level should be provided in most universities and institutes of technology so that access at this preliminary level would be widely available.

Those wishing to proceed to professional healthcare training would be required to have (a) completed at least two years of a Life Sciences course in an approved institution in the Republic of Ireland and (b) to have undergone a supervised clinical placement of at least three months duration. They would then take a National Healthcare Admission Test on the subject-matter of the Life Sciences course for which points would be awarded to provide a basis for selection. The test would be administered by a National Healthcare Training Institute which might represent the healthcare professions, the third-level institutions and other appropriate bodies.

In the case of those wishing to enter Medicine, he proposes that the initial Life Sciences course would be followed by four years of intensive training in clinical sciences and clinical practice - not related to the traditional academic term structure. Similar courses would be provided for the other healthcare areas which would include appropriate clinical and practical elements.

Those taking the Life Sciences course but not subsequently gaining admission to the traditional healthcare professions could proceed to courses which might lead to positions in medical genetics and microbiology, medical manufacturing, marketing and management. Another possible field of study might be biomedical engineering.

Members of the Commission were interested in Dr. Newell's proposal but felt that the extent to which the proposal would reduce pressure on Leaving Certificate students would depend on the number of places available on the initial Life Sciences course. Table 6 attempts to analyse what the points levels would be for entry to a Life Sciences course if the current number of places on healthcare courses were to be increased (from 600) by 20%, 50% and 100% based on the applications in 1998.

TABLE 6
Analysis of likely Points required for proposed Life Sciences Course if the current Number of Healthcare Places were to be increased by 20%; 50%; and 100% (Based on 1998 demand)
1998 % Increase in Number of Places
COURSE Points +20% +50% +100%
CK701 MED 545 540 540 510
CK702 DENT 525 515 515 490
DN002 MED 540 535 525 505
DN005 VET 545 540 525 505
DN006 PHYS 525 520 510 490
GY501 MED 540 540 530 510
RC001 MED 535 530 520 500
RC002 MED 530 520 505 490
RC003 MED 580 580 580 575
TR051 MED 560 550 540 540
TR052 DENT 535 525 515 495
TR053 PHYS 530 525 515 500
TR072 PHAR 550 540 530 515

While it is difficult to predict with any accuracy what the outcome of implementing this proposal would be, it is clear that if there were only a small number of Life Sciences places available, the pressure for entry would not be reduced to any significant extent. For example, the total number of healthcare degree places currently available is in the region of 600 (this includes Medicine, Veterinary, Pharmacy, Dentistry and Physiotherapy). If the number of places for the proposed new Life Sciences course was to be 1,200, the points level for entry would probably be about 500 points - assuming that the demand was not significantly greater than it was in 1998. This can only be a tentative estimate as there are many factors which are unpredictable if this change were to be adopted.

It is not clear what the optimum number of entrants on to the new Life Sciences course would be. The number would need to be low enough to ensure that a satisfactory proportion of applicants would secure their desired professional course choice and high enough to ensure that more people were given the opportunity of taking the initial course. Stringent measures would have to be taken to ensure the integrity of the new National Healthcare Admission Test. Given the high-stakes outcome of a national healthcare test at the end of a two year course, there could be a danger that such a test might encourage the development of private and expensive "grind-type" preparation courses for the test.

2.9 Submission of the Higher Education Authority in regard to Healthcare Courses

In its submission to the Commission, the Higher Education Authority commented on Dr. Newell's proposal. The Authority considers that there would be very significant benefits for second-level education and for students if some or all of the courses which drive the competitiveness of the Points System were not open to entry by school leavers but instead required applicants to have already spent some time at third level and to have achieved an appropriate level of accreditation. If this were done, the Authority believes that the intensity of the competition for a relatively small number of places would no longer influence teaching and learning at second level and would allow for a more holistic approach to education. It suggests that there would also be the further potential benefit of a student being able to delay his or her decision about entering these professions until a later stage, thus providing an opportunity to gain experience of learning about work in these and other areas.

However, the Authority recognises that there may be difficulties with and resistance to this proposal. The costs would be perceived to be higher, and students who failed to gain entry to a medical degree course following the preliminary Life Sciences course might feel they had wasted their time. It would be essential that other options would have to be open to such students and this matter will have to be investigated further.

2.10 Recommendation

The Commission recognises the many challenges and difficulties which would arise if healthcare professional training was not immediately available to school leavers, i.e. if it were to be deferred until applicants had completed an appropriate Life Sciences course at third level, but it also accepts that there would be many advantages accruing from such a development. As well as the benefits for applicants in terms of reduced stress at second level, the change could lead to an increased interest in Science, with consequent benefits for the economy. Furthermore, it would effectively eliminate the difficulties concerning comparison of Leaving Certificate applicants' results with qualifications obtained outside the State (discussed later in section 5.4.1).

The Commission acknowledges that the proposal would have cost implications and agrees with the Higher Education Authority that all the implications of a change of this nature would have to be fully examined and that there needs to be full consultation with all those involved before any decision is taken. The time constraints faced by the Commission preclude it from undertaking the necessary consultation, but it believes that the proposal should be pursued further. The Commission therefore recommends that the key bodies and institutions involved in policy-making on healthcare training, e.g. the Medical Council, the universities, the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Health and Children, should set up a committee to explore the issue further.

Chapter 3: Characteristics of a Third-level Selection System

3.1 Desirable Characteristics

As long as demand for third-level places exceeds the number of places available, there will continue to be a need for a system to allocate these places. As shown in the previous chapter, the number of third-level places has increased in recent years, with more places available than ever before, especially for applicants with minimum entry requirements. Nevertheless, there is a high demand for a relatively small number of courses and it is likely that there will continue to be competition for such courses for the foreseeable future. Therefore, there will continue to be a need for some selection mechanism for many third-level courses.

In reviewing the existing selection system, the Commission is required by its terms of reference (Appendix A) to have regard to the necessity of ensuring a transparent, impartial and efficient system. The terms of reference also specify that a number of areas must be taken into account. These concern the personal development of students, the post-primary sector, the selection of third-level courses, access to third-level of disadvantaged and non-standard students and international experience of entry systems.

Submissions received during the consultative process highlighted various characteristics which were seen as desirable in a selection system. These are outlined in detail in the Consultative Process - Background Document, and are summarised briefly below.

The submissions indicated a strong level of support for and acceptance of the existing selection system. Transparency, impartiality and efficiency (factors identified as necessary by the terms of reference) were highlighted as significant strengths of the system and were seen as the foundations of its credibility. Submissions noted that the existing approach had been accepted by the public and cautioned against radical change. Although there were some misgivings concerning the existing system, the lack of an alternative mechanism which could command credibility was cited in support of retention of the current approach. Alternatives, it was argued, had been criticised as potentially biased, unreliable, inefficient or unfair.

The importance of an objective and impartial means of selection was emphasised in a number of submissions. An anonymous selection mechanism using objective criteria is protected against accusations of possible bias or discrimination based on factors such as nationality, colour or religion. One of the strengths cited in support of the existing system is that all students are treated equally using the same criteria. However, it was also argued that the existing system reinforces and accentuates inequality by contributing to an academic bias in second-level education. Submissions noted that disadvantaged students are, for various reasons, less able to cope with the demands of the existing system and that low participation rates among this group are perpetuated by the use of a selection mechanism which, in treating all students in precisely the same way, fails to take account of their less favourable circumstances.

Many submissions referred to the importance of predictive validity of a selection system. They argued that the effectiveness of a selection mechanism may be gauged by the extent to which it selects students whose academic performance would be superior to non-selected students. In this regard, one submission highlighted the importance of career performance as opposed to academic performance as a criterion. The issue of predictive validity and the findings of a study undertaken at the request of the Commission are considered further in the next section. At a more general level, the point has been made that admission of students to any course should be based on an informed judgement of their ability to benefit from the course. A course should provide a positive learning experience for the student and there should be a reasonable probability of the student successfully completing the course.

The effects of the present system on students' personal development (specifically identified by the terms of reference), education, career and life choices were highlighted in numerous submissions. An effective system would function purely as a selection mechanism and would have minimal impact on students and on the integrity of the education system. These issues are examined in more detail in chapter 4.

In the context of lifelong learning, considerable attention was paid by submissions to participation of those outside the school-leaver cohort. In particular, the development of mechanisms to support the participation in higher education of mature, part-time and disadvantaged students, and of students with disabilities, was supported as part of a fair and equitable selection system. These issues were identified in the terms of reference and are discussed in chapters 9, 10 and 11. It was also argued that in seeking to broaden participation, there should be no diminution in academic standards.

Some of the characteristics outlined above were highlighted by the Higher Education Authority's submission (received after the publication of the Consultative Process - Background Document). The Authority suggests that a system for entry to third-level education should have regard to the following key principles:

The Authority concludes that the Points system in this country meets many of the tests derived from these principles although it does identify some shortcomings and areas for potential improvement. These include the impact of the system on applicants who are educationally disadvantaged in some way, and the effect of the "points race" on teaching and learning in second-level schools. It also states that "the position regarding the award of points to school-leavers who have taken examinations other than the Leaving Certificate and the arrangements for considering applications from mature students also seem to us to be unsatisfactory." These issues are dealt with in some detail in later chapters of this report.

The views of those most affected by the Points System - students - on the strengths and weaknesses of the existing system are particularly interesting. At the request of the Commission, a survey of Leaving Certificate students in schools offering the Transition Year was undertaken. Responses were obtained from 3,244 students in 64 schools and the results of the survey are analysed and outlined in Research Paper No. 2. The report found that most students considered that the existing system is easy to understand, but that a significant minority had some difficulties in this regard. When asked to rate - on a ten point scale, with 10 indicating "very satisfied" - their level of satisfaction with the system, 69% of respondents gave a rating between 1 and 5. A majority of respondents (64%) disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that the system rewards all students equally while a similar proportion (69%) strongly agreed that it places students under stress. The report notes that "a significant majority of students favour changing the system so that a broad range of educational experiences is taken into account in the selection for places in third level education."

3.2 Predictive Validity of the Points System

Some commentators have suggested that predictive validity is the most important feature of selection procedures, on the basis that if not all applicants can be admitted, it makes sense to accept those who are most likely to succeed in the courses for which they are applying. The issue of predictive validity was an important one when the points system was initially put in place. It was generally felt that a system of selection for entry to third level should be a reasonably good predictor of a student's subsequent performance. A number of analyses were carried out in the 1960s and 1970s of students' third-level results and it was shown at that time that the Leaving Certificate was a reasonably good predictor of subsequent student performance. Shortly after this Commission commenced its deliberations, it decided to engage a research team to undertake a study of the current predictive validity of the Leaving Certificate. The results of this study are published in Research Paper No. 4. The study sums up national and international research on factors influencing performance in higher education as follows:

It is clear…entry qualifications are a reasonable, but far from perfect predictor of degree/diploma performance in higher education. Factors such as field of study, institution/sector, gender and socioeconomic background all have varying degrees of impact on this relationship. The findings highlight the need for further research on the complex interface between students' attributes, capacities and commitments, and their performance in higher education. They also suggest that there is a need to investigate the impact of institutional practices on performance, including the overall culture of the organisation, the nature of staff-student interactions and the operation of systems of assessment. Differences across subject areas and departments are especially in need of investigation.

The study shows that there is a strong correlation between an individual's performance at the Leaving Certificate and higher education performance generally, i.e. the predictive validity of the Leaving Certificate continues to be high. However, the correlation is not a perfect one. Some high achievers in third-level education did not have high Leaving Certificate points, in relative terms, when they entered third-level education. On the other hand, some of those who entered with high points were not subsequently high achievers in third-level education. The study found very little difference in the mean attainment in the Leaving Certificate of those obtaining first class honours/distinction and those obtaining higher second class honours/merit.

The study shows that several factors - higher education sector, field of study and gender - mediate the relationship between Leaving Certificate and higher education performance. Analysis reveals that although the relationship holds for both the university and technological sectors, there are some differences. For example, the differences in Leaving Certificate performance between first class honours and higher second class honours/distinction, are greater in the university sector. These differences suggest that the Leaving Certificate may not be as good a predictor of performance in the technological sector as it is in the university sector.

Field of study has a strong impact on higher education performance. Whereas 62% of the sample studying Humanities obtained at least a second class honours/merit result, the equivalent proportion for the other faculties combined was just 28%. Even where the Leaving Certificate performance is identical between groups, differences by field of study emerge. For example, among students with relatively low Leaving Certificate points, the study shows a much higher failure rate in the Sciences than in Humanities.

Gender also appears to be linked with higher education performance. The study notes that while there is no significant difference by gender in terms of completion, males achieve proportionally more high final grades than females. For example, 39% of males obtained at least a higher second class honour/merit compared to 29% of females. The gender differential appears to be stronger in the university sector and varies by field of study.

Social class may also have an impact on higher education performance. However, the report notes that "the small size of the working class population in higher education, and consequently in the sample, makes it difficult to assess precisely the impact of social class on their performance".

Some of the findings of the research study must be interpreted with caution due to small numbers in certain categories. It should also be acknowledged that the variables identified - higher education sector, field of study and gender - will be inter-related to some extent. However, it appears clear that although Leaving Certificate attainment is a reasonable predictor of subsequent performance at third level, it does not provide a perfect correlation. This is particularly the case since other factors, as outlined above, will have a bearing on the results obtained. The findings of the Research Paper generally corroborate earlier national and international research.

A recent study of completion rates in three institutes of technology found that students with low points ratings in the Leaving Certificate, particularly in Mathematics, were most at risk of non-completion. Those who did not complete the first year of their course tended to be drawn disproportionately from students who had a particularly low Leaving Certificate points score at entry, in the range 100 to 195 points. The issue of completion and non-completion, including the findings of Research Report No. 4 on this aspect, is dealt with in more detail in chapter 7.

Chapter 4: The Choice of a Selection Mechanism for Third Level - The Impact of the Points System on Second-Level Students

4.1 Junior Cycle

Second-level education consists of a three-year junior cycle followed by a two- or three-year senior cycle. The Junior Certificate examination (which is a national public examination) is taken after three years. The Junior Certificate Programme was introduced in 1989 to provide a single unified programme for students aged between twelve and fifteen years. Its primary objective is to enable students to complete a broad, balanced and coherent course of study in a variety of curricular areas. The programme seeks to extend and deepen the quality of students' educational experience in terms of knowledge, understanding, skills and competencies and to prepare them for further study in senior cycle.

The Junior Certificate Schools Programme is designed to reach out more effectively to students whose particular needs are not addressed adequately in the present, broadly-based Junior Certificate. It emphasises the essential skills of numeracy and literacy as well as personal and social needs. All students work towards Junior Certificate Foundation Level in English and Mathematics as a minimum, and study a relevant course in Irish language and culture. Students are also encouraged and facilitated to take other Junior Certificate syllabi to examination stage.

The junior cycle is at present being reviewed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment at the request of the Minister for Education and Science. A lengthy consultative process has been undertaken by the Council and it is expected to make its recommendations for the development of the junior cycle to the Minister in the near future. The Department of Education and Science has recently published a discussion paper- The Junior Certificate: Issues for Discussion - as a further contribution to the consultation process. The terms of reference of the Commission include consideration of the impact of the points system on second-level education, particularly the senior cycle. It is important in looking at the senior cycle that the Commission has full regard to ensuring that its recommendations build upon developments in junior cycle.

The issue of whether performance in the Junior Cycle might be included in any way in a mechanism for allocating third-level places is discussed in chapter 5.

4.2 Senior Cycle

The 1995 White Paper on Education points out that "The aims of the senior cycle are to encourage and facilitate students to continue in full-time education during the post-compulsory period by providing a stimulating range of programmes suited to their abilities, aptitudes and interests. The objectives are to develop each student's potential to the full, and equip them for work or further education." It goes on to state that "the Leaving Certificate will continue to provide certification of achievement and will be a basis for progression to employment and further education."

Students may spend up to three years in senior cycle. They may follow a two-year Leaving Certificate programme immediately after Junior Certificate, or they may opt to follow a Transition Year programme before a two-year Leaving Certificate. A student may follow the (established) Leaving Certificate course or the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme or the Leaving Certificate Applied.

The Transition Year Programme has as its overall mission the promotion of the holistic development of students and their preparation for their role as citizens. Its aims are:

Teachers of Transition Year have greater flexibility and professional opportunities to design curricula, modules and short courses which are more tailored to the specific needs of their students than any other year of post-primary education. Parents, the community and local enterprise are all encouraged to support students during Transition Year and so contribute to an education which addresses the demands and pleasures of life, work, sport and leisure. There is growing anecdotal evidence that students who have taken the Transition Year Programme are more self-reliant learners when they enter third-level education than their peers.

The majority of senior cycle students choose the established Leaving Certificate, choosing from a total of 31 subjects. Subjects are examined at Ordinary and Higher Levels. In addition, Foundation level is available in two subjects - Gaeilge and Mathematics. There are written terminal examinations for all subjects. In addition, there are oral and aural examinations for Gaeilge and modern languages; practical and project tests in Music, Art, Engineering and Construction Studies; and a number of subjects - including Geography and History - allow for the option of allocating some marks to project or field work.

The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme is a two-year programme which comprises groupings of the subjects of the established Leaving Certificate Programme with some additional modules. The programme was first introduced in 1989. In 1994, it was expanded to broaden the choice of subjects and to strengthen the vocational content of the programme by including three link modules on Enterprise Education, Preparation for Work and Work Experience. The activities involved in the Link Modules include the organisation and running of mini-enterprises, visits to businesses and industry and investigations of the local community. The Link Modules are assessed by the National Council for Vocational Awards at present. The assessment comprises two elements: Written Examination (40% of marks) and Portfolio of Coursework (60% of marks). Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme students receive the same certificate as established Leaving Certificate students. In addition their Certificate includes a statement of the results of the Link Modules (Pass, Merit, Distinction) The development of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme has been the result of all those involved in second-level education working together to broaden the curriculum and the assessment techniques. The NCCA is currently considering expanding the range of subject specialisms included within the programme. The issue of the recognition of the Link Modules of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme is addressed in chapter 5.

The Leaving Certificate Applied has been developed in a similar fashion and is intended to meet the needs of those students who are not adequately catered for by, or who choose not to opt for other Leaving Certificate Programmes. The Leaving Certificate Applied is a self-contained two year programme replacing and expanding on the Senior Certificate and Vocational Preparation and Training Programme which were first offered in the 1980s. It is a person-centred programme involving a cross-curricular approach rather than a subject-based structure. It has as its primary objective the preparation of participants for adult and working life through relevant learning experiences which develop the following areas of human endeavour:- spiritual, intellectual, social, emotional, aesthetic and physical. Student achievement and performance are assessed in a number of ways. Students are required to complete 40 modules, each of 40 hours duration. In order to be awarded credit, each student must complete each module by attending the classes and out of school activities related to the module and by completing key assignments related to the module. This accounts at present for 40% of the total marks. Assessment of student tasks accounts for a further 27% of the total marks. Students complete seven tasks in the course of the two years. The tasks are assessed by external examiners appointed by the Department of Education and Science. These tasks may be in a variety of formats including written, audio, video and artefact. Each student is also required to produce a report on the process of completing the task. This report may be incorporated in the evidence of task performance.

In addition to the task assessments and ongoing accreditation for the completion of modules, students sit external examinations accounting for the remaining 33% of the total marks at the end of Year 2 in the following areas:

Since its introduction to schools in 1995, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has had the programme under review. The purpose of the review has been to iron out any difficulties experienced by schools in implementing the new programme in its first years. A report on the review has been completed by the NCCA and has been submitted to the Department of Education and Science. The main focus of the report is on proposed changes to the structure of the programme which will address some of the difficulties experienced by schools since 1995.

The review found that the worth of the existing LCA structure and its constituent components did not require a re-evaluation. It did recommend however, several significant changes and adjustments to the programme structure, the student tasks and the satisfactory completion of modules. The recommendations include reducing the overall weighting of credits for module completion from 40% to 31%, scope for schools to provide discretionary modules, greater specification and definition of tasks, rescheduling to reduce logistical difficulties experienced by schools and increasing the overall weighting for tasks to 35%.

It is important to note that while the Leaving Certificate Applied can lead to further education courses (e.g. PLC courses) and through this route to higher education, there is no direct access to higher education from the Leaving Certificate Applied.

4.3 The Leaving Certificate as a Selection Mechanism for Third Level

As indicated in earlier chapters, when the number of applicants for a course in a third-level institution in this country exceeds the number of places available on that course, the places are allocated to school leavers on the basis of Leaving Certificate examination results. While concerns were expressed in many of the submissions about the limitations of the Leaving Certificate as it currently stands, it is clear that there is strong support for the continued use of a certificate of student achievement at the end of second-level education as the determinant of entry to third-level education for school leavers. It is also clear from studies in other countries that overall performance in secondary school is the single best predictor of success in higher education.

Many submissions to the Commission pointed out that the Leaving Certificate fulfils the function of certifying student achievement as well as selecting students for places in higher education. Some suggested that these two functions are not always compatible. Others pointed out that the selection function has tended to dominate over the function relating to certification of achievement. The importance of ensuring that a balance be maintained between the two functions was emphasised in the consultative process. It was argued that the demands of third-level entry should not dominate the curriculum at second level nor unduly influence the lives of second-level students. The Commission strongly supports the integrity and independence of the second-level system and agrees that second-level education should provide a broad and balanced curriculum which should enable young people to benefit from a wide range of educational experiences.

4.4 Impact of Present System on Students and on the Senior Cycle

In the course of the debate during the consultative process a number of damaging effects were attributed to the points system. Issues raised included negative impact on students' personal development; choice of subjects by students to attain the highest levels of points for entry to third-level education; a narrowing of the curriculum arising from the tendency to teach to the examination rather than to the aims of the curriculum; and an undue focus on the attainment of examination results. Attention was also drawn to the problems which arise due to the variation in grading between subjects in the Leaving Certificate.

Many submissions noted that the existing system places students under high levels of stress. Different components of the system were highlighted by various submissions including the high demand and consequently high entry points required for many courses, the once-off nature of the examination and the tendency of some in the media to focus on the small number of courses which involve very high points requirements. An ESRI study found much higher levels of stress among Junior and Leaving Certificate examination students than among young adults or older people. Stress levels were particularly high among girls and among Leaving Certificate students and the report noted that achievement pressures at school constituted the principal cause.

However, a number of submissions claimed that stress is part of everyday life with which students should learn to cope. The ESRI study notes that the "raised stress levels do not appear to persist into young adult life where successful transitions to the labour market and early adulthood substantially reduce stress levels." The authors highlight the 'points race' and associated media publicity and take the view that "It is perhaps an appropriate time for a debate on the social and personal costs of a system geared towards high grades, and for a re-evaluation of the most appropriate way to meet pupils' needs and aspirations."

The pressure on students was also seen by some submissions as responsible for the neglect of non-academic activities. An analysis of the views of 3,244 students in Research Report Number 2 found that a very high proportion of students reported that they spent less time on a range of activities. The study took the view that this had positive and negative effects. "It is a healthy trend…that the points system encourages students to spend more time studying and less time watching television or engaging in part-time work. However, the reduction in time spent on leisure and on other activities that contribute to a balanced life is of concern."

One of the principal criticisms of the points system is that students preparing for and taking the Leaving Certificate often focus to such an extent on the demands of the examination that many of their other activities are ignored. This criticism was made in particular by students themselves (Research Report No. 2). These comments are in line with international research which shows that "experience with external examinations would seem to indicate that all too many students focus their efforts on mastering strategies to help them over the examination hurdle rather than on developing mastery of subject matter and honing lasting competencies."

The Commission notes that many submissions argued that the Leaving Certificate should recognise a broader range of achievements than is currently the situation. It supports the view that the Leaving Certificate should certify a student's participation in a holistic senior cycle programme and that, ideally the it should recognise students' varying educational experiences and achievements, including achievements in areas which are currently perceived as extra-curricular, such as sports, drama, debating, musicals, environmental projects and structured work experience programmes.

The Commission agrees that the Leaving Certificate should begin to recognise a wider range of skills, intelligences and achievements than is currently the case. These would include skills that "are variously described as involving observation, problem identification, problem solving, reasoning, the application of what is learned in school, and taking initiative in and responsibility for learning". It should also recognise the ability to work co-operatively, a sense of social solidarity and a variety of other aspects of social and personal development, which the NCCA refers to as "the qualities of the student as a human being".

The Commission notes and welcomes the suggestions made by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment "that proposals for addressing these issues should contribute to the development of assessment processes for students which are educational by nature, whose operation has a positive impact on teaching and learning experiences in schools, and whose combined effect is to gradually move the Leaving Certificate examination from a high stakes environment to one where the stakes are reduced and a better balance is achieved between the certification of student achievement on the one hand and the need to select and allocate students to places in higher education on the other."

Many submissions adverted to the lack of congruence between the aims and goals of the second-level curriculum and the modes and techniques of assessment used for the established Leaving Certificate. It was suggested that the Leaving Certificate be expanded to include a wider range of modes and techniques of assessment. Suggestions included sitting different elements of a subject at different times during the two-year senior cycle; and a greater use of coursework, projects, orals, practicals, fieldwork and portfolio assessment. The point was made that Ireland is unique in the extent to which the Leaving Certificate relies on a single final examination. It was also pointed out that, for many subjects, the Leaving Certificate is based on a single sitting of an examination assessed at a single point of time using a single test instrument. Submissions argued that it cannot take account of performance over a period of time or under-performance in the examination, if a student has an "off day".

An approach used in some EU countries, e.g. the Netherlands and Germany, in the final second-level examination is to incorporate continuous assessment by the class teacher into the final grade award. However, in Ireland, there has been resistance to teachers assessing their own pupils for certification purposes. The Commission notes that many teachers and members of the public indicated a preference for external assessment in any future developments. Many teachers are concerned that submitting marks for their own students could undermine the credibility, status and integrity of the certificate obtained and could damage the relationships with their students. The possibility of pressure from parents and openness to accusations of bias were also cited as disadvantages.

On the other hand, several submissions argued that at least some of the new forms of assessment to be incorporated would have to be school-based. Some of those submissions favoured school-based assessment not just for logistic reasons, but because it was felt that a student's own teacher was the best placed person to make the relevant assessments.

Possible ways forward in assessment were proposed, many building upon recent developments in the Transition Year, the Leaving Certificate Applied and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme. The Commission also notes that a range of existing proposals has already been made by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment which would involve expanding the range of assessment techniques and which have arisen from revision of various syllabi. These proposals have not been implemented to date.

However, the Commission is aware of the difficulties involved in implementing these proposals. There are already major logistical issues involved in meeting the existing demands of external assessment. At present, over 1,300 teachers take part in Leaving Certificate orals for a number of weeks each year. If further moves along this model of external assessment are to be followed, they could result in major disruption to the school year. The Department of Education and Science has advised that there is no prospect of extending the range and frequency of assessment if this requires further external examiners and involves withdrawal of teachers from schools thereby causing further disruption to the school year. It is clear that radical and creative solutions are needed.

4.5 Other Possible Selection Mechanisms

The Commission considered a number of selection mechanisms other than the Leaving Certificate for third-level entry. These included

4.5.1 Standardised Psychometric Tests

During the consultative process, the issue of using standardised psychometric tests as a selection mechanism for third-level education was frequently raised. Many contributors to the debate spoke in favour of standardised tests although others expressed reservations about their value in this country, given that Ireland has a national public examination system at the end of second-level education. Some international practice in regard to the use of standardised tests was outlined in the Consultative Process - Background Document. It was noted that standardised tests are commonly used in countries which do not have a public examinations system at the end of second-level education, such as the USA, but not in countries with a public examinations system, such as the UK, Netherlands and France.

For the purposes of this discussion, a test is defined as 'a standardised measure of aptitude, knowledge, ability, personality or performance with fixed rules for administration and scoring'.

There are advantages and disadvantages to using tests. The advantages include the following:

The following are some of the disadvantages:

Tests can be broadly divided into (a) ability/aptitude tests and (b) personality assessment instruments. As regards the former, a distinction is made between General Ability Tests which are often regarded as providing a good indication of a person's potential to succeed in a wide range of different activities and as being unaffected by the person's previous learning and experience, and Measures of Attainment or Mastery which specifically assess what people have learned and the skills they have acquired. Personality assessment instruments are measures of personality, beliefs, values and motivations.

Ability / Aptitude Tests
There are numerous standardised tests and assessment instruments available throughout the English speaking world. Perhaps the most commonly used test for third-level selection at undergraduate level is the SAT. This is a multiple-choice test of knowledge and reasoning, comprising both verbal and mathematical sections. It was originally referred to as the Scholastic Aptitude Test but was renamed in 1993 as the Scholastic Assessment Test. Since 1995, it has been referred to simply as the SAT and the College Board in the USA now describes it as a test of "developed math and verbal reasoning skills".

There has been a lot of debate in the USA about the use of SATs for third-level selection. Over ten years ago, it was reported that the USA was the only OECD country which reported the successful and regular use of the SAT. At that time, it was pointed out that the use of SATs in the USA was determined by the style of educational governance rather than the virtues of the SAT itself. Since every school district in the USA determines its own curriculum and assessment approaches, it would be virtually impossible to design a curriculum-specific selection examination - hence the continuing use of SATs. There are two major drawbacks to the use of SATs. The first drawback is that the SAT is subject to coaching. The second drawback is its relatively low predictive validity. Over a decade ago, there was evidence from studies in the USA, Japan and Australia that university performance was more closely predicted by academic achievement than by aptitude tests.

In the Irish context in the 1980s, a study was undertaken on behalf of Dublin City University (then the N.I.H.E., Dublin) on the reliability of the SAT as a predictor of first year university examination performance. The study (published in 1988) found that the Leaving Certificate Examination (LCE) was a better predictor of success in first year than the SAT and that the combination of the LCE and the SAT hardly improved on the predictive validity of the LCE. The report concluded that "the Leaving Certificate examination was found to be a more powerful predictor (than the SAT). The SAT could also be an effective predictor, but only if the effects of selection were controlled. When the SAT and LCE are combined, the SAT contributes negligibly to improving the level of prediction obtained using only the LCE."

More recently, concern has been expressed about the extent to which students in the USA are being coached for the SAT. Throughout the USA, a virtual industry has developed to provide SAT coaching for those who can afford it. Some coaching centres allege that they can increase the scores of students by between 100 and 300 points (out of a maximum of 1,600 points) as a result of coaching. One test-preparation company maintains that the mean gain for students from the first time they took an official SAT to the last, in 1997 and 1998, was 266 points. Others guarantee a gain of at least 100 points. There is growing concern that coaching for the SAT is widening the educational gap between rich and poor, and between the white and the black population. In a recent book "The Black-White Test Score Gap", C. Jencks, professor of social policy at Harvard and Meredith Phillips, a professor of policy studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, argue that lower test scores by blacks are the single biggest barrier to racial equality in the USA. Ironically, some states have sought to level the playing pitch by providing SAT coaching for underprivileged students. In California, legislation was adopted in summer 1998 providing public financing of SAT coaching for economically disadvantaged students. This bill allocated $10 million for SAT preparation courses to be distributed through local school systems.

Apart from the issues of predictive validity and coaching, there has been a fundamental questioning in academic circles of the notion of ability /aptitude testing. A recent survey of the literature in this regard concludes that it is misleading to suggest that it is possible to measure learning potential or aptitude and concludes that as "abilities are forms of developing expertise", performance on ability/aptitude tests can and will vary for an individual from time to time. From the point of view of the debate on third-level entry, this has important implications.

The use of aptitude tests and interviews as selection methods for third-level entry was not supported by the Higher Education Authority in its submission to the Points Commission. It found that such methods lacked the ability to evaluate a person's 'suitability' for a particular course and would encourage students to focus on the skills measured in the test to the detriment of their holistic development. Aptitude tests and interviews also failed to satisfy the principles of transparency, impartiality and simplicity required of any selection method. Having considered the available evidence, the Commission sees no advantage in introducing ability / aptitude tests for third-level selection for school leavers in this country. While the Commission accepts that students require a certain level of knowledge, understanding, skills and competencies to benefit from third-level education, it considers that generally speaking, this level should be assessed through the Leaving Certificate examination, appropriately extended and developed if necessary. In general, third-level education should provide an opportunity for students to build on their present level of knowledge, understanding, skills and competencies. There may continue to be specific skills that may need to be tested for specific courses (e.g. visual /spatial skills for architectural courses) but in general, it would be preferable if skills tests could be incorporated into appropriate subjects of the Leaving Certificate.

While the Commission is ruling out ability / aptitude tests for the purposes of third-level selection, it is not in any way questioning their value as part of the guidance services available to students to assist them in choosing appropriate course and/or career options. This is quite a different process to a high-stakes third-level selection process and the comments in the previous paragraphs are not intended to apply to guidance situations.

Personality Tests
The use of personality tests is not advised in post-primary settings as few suitable tests have been developed for this age group and no national norms are available. According to Bartram, reliability and validity estimates for such tests are inferior to similar estimates for aptitude and general ability tests. It has been found that the relationship between test scores and behaviour is often tenuous given the influence of situation or circumstances on behaviour. In the study mentioned in chapter 1 above, Professor M.A. Moran found that if anything, there was a negative correlation between personality tests and university performance.

One of the major concerns about the use of self-report personality instruments in selection is that they are open to intentional distortion. Many studies have shown that you can get people to 'distort' their personality in various ways by instructing them to role-play different types of people.

Much of the analysis of personality tests has been in the area of occupational selection. In his study of the selection of medical students in the Netherlands, Professor P.J.D. Drenth evaluated the use of personality tests as predictors of success in medical studies and found that they 'generally do not predict achievements in university courses well, except for a few extreme cases'. In general, he found that the best predictor of success was grades in final secondary school exams, especially nationwide exams.

While there may be some value in using personality tests in an occupational setting, there would appear to be no justification for using them for selection for educational courses, particularly at a relatively early stage of a young person's life. The Commission therefore does not recommend the use of personality tests for third-level selection.

4.5.2 School References

Many selection systems throughout the world, including the UCAS system in the United Kingdom, require applicants to include a reference from their school with their third-level application. This practice also existed in Ireland for colleges of education entry in the 1960s and 1970s and was used for a short period by some universities within the CAO system in the late 1970s. In a limited study in 1979 M. Moran found that the predictive validity of schools principals' reports on applicants was poor.

The practice of school references was commented on both favourably and unfavourably during the debate. Those in favour felt that it gave teachers who had been closely involved with students during their years at school, an opportunity to draw attention to achievements and interests that had not been recognised by the Leaving Certificate. Others feared that the practice could work to the disadvantage of some students, particularly in cases where some schools did not find it possible to provide an extensive reference for whatever reason. The lack of consistency in such references was also adverted to as was the lack of transparency from a student's point of view. The Commission does not support the introduction of school references for third-level selection.

4.5.3 Personal Statements

Some third-level systems require applicants to include a personal statement with their application indicating why they have chosen a particular course or courses. While a statement of this kind can have a certain value in encouraging the applicant to find out what the course or courses of choice entail, there can be no guarantee that the personal statement is genuine. In this regard, the attention of the Commission was brought to a USA-based website which contains hundreds of examples of personal statements submitted by successful applicants to Ivy League colleges in the USA. These examples are obviously drawn on by new applicants to such colleges every year. While a personal statement can have a value in conjunction with an interview, where there would be an opportunity to tease out and explore the genuineness of the applicants' intentions, their value on a stand alone basis is doubtful. The Commission does not therefore recommend the introduction of personal statements for third-level selection.

4.5.4 Interviews

Interviews used for third-level selection in Ireland; 1960s to 1980s.
During the consultative process, the question of using interviews for third-level selection, in particular for courses leading to professions such as teaching and medicine, was raised. The Commission was reminded that interviews were used (together with Leaving Certificate results, an oral Irish test and a music test) until the early 1990s for selection for B.Ed. courses for primary teachers in this country. While there is no widescale information available about the predictive validity of these interviews, a recent longitudinal study of over 180 student teachers admitted to a college of education in the early 1980s, suggests that the interview was a reasonably good predictor of subsequent teaching practice performance for that particular group of students. On the other hand, it should be pointed out that the failure rate at interview over a period of over two decades was negligible, with less than 3% of applicants for the B.Ed. course being deemed unsuitable for teaching.

Interviews formed part of the selection process of some regional technical colleges in the 1980s. However, these interviews led to complaints from applicants who sometimes had to travel long distances to attend a series of interviews for similar courses in different colleges. They were also very demanding in terms of staff time and were discontinued in the early 1990s.

Interviews used for third-level selection in some other countries.
The Commission is aware that interviews continue to be used in some other countries for third-level selection. To date, universities in the UK have commonly interviewed applicants although it is understood that this practice is currently under review. All applicants for teacher education courses in the UK are required to satisfy an interview board before being accepted for the course. Some universities in other countries such as Israel interview applicants for medical courses and have invested considerable resources in developing structures and training to optimise the validity of these interviews. On the other hand, countries such as the Netherlands decided not to include interviews as part of their third-level selection procedures for medical courses on the basis that the predictive validity of interviews in general is so low.

Predictive Validity of Interviews. It is well documented in the literature that unstructured interviews are generally poor predictors of subsequent job performance. Structured or situational interviews can be more successful, especially if carried out by trained interviewers. Where a number of parallel interview boards are used to interview large numbers of candidates (as would be necessary if interviews were used in third-level selection), it can be very difficult to ensure that a consistent approach is taken by each board and that the grades or marks awarded by the different boards are uniform.

In an article on Admission to Higher Education, Michael Beller of the National Institute for Testing and Evaluation in Jerusalem, states that "there are those who believe that interviews are a good method of candidate assessment and suggest incorporating them into the selection process". He goes on to argue:

No doubt, an interview may reveal things that are not apparent in the matriculation certificate or in the psychometric test scores. But, however surprising it may seem, the validity of interviews in predicting academic success is in many cases close to zero and, under optimal conditions (for example, when all candidates are interviewed by the same interviewers, an implausible condition when there are tens of thousands of candidates), is at best 0.2. Moreover, the interview procedure, because of its inherently subjective nature, may cause bias in selection, depending on the specific make-up of admission committees and the values and positions of their members.

Public Reaction in Ireland to Interviews.
Apart from these considerations, it was represented to the Commission during the consultative process, that interviews would be an invidious addition to the third-level selection process in a small country such as Ireland. Concern was expressed that influence might be brought to bear directly or indirectly on members of selection boards in relation to some candidates. It was also pointed out that there is an increasing practice of interview preparation among young people and that there are companies and individuals around the country who specialise in preparing for interview those who can afford to pay for such preparation. It was argued that it can be difficult for interviewers to distinguish between the applicant who is genuinely interested in a course or career, and who may well have expressed that interest by preparing in a thorough manner, and the well prepared and polished applicant who would probably interview well for a variety of different and unrelated courses. Concern was also expressed regarding the difficulty in ensuring consistency in selection when more than one interview panel is involved in selection for a given course.

Resources (time, travel and cost) involved in interviews.
The issue of the costs involved in interviewing, both for the institutions and for the applicants, was also considered. The costs in staff time and the costs to students in terms of travel, subsistence and time can be considerable and would be difficult to justify, especially in view of the reservations expressed about the validity and reliability of interviews. Another argument against the use of interviews as a method of selection is the organizational effort involved in interviewing 65,000 students (multiple interviews for each student may even be required) in the interval between completion of the Leaving Certificate examination in June and the commencement of the third-level academic year in September/October. It is questionable whether any major benefit to students or institutions would flow from such an investment.

Having considered all the issues involved, the Commission does not recommend that interviews be used as a method of selection for third-level courses.

4.5.5 Random Selection

A system of random selection (or lottery) was suggested in a small number of submissions. The principal argument made in favour of random selection was that the minimum entry requirements of any third-level institution are the requirements that are necessary to enter a course and that anyone who meets these requirements should have equal access to a place. It was argued that random selection through a lottery system from among those who have satisfied the entry requirements would be the fairest way to allocate places.

In considering this suggestion, the Commission examined in some detail the selection system which was used in the Netherlands until recently to select applicants for medical courses, where there is a limited number of places available and where demand exceeds supply. In that country a weighted lottery system was used to select candidates. All those who satisfied the entry requirements were entered in a lottery. Those with the highest points had the highest probability of being successful in the lottery; those with the lowest points had the lowest probability. The Commission considers that there is some merit in this approach and felt that it has a relevance for course selection in this country. In particular, the Commission sees merit in the concept that everyone who has passed the basic entry requirements for third-level education should have a chance of a place for their chosen course.

However, there was very little support for any type of random selection or lottery among those who contributed to the consultative process. The Commission noted that there was stronger opposition to random selection among the general public than to almost any other suggested selection system. Not only was the public opposed to random selection in a general sense - objections were also raised to the present limited system of random selection whereby places are allocated on a random basis when a number of applicants share the same cut-off point and there are not enough places for all of them.

While recognising that a weighted system of random selection from all qualified applicants has some merit, the Commission accepts that this would not be acceptable to the majority of applicants in this country.

4.5.6 Conclusion

The results of the vast majority of longitudinal studies indicate that overall performance at second level is the best single predictor of success in higher education. This issue will be discussed in some detail in the next chapter as also will the effect of the points system on second-level education.

The Commission feels that all of the alternatives to using the Leaving Certificate examination as the basis for third-level selection are either:

  1. equally or even more problematic in terms of equity considerations, distortion of teaching and learning etc., or
  2. incapable of securing widespread public support.

Therefore the Commission considers that the Leaving Certificate examination must continue to be the principal mechanism by which third-level places are allocated. However, there is a need to broaden significantly what the examination measures.

4.6 Development of Senior Cycle Curriculum and Assessment

The Commission notes that the Education Act, 1998, provides for the setting up on a statutory basis of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. The object of the Council shall be to advise the Minister on matters relating to:

The Council will, inter alia, be "representative of bodies and persons involved in the education system at early childhood and primary and post-primary levels, in particular national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations and recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers".

Under present arrangements, members of the Council are appointed for a three-year term. Its composition reflects the partnership approach to policy formulation and curriculum development. There are 22 members drawn from the various partners at each level of education as well as the employers and trade unions organisations. The Council's work is carried out by a number of specialist committees comprising teachers, inspectors, representatives of subject associations and higher education interests as well as representatives of the organisations identified above. These committees draw up the syllabus or course for each subject and area of the school curriculum.

The current Council has been involved in an ongoing review of curriculum and assessment at junior and senior cycle and it intends to engage in such a review on an ongoing basis. The Commission takes the view that the NCCA is the appropriate body to advise the Minister on the detail of how the Leaving Certificate might be developed to recognise a broader range of student achievements and to incorporate a wider range of modes and techniques of assessment congruent with the aims and objectives of the curriculum.

The Commission considers that in looking at the development of the senior cycle the NCCA should have particular regard to the beneficial impact of the new programmes that have been developed - the Transition Year, the Leaving Certificate Applied and the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme. Among the key successes of the new curricular and assessment developments of these programmes has been the development of appropriate techniques to measure the learning process itself. The Commission considers that much of what has been sought in the consultative process by way of a broad senior cycle experience can be made available to students through the incorporation of some of the innovative curricular approaches and modes and techniques of assessment of these programmes. However, it is important to recognise the need for radical and creative ways of dealing with extending the range and frequency of innovative modes and techniques of assessment. The effort to be radical and creative in this area will involve reconciling the genuine differences of opinion that exist about internal (school-based) and external assessment.

The Commission is of the opinion that while a broad senior cycle education should be provided, and students' attainment in that senior cycle assessed and certificated, in some instances the certification might be of the nature of a record of participation and involvement rather than a grading of achievement. Some elements of the certification might not count for points purposes, but would be a pre-requisite for entry to third-level education.

The Commission recommends that the certificate on completion of senior cycle second-level education, appropriately revised and developed by the Department of Education and Science, on the advice of the NCCA, in consultation with the partners in education, continue to be used as the criterion for third-level entry for school leavers generally.

The above recommendations regarding changes in senior cycle assessment would, in the Commission's view, help to mitigate many of the damaging effects of the points system. Further progress towards eliminating these effects will require other measures to ensure that there are multiple pathways to higher education including pathways for members of groups currently underrepresented. Such pathways will be discussed in chapters 9, 10 and 11. Changes will also be needed in the area of guidance and counselling (chapter 8). There are some procedural changes in the operation of the Points system which need to be considered and this is done in chapters 5 through 7. Finally, the recommendation already made in chapter 2 concerning entry to healthcare courses could have a positive impact.

Chapter 5: The Points System - Some Issues Raised

During the consultative process, a wide range of specific amendments to the operation of the points system was proposed. The issues raised may be grouped under a number of broad headings as follows:

Bonus Points

The System of Grading

External and Repeat Candidates

Other Issues

5.1 Bonus Points

5.1.1 Should Bonus Points be given for Subjects which are specifically relevant to the Third-Level Course chosen?

Some submissions argued that extra points should be awarded for subjects which are relevant to the third-level course chosen, a view that was shared by 85% of the Leaving Certificate students in the Transition Year study (Research Paper No. 2). While such an approach could have certain merits, the Commission is concerned at its possible distorting effect on second-level curriculum and subject choice. In particular, it is likely that it would:

Furthermore, the Commission considers that, as far as possible, in determining entry to third-level, institutions should not treat one element of the Leaving Certificate programme as more important than other elements. On balance therefore, the Commission recommends that bonus points should not be given for specific subjects.

In this regard, the Commission notes that the University of Limerick awards bonus points for Higher Level Mathematics. The Dublin Institute of Technology does so for certain courses. In line with the above recommendation, the Commission recommends that this practice should be discontinued.

5.1.2 Should Bonus Points be given for an Applicant's Top Choices?

It has been claimed that completion rates in higher education are better among students who gained access to a course which was high on their list of options than among those who were offered a place on a course which was low down on their list of options. Research carried out on non-completion in three institutes of technology shows that students dropping out early were more likely to claim that the course they entered was not one of their first two choices; over two fifths said that it was the only choice open to them given their points rating.

The possibility of giving bonus points for a student's top choices was suggested in the debate. Those who made this suggestion argued that it would help applicants to obtain their first choice and that as a result they would be likely to be more motivated and interested in their third-level studies. However, it was also pointed out that if there were bonus points for a first choice, this could distort the existing system as candidates might be tempted to try to second guess the outcome of changing the order of their choices. One of the strengths of the existing system is its simplicity and clarity and these features should be maintained as far as possible. The Commission considers that students' CAO preferences should play no part in the assignment of points and does not support the allocation of bonus points for top choices.

5.1.3 Should Applicants be rewarded for Consistency of Course Choice?

It was suggested in the debate that applicants should be rewarded for consistency of course choices when points are awarded. The Commission recognises that individual applicants might have perfectly valid reasons for selecting quite different courses in their list of choices and does not accept that such applicants should be penalized. Research carried out for the Commission by David Tuohy showed that when a large number of courses is available within a field of study, applicants were generally consistent in their choice of courses (i.e. a high proportion tended to express preferences for courses within the same field of study). The Commission does not favour a system which would attempt to reward consistency of choice.

5.2 The System of Grading

5.2.1 Format of Results: Broad Bands, Narrow Bands or Percentages?

Before 1969, Leaving Certificate papers were marked on an individual mark basis and results were issued in the form of percentages. From 1969, it was decided to issue results in the form of grades as follows:

TABLE 7
Percentage range corresponding to each grade in the Leaving Certificate Examination - 1969 to 1991 inclusive
Grade Percentage
A 85-100
B 70-84
C 55-69
D 40-54
E 25-39
F 10-24
NG < 10

Since 1992, the following grades have been awarded for performance in the Leaving Certificate examination:

TABLE 8
Percentage Range corresponding to each Grade in Leaving Certificate Examination
Grade Percentage
A1 90-100
A2 85-89
B1 80-84
B2 75-79
B3 70-74
C1 65-69
C2 60-64
C3 55-59
D1 50-54
D2 45-49
D3 40-44
E 25-39
F 10-24
No Grade 0-9

It should be pointed out that the examination scripts have always been and continue to be marked on an individual mark basis. These marks are subsequently translated into grades.

Part of the rationale for introducing the more detailed system in 1992 was to reduce the number of places in third-level education which were being decided on the basis of random selection.

The issue of whether and how marks should be translated into grades was raised during the consultative process. The public has become more focused on this issue since the introduction in September, 1998 of a system allowing candidates to access their marked scripts and to see the marks they were awarded for the different elements of the examination papers. This has led to some suggestions that exam results should be made available in the form of the percentage scores awarded to candidates, as was the case prior to the seventies. On the other hand, a small number of commentators favour a return to the broader grade system that existed before 1992.

The Commission would question whether any marking system can be so precise a mechanism as to warrant the issuing of examination results in single percentage point terms. In addition, it is likely that a return to single percentage marks would lead to an increase in the number of requests for remarking of scripts. Such an increase was recorded when the grading system was revised to 5 percentage point bands in 1992.

The Commission also considered a return to a system of broader grades, with a grade differential of 10 or 15 percentage points. A strong argument can be made in favour of a system of broader grades on the basis that the relative reliability levels would be higher with a differential of 10 or 15 points than 5 percentage points. However, at the same time the Commission recognises that the 5 percentage point range has a general public acceptability and that a move away from this would increase the likelihood of random selection.

The Commission has considered all of the above issues and recommends that the present system of grading be retained.

5.2.2 Is the current System of translating Leaving Certificate Grades into Points satisfactory?

Higher Level
Although the current system for the translation of grades into points seems reasonably equitable for Higher Level papers, one anomaly might beneficially be addressed. At present an A1 in a higher paper is awarded 100 points whereas an A2 is awarded 90 points. The differential between all other grades (above D3) on a Higher Level paper is 5 points. One might legitimately ask why a student who gets 90% should be awarded 10 more points than a student with 89% whereas the differential at every other margin is 5 points.

There are at least three possible ways of changing this. One option would be to subdivide the A grade into three, i.e. into A1, A2 and A3. A second option would be to translate the Higher Level A1 score to 95 points, rather than to 100, which is the current practice. A third option would be to increase the points allocations for all grades below A1 by 5 points. The Commission would be concerned that the introduction of a third A grade might have the effect of increasing the pressure on students and does not favour this approach. In view of the need to adjust points at ordinary level (explained later in this section) the Commission considers that increasing points for all grades below A1 would be problematic.

There are arguments for and against all these options. On balance, and having considered the merits of each option, the Commission suggests that the number of points awarded to those with an A1 should be 95. The result of this change will be that the maximum possible number of points for six subjects will be reduced from 600 to 570.

The question of assigning points for an E grade on a higher paper was raised during the consultative process. An E on a higher paper is accepted by some constituent universities of the National University of Ireland, to satisfy basic entry requirements, where a candidate has also obtained 3 Cs or a B and a C on Higher Level papers. In light of this policy, some commentators suggested that consideration be given to allocating points for an E grade. Members of the Commission had some doubt as to whether equivalence can be drawn between an E grade on a higher paper and any grade on a lower paper. Having considered the matter, the Commission does not consider that points should be awarded for an E grade on either a Higher or an Ordinary level paper. However, when the senior cycle is revised, the Commission considers that this issue could be revisited.

Ordinary Level
The reasoning behind the proposed adjustment to the points awarded for an A1 grade at Higher Level applies equally to ordinary level results. The Commission therefore considers that there should be a gap of 5 points between grades A1 and A2 on Ordinary Level Papers. However, the issue of points allocated for each grade at ordinary level, which was also raised in the course of the consultative process, is relevant here.

One suggestion was that the points should be reduced proportionately with the allocation of marks. For example, it was argued that since a grade D1 is allocated for a result of just less than 55%, and since the maximum points awarded for an ordinary grade under the existing system is 60 points, a candidate with D1 on an ordinary paper should obtain 33 points (i.e. 60 points * 0.55). If this approach were adopted, it would result in a large increase in the points allocated for lower grades on ordinary papers. Another possibility would be that the points level for ordinary papers should decrease by 4 points per grade from the maximum of 60 points. This approach would not address the issue of direct proportionality but it would result in a more equitable recognition of ordinary level papers.

In order to eliminate the anomaly between points awarded for A1 and A2 grades, and in view of the need to adjust generally the points awarded at ordinary level, the Commission, on balance, suggests an increase in all ordinary level grades (other than the A1) by 5 points.

In summary, the Commission suggests that the following revised points scheme be introduced from the year 2002 onwards (the existing system of points allocations is shown for comparative purposes):

TABLE 9 Suggested New Points Scheme
LC Grade Percentage Existing Scheme
Higher Level
Ordinary Level Suggested New Scheme
Higher Level
Ordinary Level
A1 90-100 100 60 95 60
A2 85-89 90 50 90 55
B1 80-84 85 45 85 50
B2 75-79 80 40 80 45
B3 70-74 75 35 75 40
C1 65-69 70 30 70 35
C2 60-64 65 25 65 30
C3 55-59 60 20 60 25
D1 50-54 55 15 55 20
D2 45-49 50 10 50 15
D3 40-44 45 5 45 10
Note: Existing bonus points for higher Mathematics excluded - see table 1.

5.2.3 Variation in Grading between Leaving Certificate Subjects

The issue of the variation in marking between Leaving Certificate subjects and the effects that this has on subject choice was raised during the consultative process. Concern was expressed about the extent to which students' subject choices were being influenced by the perception that some subjects are likely to be marked "more easily" than others. The point was brought home forcibly to the Commission at the public seminars when some second-level students pointed out that the proportion of high grades awarded for different subjects was a major factor for them in deciding what subjects to take for the Leaving Certificate.

The Consultative Process - Background Document provided detailed information on the proportions of grades awarded in various Leaving Certificate subjects. This information was based on the 1994 Leaving Certificate review by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment - The 1994 Leaving Certificate Examination: A Review of Results - published in 1995. While the Department of Education and Science publishes a breakdown of the Leaving Certificate results on an annual basis, the most recent year for which a detailed analysis is available is 1994. However, the overall 1998 figures continue to reveal differing proportions of grades awarded in various Leaving Certificate subjects.

Table 10 shows the frequency with which various grades were awarded to school candidates in 1994:

TABLE 10
1994 School Candidates - Frequency of Grades in Leaving Certificate
Grade Higher Level % Ordinary Level %
A 7 6
B 23 16
C 36 32
D 28 32
E 5 10
F 1 4
No Grade 0 1

The proportions of grades awarded in each subject to school candidates in 1994 varied greatly. For example, the proportions of A grades awarded at Higher Level varied from 0% to 24%. Similarly, the proportion of E grades awarded at Higher Level varied between 0% and 15%.

At Higher Level, 30% of grades awarded to school candidates in 1994 were in the A and B categories. Most subjects with high percentages of A and B grades attracted relatively small numbers of candidates. However, some subjects with relatively large numbers had a relatively large proportion of high grades (e.g. 55% for Mathematics and Applied Mathematics). Popular subjects with relatively few A and B grades included English, Geography and Art.

At Ordinary level, for regular school candidates, the overall percentage of A and B grades was 23%. Some subjects had a relatively high proportion of high grades, e.g., 65% for Applied Mathematics and 47% for Mathematics (42% for Ordinary Alternative level Mathematics). Popular subjects at Ordinary level with relatively few A and B grades included Gaeilge and French.

A similar analysis of the distribution of E and lower grades awarded found that the average proportion of these grades - 7% at Higher Level and 14% at Ordinary level - was the same in 1992 and 1994. There doesn't seem to be a predictable pattern in 1994 across subjects and levels in terms of deviations from these mean figures.

Subject choices of repeat students suggest that there is a perception that high grades are more easily obtained in some subjects than in others. This point is discussed further in the next section.

To date, no systematic analysis has been undertaken to determine why the pattern of grading varies in different subjects. The question of whether it would be possible to introduce a standard pattern of grading across all subject areas by some form of norm referencing has been raised on many occasions in the past two decades. Those who object to such an approach argue that since students of different abilities sit different subjects and that since different numbers and proportions take different subjects at higher and ordinary levels, norm referencing of grades would not be appropriate. In order to take account of this factor, it would be important to ensure in any review, that adjustments are only made where the number of candidates is sufficiently large to represent an unbiased sample of the total cohort of Leaving Certificate examination candidates. A review would seem necessary given that continued significant imbalance in the proportion of grades awarded for different subjects is likely to result in a continued serious decline in the numbers taking certain subjects and a commensurate increase in numbers taking other subjects.

The Commission recommends that research be undertaken to identify the cause(s) of the variation in existing patterns of grade allocation across subjects and to consider possible strategies to ensure a more even distribution of grades across subjects.

5.2.4 Additional Marks for answering Leaving Certificate Papers through the Medium of Irish.

The allocation of additional marks for candidates answering Leaving Certificate papers through the medium of Irish varies according to subject. Bonus marks at the rate of 10% of the marks obtained are given to candidates who obtain less than 75% of the total marks in the following subjects-

Greek Latin Classical Studies
Hebrew History Geography
Physics Chemistry Physics and Chemistry
Biology Science Business Studies
Economics Home Economics Music
Economic History Agricultural Science Agricultural Economics
History & Appreciation of Art (i.e., part of the Art examination)

Bonus marks at the rate of 5% are given to candidates who obtain less than 75% of the total marks in the case of the following subjects-

French German Italian
Spanish Mathematics Applied Mathematics
Accounting Engineering Construction Studies

In the case of Mathematics the two papers are treated as separate subjects for bonus purposes. No bonus marks are given for Technical Drawing and Art (other than history and appreciation of art). Candidates who answer partly in Irish and English receive no bonus marks.

In the case of candidates who score more than 75% on an examination paper, the bonus is subject to a uniform reduction until the candidate who scores 100% gets no bonus.

Candidates seeking the bonus can have access to the examination papers in both English and Irish, but must answer in Irish.

The bonus provision was introduced in the 1920s as part of the Government's policy of reviving the Irish language and of using the education system to achieve this end. Financial and other incentives were introduced to support schools where Irish was the medium of instruction. More recently, the policy has been justified on the basis that students who study through the medium of English have a much wider choice of good quality text books, books of reference and teaching materials than their peers who study through the medium of Irish. It is also argued that they have the advantage of much wider access to general media, including newspapers, television, radio and the Internet.

It has been pointed out to the Commission that the availability of these bonus marks can make a very big difference to students applying for high points courses. The following hypothetical example is of interest. Table 11 compares the points gained by a student who answers though the medium of English with the points he/she could gain if he/she had answered his/her papers through the medium of Irish:

TABLE 11
Comparison between Points gained by a Candidate who answered through the Medium of English with a Candidate who answered through the Medium of Irish
Subject Answering through English Adjusting for answering through Irish
Mark (%) Grade Points Mark (%) Points
Irish 81 B1 85 85
English 76 B2 80 80
Maths 88 A2 90 90 100
French 83 B1 85 86 90
History 87 A2 90 91 100
Biology 89 A2 90 92 100
Business Org. 86 A2 90 90 100
Total Points: best 6 subjects 530 575

In the above case, a student would have got 530 points for answering papers though the medium of English. For the same performance in papers answered through the medium of Irish, he/she would have obtained 575 points. This would have entitled him/her to a place in a range of courses, e.g. Medicine, Dentistry, Pharmacy, which he/she would not have been offered with 530 points.

During the consultative process, it was represented to the Commission that the bonus points awarded for answering through the medium of Irish give an unfair advantage to students when they are applying for third-level places.

The Commission notes the justification put forward in the past that the bonus points are one way of compensating students for the inadequacy of teaching/learning materials in the Irish language. In this regard, the Commission welcomes the commitment in the Education Act, 1998, to establish a body of persons to provide support services to Irish medium schools and to plan and coordinate the provision of textbooks and aids to learning and teaching through Irish.

While fully supporting the development of further support services to Irish medium schools the Commission considers that compensatory measures should not be introduced within the Leaving Certificate itself as they are at best an arbitrary and crude method of addressing perceived inequity and can produce an unintended unfair outcome.

Accordingly, the Commission recommends that the practice of allocating bonus marks in the Leaving Certificate to candidates who answer through the medium of Irish should end. The Commission supports the continuing availability of the option to take the Leaving Certificate in either Irish or English.

5.3 External and Repeat Candidates

5.3.1 External and Repeat Students contrasted with First-Time School Candidates

Many students sit or re-sit the Leaving Certificate outside of the second-level school system, often in fee-paying private colleges. These are external or non-school candidates. The number of non-school candidates for the Leaving Certificate in 1998 was 4,137 (7.6% of the total). Many, but not all, of these were repeat students. Students who sit the Leaving Certificate as external candidates do not have to satisfy the same course attendance requirements as those who are enrolled in recognised second-level schools. In the case of the latter, the Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools require that all schools must comply with the provisions of Circular letters M31/93, M47/93 and M2/95 and state that "in the case of the established Leaving Certificate the approved course for recognised senior pupils must include not less than five of the subjects . . ., of which one shall be Irish". Furthermore, candidates attending a recognised second-level school must take a subject for two years at senior cycle before they can sit the Leaving Certificate examination. The Circular letters, inter alia, preclude recognised secondary schools from offering a three year Leaving Certificate programme, requiring them to provide the programme within a two year period.

An analysis of the performance of school-based repeat candidates and external candidates in the 1998 Leaving Certificate examination reveals that a smaller percentage of the latter sat at least five subjects - 84% - compared to virtually 100% of school candidates. The Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools do not permit students in recognised second-level schools to sit one or two subjects of the Leaving Certificate examination in fifth year. In contrast, no such restriction applies to those who enter as external candidates and who may be attending non-recognised private institutions. In the latter case, it would appear that some students are taking some matriculation subjects in fifth year (i.e. to satisfy minimum requirements) and concentrating on their Points subjects in the final year.

Comparisons between first-time school candidates and repeat and external candidates show broadly similar aggregate results. For example, 57% of repeat and external students were awarded a minimum of six grade Ds of which a minimum of two were at grade C or better on Higher Level papers. This compares to 51% of school candidates. However, 6% of external candidates had a minimum of 6 grade Cs on higher papers, of which at least 3 were at grade A2 or higher. This compares with 3.7% of regular school candidates and 2.4% of school repeat candidates.

The Commission would be concerned that students who opt to cover the Leaving Certificate examination as part of a single year as external candidates may lose out through a narrowing of their curriculum options. In addition, opportunities for their personal development in such settings would generally be more limited than in a regular school setting.

5.3.2 Repetition of the Leaving Certificate

There was a lot of discussion during the consultative process about the practice of repeating the Leaving Certificate. Some felt that there might be good reasons why a student might wish or need to repeat the Leaving Certificate and s/he should not be penalised for doing so. In some cases, students may gain in terms of maturity by repeating an extra year in school. Others took the view that there were many students who, for financial or other reasons, could not consider such an option and therefore have a lesser chance than a repeat student of attaining a place. Particular concern was expressed as to:

In the case of entrants to healthcare (Medicine, Dentistry, etc.) courses in 1998, there appears to be a strong relationship between subject choice, high grades and repetition of the Leaving Certificate. 31.6% of all Leaving Certificate entrants to these courses (for some of the individual courses, the proportion was over 50%) had repeated the Leaving Certificate, compared to an average of 15.5% for all courses. The 31.6% comprised 157 students, of whom 80% would not have been eligible for entry based on their repeat Leaving Certificate alone (i.e. they did not meet the basic entry requirements in their repeat sitting). Many of the students took up new subjects for the first time in their repeat sitting:

TABLE 12 First time Take-up of Subjects by Repeat Students entering Healthcare Courses in 1998
Subject taken for first time in repeat sitting No. of Students
Home Economics S&S 80
Applied Mathematics 21
Geography 14
Chemistry 11
Agricultural Economics 7
Biology 7
Business Organisation 6
Classical Studies 5
Physics 3
Economics 2
Music & Musicianship 1
Economic History 1
TOTAL STUDENTS 157
Note: Totals do not sum - students may take more than one new subject.

Table 12 suggests that there was an expectation that it would be easier to gain a high grade in certain subjects than in others taken previously. There may also be an element of choosing subjects which involve a degree of overlap and using the synergy to obtain higher grades. In any event, the high rate of entry to healthcare among repeat students relative to first time candidates indicates that the strategy achieved the desired outcome.

Similar findings were identified in the research undertaken by David Tuohy for the Commission (Research Paper No.1). In that paper, it was shown that "repeat students have an advantage of already fulfilling some of the basic requirements. This gives them leeway in the way they plan their second Leaving Certificate. This is evidenced in the way they drop some subjects (notably core subjects such as English, Mathematics and particularly Irish). Some also take up new subjects, particularly Home Economics (Social and Scientific) and Geography and they perform quite well in them."

A number of suggestions have been made to address the issue of the apparent advantage gained by candidates who repeat the Leaving Certificate:

  1. Bonus points should be given for the first sitting of the Leaving Certificate.
    The Commission would not favour such an approach, as there can be good reasons why a student might wish or need to repeat the Leaving Certificate and should not be penalised for doing so.
  2. Where a number of candidates obtain the same points for a course and random selection arises, preference should be given to first-time applicants.
    The Commission considers that there is merit in this proposal but does not favour addressing the issue of the advantages of repeat students in this way. If, however, the proposals outlined below are not effective when they are implemented, the Commission would consider that the issue of disadvantaging repeat students should be revisited.
  3. Minimum entry requirements and special subject requirements may be obtained in a second or subsequent sitting provided that all such subjects had been taken in the first sitting.

    However, such a requirement would militate against students who did not have the option of taking certain subjects in the first sitting of their Leaving Certificate - possibly because certain subjects were not offered in the second-level school they attended.

    In this regard, the Commission makes a distinction between basic entry or matriculation requirements for third-level entry and special subject requirements for an individual course or faculty. For example, the basic entry (matriculation) requirements for University College Dublin are passes in six subjects (must include English, Irish, Mathematics and a third language), including at least grade C on any two Higher Level papers. However, an applicant for Veterinary Medicine is also required to have at least a grade C on the Higher Chemistry paper. It is only after the basic entry and special subject requirements are satisfied that the points total in the best six subjects is calculated.

  4. Minimum eligibility requirements and points should be obtained in the same sitting of the Leaving Certificate.

    There is evidence that some students attain their basic entry requirements in one sitting of the Leaving Certificate, and seek to maximise their points score through calculated subject choices in a following year. While it might be argued that this is merely a case of some students using the existing system to the best advantage, there will be many students who, for financial or other reasons, do not have this option and who necessarily have a lesser chance of attaining a place than a repeat student.

    Requiring students to fulfil eligibility requirements and obtain entry points in the same year would put an end to the practice of splitting basic entry requirements from points. It might also reduce the current practice of choosing subjects where it is perceived that it is easier (relative to other subjects) to obtain a high grade. However, it would also mean that students who had satisfied the entry requirements in their first sitting would need to take the full Leaving Certificate again.

In regard to all applicants, the Commission recommends that the points and the basic entry requirements, with the exception of Irish in the NUI colleges, be attained in the same sitting of the Leaving Certificate. This would not prevent an applicant who did not have the special subject requirements in the first sitting of the Leaving Certificate from sitting that subject in the Leaving Certificate the following year.

The attention of the Commission has been drawn to cases where students sat the Leaving Certificate on more than two occasions with a view to obtaining the points necessary for a high demand course. It is aware of an extreme example where an applicant for a medical course in 1998 was applying through the CAO for the eighth time. The Commission does not favour the practice of multiple repetition and considers that some limits on repeating are required to protect the integrity of the second-level system. It notes that in the Netherlands, there is no scope for repeating a single year - the entire cycle must be repeated in order to obtain certification for the entire programme.

At the same time, the Commission recognises that in certain cases, there may be a value to students in terms of their personal development and maturity to undertake an extra year at school. Moreover, it is reluctant, particularly in view of the need to retain flexibility in the system to take account of individual circumstances (especially where repeat sittings may be necessitated as a result of illness or bereavement), to recommend an absolute prohibition on repeating the Leaving Certificate more than once. However, the Commission recommends some disincentive, such as a reduction of 10% of the points score, for a candidate's third sitting and for each subsequent sitting.

The possibility of allowing a Leaving Certificate examination to be repeated, perhaps in the autumn, was also raised in the debate. There would be significant difficulties associated with such a repeat examination, including:

In this context, it is worth noting that autumn repeat examinations are being phased out in some third-level institutions with the advent of modularization. Moreover, the academic year may begin in some third-level institutions as early as the beginning of September. In view of the considerable practical difficulties, the Commission does not recommend the introduction of repeat Leaving Certificate examinations in the autumn.

5.4 Other Issues

5.4.1 The Assessment of Applications for Third-Level Places from outside the State and of Applications from those with Qualifications from outside the State

The approach to calculating points for applicants with qualifications other than the Leaving Certificate varies across institutions. Generally, except for applicants with UK qualifications, each institution makes its own decisions on the basis of individual applications.

As regards A-Levels, institutes of technology, other than the Dublin Institute of Technology, have introduced a standardised system. Points are awarded according to Table 13 below.

TABLE 13 Points Awarded by the Institutes of Technology (other than the DIT) for GCSE, GCE A-Levels and CGE AS Levels
Grade GCSE A-Level AS Level
A 45 170 85
B 30 140 70
C 15 100 50
D 70 35
E 40 20
Points are allocated for a maximum of 3 A-Levels plus 2 GCSE's.

Each university determines its own policy in relation to applicants with qualifications other than the Leaving Certificate, on the basis that the maintenance of a fixed and uniform exchange between the Leaving Certificate and other exams is not possible. Trinity College, for instance, awards 190 for an A, 160 for a B, 130 for a C and 100 for a D, in GCE A-Levels but does not award any points for GCSE results. In the case of Dublin City University, the following points are allocated to GCE A-levels: A -175, B - 160, C - 130, D - 100. Students who achieve three grade As in A-levels at the same sitting receive a bonus of 45 points. The other universities generally deal with applications on an individual basis.

The variety of interpretations of equivalence between Leaving Certificate and A-Level grades can result in some anomalies between institutions. Table 14 shows that an A-Level candidate with two As and one B would be allocated between 510 and 570 points depending on the institution.

TABLE 14 Variation between Institutions in Treatment of A-Level Results
TCD DCU Institutes of Technology (excl. DIT)
Maximum Points 570 570 600
2 A's, 1 B 540 510 570
Note: For institutes of technology (other than DIT), the maximum refers to 3 A-Levels plus 2 GCSE's.

The Commission notes the diversity of practices that exist in relation to the recognition of GCE A-Levels in this State. While it may appear that the best solution would be to have a standard mechanism for recognising such qualifications across all third-level institutions, the Commission accepts that there are difficulties in achieving this:

The Commission understands that some third-level institutions have from time to time sought the precise percentages achieved by A-Level students in their A-level examinations. However, it is understood that this information was not forthcoming from the examination boards.

In looking at the treatment of A-Levels within the system of entry to third-level education in this State, the Commission has sought to ensure that neither Leaving Certificate nor A-Level applicants are disadvantaged, or advantaged, in any arrangements that are being proposed. The Commission is particularly conscious of the need to ensure that in computing equivalence, the situation should not arise whereby students in this State would find it beneficial to take A-Levels, or United Kingdom students to take the Leaving Certificate. This is particularly relevant in view of the Commission's recommendation that the maximum points allowed for an A1 in a higher paper in the Leaving Certificate should be reduced to 95 (see section 5.2.2).

The treatment of international qualifications other than A-Levels was not raised to any great extent in submissions to the Commission nor during the consultative process. Nevertheless, the Commission is conscious of the general obligation under European law to extend equal treatment to citizens of all member states. This obligation would suggest a need to ensure parity of opportunity for applicants from all member states to study in Ireland. Accordingly, it is important, that qualifications from other member states are treated in as consistent a manner as possible in the system of entry to third-level education. This obligation is most relevant in respect of the high proportion of external applications arising in Northern Ireland and the UK. It may well be the case that the issue of foreign qualifications will become more important in years to come as international student mobility increases and as students from this State, who may have spent a number of year outside the State, increasingly seek third-level places.

The format of terminal second-level examinations varies widely throughout the EU and direct comparison with the Leaving Certificate is difficult. However, in view of the obligations under EU law, the Commission recommends that third-level institutions should, as far as is practicable, agree a common approach to the admission of applicants with qualifications from other member states, particularly applicants with A-level qualifications. The Commission considers that the issue should be kept under continuous review by all third-level institutions.

5.4.2 The Number of Leaving Certificate Subjects which should be taken into account in computing Points.

In 1998, 288 school candidates for the Leaving Certificate sat nine subjects or more (0.5%), 7,524 sat eight subjects (14%), 40,312 sat seven subjects (74%) and 5,584 sat six subjects (10%). Of the school repeat students and the non-school candidates (a total of 9,137), 31% took seven subjects, 48% took six subjects while 12% took only one subject. Table 15 gives details of the number of subjects taken by the various categories of candidates at the Leaving Certificate examination in 1998:

TABLE 15 Number of Subjects taken by Candidates at Leaving Certificate 1998
Number of Subjects Taken First Time School Candidates Repeat School Candidates External Candidates VTOS Candidates
9 + 288 5 6 0
8 7,524 35 164 3
7 40,312 1,223 1,574 25
6 5,584 3,387 1,024 74
5 374 198 52 105
4 69 32 23 65
3 43 29 47 68
2 47 38 232 78
1 56 53 1,015 303
Total Number of Candidates 54,297 5,000 4,137 721

The Commission was reminded that until relatively recently, Trinity College, Dublin counted five subjects for points and that the National University of Ireland, Galway counted seven subjects. The question was raised in the consultative process of reducing the number of subjects for points, possibly to five subjects. The argument put forward for this was that if fewer subjects were to count for points there would be less pressure on students taking the Leaving Certificate. However, the Commission is of the view that if fewer subjects were to count for points it is likely that there would be an undue focus on those subjects and this would lead to a narrowing of the curriculum.

Having considered the current reality in relation to subject choices at senior cycle and particularly bearing in mind that the majority of Leaving Certificate candidates take seven subjects, the Commission is of the view that a valid case could be made for considering seven subjects for points purposes. In looking at this case, the Commission is aware that many students may feel that they are already under sufficient pressure in having to present six subjects for points purposes and that an expansion of the number of subjects to seven could increase this pressure. Moreover, a requirement of seven rather than six subjects for points purposes would make it difficult for a student who is weak in a single subject area to obtain the necessary points. It should also be pointed out that the Commission encountered no significant support for such a change during the consultative process.

On balance, the Commission recommends that six subjects should continue to be the basis for a total points score for the foreseeable future. However, the Commission suggests that the issue might be reconsidered in the light of developments over time in curriculum and assessment at senior cycle.

5.4.3 The Allocation of a Quota of Places for Gaeltacht Students in Colleges of Education

In accordance with the long-standing policy of successive governments to support the Gaeltacht and the Irish language, up to 10% of the teacher training places in the colleges of education are reserved for Gaeltacht applicants. This practice arose because of the need to recruit primary school teachers with an excellent command of the Irish language. During the consultative process, the point was made that these reserved places should be open to pupils who attend an all-Irish second-level school or who are in an all-Irish stream in a second-level school. The Commission accepts this point and recommends that students who received all their second-level education through the medium of Irish should be eligible to apply for a place within this quota.

5.4.4 Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP)

From 1999 onwards, third-level institutions will award points for the Link Modules of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme, in lieu of a sixth Leaving Certificate subject. The universities will award 50 points for Distinction; 40 for Merit and 30 for Pass, as will the Dublin Institute of Technology. Institutes of technology have since 1996, awarded 70 points for Distinction, 50 for Merit and 30 for Pass.

Many of those who contributed to the consultative process called for the equal recognition by all third-level institutions of the Link Modules. It was pointed out that many of the skills and competencies which the Link Modules seek to develop, such as self-directed learning and ICT skills, would be particularly valuable in a third-level context. Total enrolment in the LCVP has more than doubled over the four year period to 1998/99 and with continuing growth likely, it has been argued that consideration should be given to including the Link Modules as a compulsory part of the second-level curriculum.

The Commission welcomes the decision of the universities to recognise the Link Modules for points purposes. Disappointment was expressed that the universities did not accept the recommendation of the Department of Education and Science that 70 points be awarded for Distinction, 50 for Merit and 30 for Pass. However, the Commission welcomes the statement issued by CHIU on 9 February 1999 that "Link modules of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (will) be acceptable for Points purposes for entry to universities for a trial period …The level of points awarded will be kept under review and adjustment thereto may be made in the light of the outcomes of any or all of the following:-

The Commission notes the commitment from CHIU to keep the level of points to be awarded for the link modules under review and recommends that the universities consider giving higher points to the link modules, as recommended by the Department of Education and Science, as soon as possible.

5.4.5 Credit for Achievements other than the Leaving Certificate.

The possibility of providing credits and points for achievements other than the Leaving Certificate was also raised in the debate. The Commission cannot envisage a fair and transparent way in which any such system can be introduced for school leavers generally that would not result in disadvantaged applicants being more disadvantaged. Chapter 4 sets out the Commission's views concerning the development of a certification system at the end of second-level schooling which would recognise as broad a range of student achievements as possible. As regards mature students, the Commission takes a different point of view and this is discussed in chapter 9.

Points for Post-Leaving Certificate courses
Some submissions to the Commission suggested that consideration be given to allocating points for examination results obtained for Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses. The point was made that at present, an applicant for a third-level course is assessed on the results of his/her Leaving Certificate and that achievement in a PLC course is ignored even where this achievement may have particular relevance to the course being applied for. The Commission carefully considered this point, particularly in the context of progression into and within third-level education. It also notes that institutes of technology award points for NCVA Level 2 qualifications.

As stated elsewhere in this report (chapters 4 and 9), the key aim of all courses should be the provision of meaningful and relevant qualifications in their own right and students should be accepted on to these courses with this aim in mind. However, it is also important that a variety of routes of progression should be developed and supported in order to provide a greater degree of flexibility and more varied options for students. Arising from this, the Commission favours the continuing development of quotas at an appropriate level in third-level education for students who have not taken the Leaving Certificate, rather than the introduction of points for such courses which may deflect from their key role.

Junior Certificate
During the consultative process, it was suggested that a student's results in the Junior Certificate might be taken into account in selection for third level. Those who favoured such an approach argued that this would enable students to build up credit for academic achievement throughout their second-level schooling. Those who opposed such a development were concerned that any system which rewarded achievement at junior cycle level would simply add to the stress which the current points system causes. Having considered the opposing views, the Commission does not recommend that performance in the Junior Certificate be taken into account in computing the points score of a student for entry to third level.

Chapter 6: The Operation of the Central Applications System

6.1 CAO System

The CAO is a limited company set up by the third-level institutions as an administrative mechanism for dealing with applications and admissions. As indicated in chapter 1, the institutions retain control over their own admissions policies. The question of moving away from a centralised system was raised during the consultative process and was considered by the Commission. It was clear however, that there is widespread support among the public and within the third-level institutions for the current system. A return to the practice of applying to individual institutions, as was the situation prior to the setting up of the CAO, would not be popular. It would also be administratively chaotic and would result in confusion and hardship for applicants. The Commission recommends the continuation of the current centralised application system.

6.2 Unfilled Places

Some third-level courses should be accessible through other application processes as well as through the CAO. This is particularly the case for a number of certificate courses on which places are available for all qualified applicants who apply and where there can sometimes be unfilled places under the current system. While application for places on such courses should continue through the CAO, the institutions involved might also consider advertising these courses again closer to the beginning of the academic year, when prospective students might be in a position to make a more realistic assessment of their options. In this regard the Commission notes that the CAO, in collaboration with some third-level institutions, is planning to introduce a revised system from September 2000 where applicants who meet the minimum entry criteria can apply for unfilled places on courses. This will be introduced on an experimental basis for some courses in 1999 in the first instance. The Commission commends this development.

6.3 Separate Lists

The system operated by the CAO enables applicants, using a single application form, to apply for a total of up to 20 third-level courses. Up to 10 degree courses and/or up to 10 diploma/certificate courses may be chosen. Courses must be listed in order of preference on each of the two lists. While applicants may make choices on both lists, about 11,000 choose only from the certificate/diploma and 5,000 only from the degree list.

The separate lists arose partly from the separate funding arrangements of degree and certificate/diploma courses until 1996 when undergraduate fees were abolished in the university sector. It should however be noted that there are courses in private colleges on the CAO lists which are not funded by the State and for which fees are not paid by the State.

The Commission considered the issue of amalgamating the degree and certificate/diploma lists. It was generally felt that an amalgamation of the lists could have a detrimental effect on the numbers applying for certificate and diploma courses, although there is no evidence that this would be the case. It might be a useful exercise for the CAO to ask applicants, in addition to the current practice of indicating their preference on two separate lists, to indicate also, their overall preference (from 1 - 20) from both lists together, for comparative purposes. This would provide a better basis for deciding whether the existing two list system should be retained or whether a single list which would include both degree and certificate/diploma courses should be introduced.

The Commission also considered reducing the number of options on each list. It was pointed out that a reduction from ten options to five or six, could unduly restrict an applicant's options. For example, a candidate applying for a course in primary teacher education might wish to apply for all the teacher education courses available within the CAO, thus using up five options. If he/she failed to gain the points required in any of the institutions (there is relatively little difference in the cut-off points in each of the institutions) it is reasonable to expect that other options should be available to such a candidate. Having considered the various issues involved, the Commission recommends maintaining the existing system whereby applicants may choose up to 10 options at degree level and/or up to 10 options at certificate or diploma level.

The Commission notes the recommendation of the Report of the Commission on Nursing that the CAO should administer the application system for pre-registration nursing degrees and diplomas. However, this recommendation envisages the addition of a third list to the current two lists which would result in a situation where a candidate could opt for three sets of choices: one for degree courses, one for certificate and diploma courses (excluding nursing) and one for nursing courses. While the Commission on the Points System welcomes the recommendation that applications for nursing should be administered by the CAO, it does not in general favour an increase in the number of lists available on the CAO form. However, it accepts that there are special circumstances related to nursing at present, which warrant the recommendation to provide a separate application list on the CAO form. For example, funding arrangements for nursing courses are different from other CAO courses. In addition, there are over 20 possible nursing course options and students' choices would be severely restricted if these had to be included within the existing lists. The Commission suggests that the situation in relation to nursing courses should be monitored on a continuing basis and as the funding and other arrangements become more integrated with other third-level courses and arrangements, as recommended by the Commission on Nursing, the issue of a separate list should be reviewed.

6.4 The Timing of Applications - Present System

The closing date for receipt of CAO applications at ordinary fee (£18 in 1999) for EU applicants is February 1st. This date was agreed following discussions with school authorities and guidance counsellors. There is provision for late applications for most courses up to 1 May, subject to payment of an increased fee. Applicants can change their mind in relation to the courses for which they have applied up to the beginning of July. This provides an opportunity for school-leaving applicants to re-assess their application after they have completed their examinations. Around 25,000 students use this option each year and some use this option more than once. The change of mind facility also enables students to take account of changes to the list of courses, including the addition of new courses, announced after printing of the handbook.

Some courses that are listed in the CAO Handbook are defined as "Restricted Application" courses. Additional assessments over and above the Leaving Certificate for these courses are usually held around Easter. These "Restricted Application' courses are in the areas of Architecture, Art, Design, Drama, Film/TV, Furniture, Graphics, Leisure, Marine Engineering, Music, Nautical Science, Photography, and Radio/Broadcasting. Applicants for one or more of these courses are not entitled to have their applications processed unless the courses have been included in an application received by CAO on or by 1 February. In the case of courses where special additional assessment is required, the Commission accepts that it would not be feasible to allow for either a late application or a change of mind to introduce such a course as a new choice. However, it would be feasible, for example, to change the order of preferences.

Offers of places are normally made in August and September following receipt of the results of the annual school-leaving examinations. The main body of offers (First Round) takes place shortly after the Leaving Certificate Examination results become available and normally occurs during the second half of August. An applicant who is being offered a place will receive a formal offer from the CAO together with the necessary instructions on how to proceed. The offer will lapse unless accepted within a specified period. A second round of offers will be made, usually in late August/early September, to fill any remaining vacancies. Thereafter, offers will be issued as places become available (due to refusals) until mid-October. Each applicant is offered a place in the highest of the course preferences to which he or she is entitled (if any). The degree list and the diploma/certificate list operate independently of each other until the acceptance of offers. Applicants may receive offers from both lists but they can only hold on to one offer at any given time.

Every year, a small number of applicants become eligible for a third-level place as a result of upgrading of Leaving Certificate results following an appeal. There have been some instances in recent years of difficulties in accommodating such applicants on the course to which their upgraded results entitled them. While the Commission recognises the difficulties involved for third-level institutions in such cases, it is important that applicants are in no way disadvantaged because their Leaving Certificate result changed following appeal.

6.5 Consideration of an Alternative System - Applying for a Third-Level Place after the Results of the Leaving Certificate are Issued

During the consultative process, the issue of the closing date for receipt of applications for third-level courses was raised. It was pointed out that UCAS (the central applications system in the United Kingdom) is considering the introduction of a new system of application whereby students will apply after they have received their terminal second-level examination results and not before as is currently the case. However, recent reports indicate that many universities have stated their opposition to such a move. In this regard, it is worth noting that for many years the CAO allowed students to apply for a place after receiving their Leaving Certificate results but this option was not availed of by many students and was eventually withdrawn.

The Commission has considered the reintroduction of this option, as well as the more radical proposal considered in the U.K. The Commission recognises that improvements in technology would make this option technically feasible, although in view of earlier start dates in some third-level institutions, the system would be difficult to administer. Some commentators believe that such an approach would focus the minds of students in a realistic manner. If a student did not have the basic entry requirements for a course that he or she might have favoured, s/he would not choose such a course.

Many applicants do not carry out research into course options until they are faced with the task of completing a CAO application form. The Commission is not convinced that the extra months available to applicants to research course options would be used optimally by them. There is also a concern that students might be out of the country either on vacation or working abroad at the period when course choices would have to be made and that this could result in difficulties and/or hasty choices which might subsequently be regretted. There are also fears that if a revised system were introduced, it might lead to pressure either to move the public examinations to an earlier period in the year or to start third-level courses later in the year.

Another issue of concern relates to the tendency of some students to make third-level choices on the basis of the points they are likely to receive rather than on the basis of the course which they would like to follow or which might best suit them. In the debate, it was pointed out that some courses are popular simply because they are difficult to access, i.e., their cut-off point is very high. It was argued that if applicants were to select courses after they had received their points, this might increase demand for high points courses, as applicants with high points might be tempted to apply for these courses.

The Commission favours the existing system whereby an applicant can make a considered choice before the receipt of his or her results. If a student obtains an unexpected result in the Leaving Certificate that would entitle him/her to a place on a course not included in her/his original application, such a student may apply the following year on the basis of the previous year's results.

Having considered the various points made, the Commission recommends that the existing system of a closing application date of early February with the possibility of changing one's mind up to the beginning of July be retained. However, if UCAS introduces a change in its application procedures, further consideration might be given to the issue in this country.

6.6 Deferral Mechanisms

It is sometimes possible to defer entry to a course for one year. Policies for deferral vary at present from institution to institution and applicants for deferrals must apply to the appropriate admissions office. The Commission considers that there should be a transparent and straightforward policy of deferrals in all institutions. The system of deferral should not be such as to discourage applicants who might wish to defer from so doing, but at the same time it should not delay the process of place offers in August / September. There are a number of ways that this might be done. An applicant might have the option of signalling on their CAO application form that they intend to defer. Alternatively, as in the current system, when offered a place, an applicant may indicate his/her wish to defer. There might be a small number of cases where there may be institutional difficulties in guaranteeing a place in a year's time or at a later date. For example, the course might not be on offer the following year or later or there may be a large number of requested deferrals for a course. However, such situations are likely to be rare. The Commission considers that every effort should be made to accommodate applicants who wish to defer taking up their place for a specified period.

6.7 Acceptance Charge

At present, the colleges of education, the institutes of technology (other than the Dublin Institute of Technology) and the RCSI do not require any payment on acceptance and settle accounts at registration. The other institutions use the acceptance procedure as a charge-collection facility. The amounts payable vary from institution to institution and depend also on the applicant's grant status. The universities, for example, charge between £308 and £328 with grant applicants being required to pay between £30 and £50. The varying rates give rise to much anxiety and confusion on the part of applicants and parents. There is also dissatisfaction at having to pay substantial sums 4-5 weeks in advance of registration. In the current year in response to public pressure in August, the universities issued a joint statement saying that non-paying acceptors would not lose places.

The Commission recommends that annual charges should not be collected as part of the acceptance process but should be billed after acceptance and become payable at registration as is the case with continuing students. It also recommends adoption of the advice of the Advisory Committee on Third-Level Student Support that grant eligibility should be determined before the CAO change of mind date of 1 July.

The Commission is aware that the absence of payment on acceptance leads to spurious acceptances - up to 15% in the cases of some institutes of technology. This is not discovered until registration when it may be too late to make vacancies available to other applicants. Therefore, in order to reduce the number of spurious acceptances and to increase the number of places which are effectively available, the Commission recommends that all acceptors pay to CAO a uniform and reasonable acceptance fee - this fee to be refundable on registration.

6.8 The operation of Random Selection when more than One Applicant shares the same Cut-off Point

The general issue of random selection as a selection mechanism for third-level education was discussed in chapter 4. It was pointed out that among those who contributed to the consultative process, there was very little support for any type of random selection or lottery. Not only was the public opposed to random selection in a general sense - objections were also raised to the present limited system of random selection which operates when a number of applicants share the same cut-off point and there are not enough places for all of them.

The point was made that the uncertainty that currently surrounds the random selection process is very stressful for candidates as they await the reallocation of available places on each round of offers. It was also pointed out that although points are at present computed on the basis of grades, the actual marks awarded to students on their examination papers are available and are now accessible to candidates who choose to see their scripts after the Leaving Certificate results are issued. Some submissions argued that where candidates share the same cut-off point and where there are not enough available places, the actual Leaving Certificate marks should be used instead of random selection to allocate places. The Commission does not favour the suggestion that Leaving Certificate marks should be used to determine the order of merit within the same cut-off point. (The issue of Leaving Certificate marks and grades is discussed in more detail in chapter 5).

Another option considered by the Commission concerns the use of results in a specific subject or subjects (e.g. Mathematics, English or Gaeilge) to determine the order of merit. This approach was taken in the 1970s and 1980s in the case of applicants to colleges of education, where a number of candidates shared the same points but where there were not enough places for all of them. However, the Commission is not convinced that there is any merit in adopting this approach on a general basis.

It is difficult to envisage a more fair or transparent mechanism than random selection for selecting successful applicants for courses if applicants have the same number of points. The Commission therefore recommends that random selection should continue to be used to allocate places when a number of candidates share the same cut-off point.

In this regard it would appear that the way in which random selection operates varies across the institutions. Most institutes of technology delegate the administration of the random selection process to the CAO. However, this does not appear to be the case in the university sector where at least in some cases, random selection is administered by the universities themselves. The Commission recommends that, to promote transparency and consistency across institutions, the generation of random numbers be monitored centrally by the CAO.

Chapter 7: Completion/Non-Completion and Diversity of Courses

7.1 Completion / Non-Completion of Third-Level Courses

Many issues relating to completion and non-completion of courses, attrition or drop-out have been raised in the debate. This is a complex area which is now coming under some examination. While it is generally accepted that the reasons for non-completion or dropout are complex, factors such as motivation, capability and suitability are generally found to be contributory factors.

In relation to the university sector, the Higher Education Authority carried out a study in 1994 which indicated a completion rate of 81%, which is high by international standards, for those students entering in 1989/90. The Authority has commissioned the Educational Research Centre, St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra to undertake a further detailed study in this area and a report is expected by the end of 1999.

More recent data on completion / non-completion is available in Research Paper 4 - Points and Performance in Higher Education - A Study of the Predictive Validity of the Points System, published by the Commission in July 1999. The study found that overall, 21% of those who entered college in 1992 did not complete their courses. A further 3% were continuing their studies at the time of the research while 2% had completed their courses but failed final examinations. Non-completion patterns varied significantly by sector, with 9% of students in the universities failing to complete as against 33% in the institutes of technology.

Table 16 gives a breakdown of the categories of withdrawal. The table shows that failure to sit or pass first year examinations is substantially more common in institutes of technology (25%) than in the university/colleges of education sector (4%).

TABLE 16
Percentage of Third-level Entrants in 1992 who did not complete their Courses
Category of Non-Completion All Students University/College of Education Institutes of Technology
Passed Year 1 and withdrew 7 5 8
Failed Year 1 and withdrew 7 3 12
Did not sit Year 1 Exams 7 1 13
All Students 21 9 33

At first glance, these figures may seem high. However, the research study notes that:

patterns of non-completion are broadly in line with those in other countries …our non-completion rates are not especially high by international standards… Other European countries, including Denmark, Germany and France, have non-completion rates which are either comparable to, or higher than our own… this is not to suggest that [our non-completion rate] may not be problematic; it merely suggests that our difficulties are not unique.

7.1.1 Universities/Colleges of Education

Within this sector, students who had not completed their courses were more likely to have withdrawn after passing first year examinations (5%) than to have withdrawn after failing first year (3%) or to have left before taking first year examinations (1%). Some 4% of students were still attending, but had not completed their studies by 1998. Within the study sample, no one left after failing a degree, which would indicate that students tend not to continue to the point of failing their final examination in universities/colleges of education.

Non-completion patterns varied considerably however, across fields of study. One fifth of entrants to Science did not complete their course, compared to 11% in Business, 6% in the Humanities and just 2% in Technology courses. The most common category for non-completion in Science was failure of first year examinations - 11% of entrants compared to 7% who left after passing first year exams.

7.1.2 Institutes of Technology

In the institutes, students were more likely to leave before sitting (13%) or having failed first year examinations (12%) than after passing first year examinations (8%). This pattern is different to the university/college of education sector where the majority of non-completers left after passing first year examinations. A further 3% of students were still attending their college of entry.

Wide variation in non-completion rates by field of study was revealed. The highest rate for non-completion occurred in Technology courses (44%), compared to 32% in Business, 27% in Science and 15% in the Humanities. The non-completion rates are substantially above the comparable rates for the university/college of education sector. The research study notes that "The difference … between longer degree-type courses and shorter diploma/certificate courses is also evident internationally." Interestingly, the non-completion rate for institutes of technology is highest for Technology subjects, whereas in the university/college of education data, this is the field of study with the lowest non-completion rate.

7.1.3 Reasons for Non-Completion

Three institutes (Carlow, Dundalk and Tralee) have undertaken a study on non-completion among first year students. This study found that the estimated overall non-completion rate in those three institutes was 37%. Although most of these students (47%) left during, or at the end of the third term, having failed at least part of their first year examination, a sizeable minority (36%) left in the first and second term before taking examinations (a further 17% did not specify when they had left). The highest rate of leaving/failing was in Engineering while the lowest rate was in Science.

The research focused on student perspectives on their college experience. The authors of this study concluded that no single factor explained the overall 37% non-completion rate across the Institutes, but that a range of academic, social, personal, financial and institution-specific variables seem to contribute to early leaving and / or failure.

The study showed that the principal social and personal factors associated with non-completion were low grades in the Leaving Certificate examination; unclear career aspirations; lack of information and guidance on courses and career options; unsuitable career choices; difficulties with some or all of the subjects taken, and financial and work-related problems. The principal institutional factors were lack of facilities and support services in the Institutes to meet course requirements and poor communications between staff and students. The main reason given by students themselves for leaving was their desire to pursue a different career and almost all of those who had left were pursuing other occupational and educational goals.

The early leavers were more likely to claim that they were poorly prepared for college entry and that the course they entered was not one of their first two choices. Over 40% of those dropping out of college said it was the only course open to them given their points rating. The early leavers were also more likely than those who passed and stayed on, to have entered on low average Leaving Certificate points, particularly in Mathematics, and to have experienced difficulties with course demands in their first year.

In the light of the findings of their research, the authors of the report make suggestions, which are of relevance to the work of this Commission. Firstly, they suggest that there is a need to review the entry requirements for some of the courses, and / or to provide additional supports for students entering without adequate academic skills. Secondly, they suggest that students need greater guidance in making course choices, and that Institutes need to give more precise information to students, specifying the requirements and demands of different courses.

A further small scale study of non-completion and failure of students on national diploma courses in Engineering in Athlone Institute of Technology, suggests that while the CAO / CAS system which was expanded to include regional technical colleges in 1991, resulted in a more uniform, economical and efficient procedure for processing applications across all colleges, the previous system, under which candidates were interviewed "to determine if such students display an aptitude for a particular course" resulted in a slightly higher proportion of students passing their examinations. In addition that report points out that under the pre 1991 system, many students who may have made an incorrect initial choice had the flexibility to transfer to another course within the same institute.

The above findings suggest that there may be a need for institutes of technology to reconsider the minimum entry requirements to some of their courses, in order to ensure that students accepted onto them have the knowledge, understanding and skills and competencies to engage successfully in these courses. Alternatively, top-up modules may need to be provided for some students before the beginning of some courses or at an early stage of a course. A mechanism might also be developed to ensure that students have adequate information about the course which they are being offered, particularly if this course was not a high choice on their CAO application.

In the technological sector, a number of initiatives have been taken across the sector to ensure that information on attrition / non-completion is available on an ongoing basis. Steps are being taken to assist in the compilation of an appropriate data base and to develop appropriate strategies to address the issues. The Council of Directors of the Institutes of Technology has established a National Committee on Retention which has set out a menu of initiatives for institutes of technology, particularly in relation to actions targeted at first year entrants in 1998. Already a number of these actions have been implemented with a view to increasing retention levels in the institutes. The Council has also commissioned the Educational Research Centre Drumcondra to undertake a comprehensive study on the issue of non-completion in the sector, which will consist of

A major initiative, currently in progress will see the installation of a new Management Information System in the institutes of technology. As well as supporting the efficient and effective management of the institutions, this new system will provide both the institutions and the Department of Education and Science with timely and accurate management information. The new system will also provide enhanced information on attrition.

A system has also been developed for a statistical monitoring of uncertified departures from certificate and diploma programmes and is being applied on a pilot basis in some institutes.

The Commission welcomes the commitment from the Minister to set aside £1.5m. in the period 1999 / 2000 to address issues relating to non-completion at third level.

7.2 Diversity of Courses - Real Choice

The Consultative Process - Background Document includes figures that show that not only has the enrolment in third-level education grown five-fold since the mid 1960s; this growth in numbers has been accompanied by a significant increase in the range and diversity of courses and programmes. Growth is particularly evident in the disciplines of Technology and Business and has been accompanied by a wide range of innovative developments in the Arts and the Social Sciences. A number of interdisciplinary courses has also been introduced. Details of patterns of participation at third level are outlined in Access to College: Patterns of Continuity and Change, by Professor Patrick Clancy and published by the Higher Education Authority in November 1995. In 1992, Commerce was the field of study which enrolled the largest percentage (24%) of new entrants. Almost as many (23%) were admitted to courses in Technology while a further 19% were admitted to courses in the Humanities with a further 15% entering courses in Science.

There continues to be an increase in the number of course choices available to students. In 1993, the total number of degree courses available through the CAO was 220; this had increased to over 280 degree options in 1997. The same trend is apparent in relation to certificate and diploma courses with 320 Certificate or Diploma options in 1997 compared to just over 250 in 1993. Much of this growth is due to increased specialisation of courses and this trend appears to be continuing, as an analysis of the 1998 CAO booklet shows.

In September 1998 there were more courses available than ever before. In many cases these courses were variations on earlier courses. An example of this is University College Dublin, which traditionally had a path into Computer Science through a general Science programme and now also offers direct entry to a computer science degree course. Another example of course expansion is in University College Cork, where five courses were added to the list of courses for the 1998 intake, most of which are variations and developments of Commerce and Language courses.

It has been suggested that some institutions seek to offer courses with a limited quota of places because they realise that courses with a small number of places are likely to have a higher cut-off point than courses with a large number of places. The Commission notes that some third-level courses accept as few as ten students, and questions whether there is a valid reason for this. Since course quality is sometimes erroneously equated with a high cut-off point, an institution's academic status is sometimes judged by the number of high-points courses which it offers. In this regard, a former senior academic recently accused universities and other colleges of manipulating their quota of students "so they can produce a "high quality" image". While there is no direct evidence that quotas of students are manipulated for this purpose, it is clear that the practice of introducing more specialist courses ab initio is leading to more courses with higher cut-off points.

The Commission does not accept that the cut-off point for a particular course should be considered a performance indicator either in relation to the specific course or the institution involved. It would be helpful if applicants and their parents continued to be made aware that cut-off points are largely determined by the relative supply-demand situation and that the fewer places available on a course, the higher the points will be. It would also be useful if information was made available on a routine basis on the number of places available on courses so that applicants will have a fuller picture of the situation. The Commission set out the number of places available on all of the degree courses which needed more than 500 points in 1997 in Appendix D of the Consultative Process - Background Document. There was some surprise expressed in the debate about this table which showed that in many cases there are very few places available on courses with high points. The Commission recommends that the CAO include in its Handbook the approximate number of places available (or the numbers of places available in the previous year) on each course. Simple information of this kind would bring a greater degree of transparency into the third-level entry system than has been the case to date.

The Commission shares the concern expressed in some submissions that over-specialisation in the first year of third level can cause difficulties for students. It is often difficult for applicants to have a full understanding of what a specialised course entails and as a result they may make inappropriate choices which they may not be able to change once they accept a place. There has been a long tradition of broad based first year courses in the universities of the NUI with an option to specialise in second or subsequent years. The same broad approach in first year has been a feature of the Engineering Faculty in Trinity College, Dublin. Many would argue that this structure should be retained and indeed expanded as it enables students to choose their specialised options on an informed basis at the end of first year or later. However, it can be difficult for an individual third-level institution to offer only general courses in first year while other third-level institutions offer specialised courses ab initio, especially if students regard the more specialised courses as being of higher status. If the current trend of increased specialisation of first year courses continues, demand for the specialised courses will inevitably increase and it will become very difficult for third-level institutions to resist this demand. Where possible, students should have the option of experiencing as broad a range of study as possible before deciding on a specialisation.

The Commission considers that all third-level institutions should, where feasible, offer broad based courses in first year. These courses should be such as to enable students to make an informed choice in relation to specialisation at the end of the first year or later of their studies. The Commission recognises that this may not be possible for all courses but does consider that the best option for students is to ensure that the final decision on the precise course that is to be followed should be delayed as long as possible. The Commission considers that this recommendation is particularly relevant to certificate and diploma courses. In many instances courses share common modules in the first year and, given the high level of attrition on some of these courses, the Commission considers that institutes of technology should consider offering a much broader first term or semester on these courses in order to introduce students to the choices that are available.

7.3 Student Support

The present position in relation to student support in third-level education is discussed in the Consultative Process - Background Document. The issue was dealt with by a special advisory committee set up under the chairmanship of Donal de Buitléir which reported in 1995. Many of the recommendations of this report, The Report of the Advisory Committee on Third-Level Student Support, related to the need to improve the level of maintenance grants for eligible third-level students.

The free fees initiative for full-time undergraduate students was introduced on a phased basis in 1995 - tuition fees were halved for the 1995/96 academic year and abolished completely from 1996/97 onwards. The initiative applies to approved colleges which include publicly-funded institutions and a number of non publicly-funded institutions and courses which are approved for the purposes of the Higher Education Grants Scheme and which are part of the CAO system of entry.

Student support schemes involve the payment of means tested maintenance grants to students from families on a relatively low income. These grants were first introduced in the late 1960s. The current situation in relation to the level of grant paid to students from various income and family size categories is shown in Tables 20 and 21, Appendix C of the Consultative Process - Background Document. Student support schemes do not apply to part-time courses.

While the Commission recognises that there has been an increase in investment in third-level education in recent years, it is also aware that there continues to be much criticism of the current level and availability of grants for full-time students. Particular problems have been cited concerning the rising cost of student accommodation, especially in the larger cities and intervention would seem necessary. One option which merits consideration in this regard is the payment of higher allowances to students in those cities. (An analogous approach is taken to the payment of differential allowances to civil servants on official business abroad, with the amounts paid varying by location.) An alternative approach might be to grant tax relief in respect of accommodation to parents of students who are not grant eligible, but who live more than 15 miles from their third-level institution. However, further analysis of all of the available options is required. Accordingly, the Commission recommends that there should be further consideration by an expert group - including representatives of relevant stakeholders - of the current level and availability of grants for full-time students. More specific recommendations concerning grants and support for part-time, mature and disadvantaged students are made in chapter 9.

Chapter 8: Guidance, Counselling and Information Issues

The environment in which the third-level education system operates has a major effect on the course and career choices of students. The role of society and its values, as well as the role of peers, parents, teachers, school management and the media were discussed in detail in the Consultative Process - Background Document. It was shown that parents play a crucial role in supporting their children in their course and career choice but that a balance needs to be maintained between undue expectations which can result in student stress, and lack of support, which can also lead to stress. The role of peers was also discussed and it was noted that peer influence can have a significant effect on course and career choices. Teachers also influence their students in a wide variety of ways and are a key source of support and guidance, both formally and informally. This section of the final report will consider the formal guidance and information services that are available to applicants for third-level places as well as related issues which were raised during the consultative process.

8.1 Education Act, 1998

Section 9 of the Education Act, 1998 states that a school shall use its resources, inter alia, to "ensure that students have access to appropriate guidance to assist them in their educational and career choices". Section 30 adds that the Minister may prescribe the curriculum for "the guidance and counselling provision to be offered in schools". In addition, section 7 states that the Minister must ensure that support services, including guidance and counselling services, are made available to every person in the State, subject to resource constraints.

8.2 School Guidance and Counselling Service

Areas of responsibility and Functions of Guidance Counselling
The guidance and counselling service in schools is an integral part of the education provision. The guidance and counselling process enables students to develop a realistic self-concept and to grow in self-knowledge and self esteem by helping them

While it is possible to distinguish three areas of responsibility within the guidance and counselling function, namely educational, vocational and personal/social guidance and counselling, these areas are in practice closely interlinked. In varying degrees, a guidance and counselling programme is usually organised around the following functions:

Students' interests and aptitudes are taken into account in assessing their potential and suitability for further education, training and the world of work. This process helps students to achieve goals, which are consistent with their ability, and is part of a school's overall provision, which seeks to orient students in the most suitable direction.

Guidance and counselling is a school wide responsibility requiring the close working together of management, guidance counsellor and teachers. While the implementation of the guidance and counselling programme falls primarily to the Guidance Counsellor in a school, close co-operation and team-work with other members of the teaching staff adds significantly to its effective implementation. Through the involvement of pastoral care teams, chaplains and religion teachers, Home School Community Liaison teams and teams involved in personal and social development programmes, there is an increasing emphasis on the general well-being of the individual child, and this orientation is becoming school wide.

8.3 Education and Training of Guidance Counsellors

School Guidance Counsellors are qualified second-level teachers who undergo an additional one-year full-time training course, or equivalent. At present the following six courses in this country are recognised by the Department of Education and Science:

Some schools have appointed teachers with psychology qualifications as Guidance Counsellors; other have appointed teachers with guidance counselling qualifications from outside the State.

8.4 Appointment of Guidance Counsellors

Guidance Counsellors are appointed to schools on the basis of student numbers. In schools with a population of between 500 and 800 students the appointment of a Guidance Counsellor is made on the basis of a post which is additional to the ordinary teacher quota. In schools with a student population of over 800, the allocation is 1.5 Guidance Counsellors (whole-time equivalents) and schools with over 1,000 students are entitled to two Guidance Counsellors.

The 1996 Guidelines indicate that in 1995/96 there were 72 schools with more than 800 students and 259 with 500 to 799 students. The 266 schools with a student population of between 250 and 500 were entitled to 0.5 Counsellors. The 48 schools with 200 to 249 students were allocated 0.4 of a post; the 37 with 150 to 199 students were allocated 0.3 of a post; the 26 schools with 100 to 149 students were allocated 0.2 of a post and the 24 schools with less than 100 students were allocated 0.1 of a post. In all, 567 whole time equivalent Guidance Counsellor posts are at present allocated in this way.

In March 1999, the Minister announced an increase in allocation of guidance hours to small schools. The minimum provision is now eight hours per week.

Psychological Service and Guidance Inspectorate of the Department of Education and Science
At national level, the Psychological Service and Guidance Inspectorate of the Department of Education and Science plays an important role in supporting the work of guidance counsellors. In 1997 the Minister for Education and Science announced his intention to develop, in liaison with the health authorities, a National Educational Psychological Service. This will be available to all primary and second-level schools as well as to young people of school-going age who are outside the formal educational system.

A planning group, representative of the partners in education, issued a report in September 1998 and an Implementation Group has been set up to implement the recommendations of the report. In February, 1999, the Minister for Education and Science announced that the service will hire an additional 25 psychologists this year and eventually become an independent statutory agency with 200 psychologists. The National Educational Psychological Service will provide support for guidance counsellors in relation to individual casework. A number of psychologists will remain in the Inspectorate and will continue to advise on and support the guidance service in schools.

8.5 Professional Support for Guidance Counsellors

National Centre for Guidance in Education
The National Centre for Guidance in Education (NCGE), which was established in 1995, supports Guidance Counsellors by providing materials and information relating to vocational, educational and personal/social guidance. It organises in-career development courses for Guidance Counsellors. It produces and disseminates a newsletter on a regular basis and is an invaluable source of information on various aspects of guidance and counselling.

In partnership with the Department of Education and Science, the Centre is currently engaging in a systematic administrative audit of the guidance service. The purpose of the audit is to ascertain the basic facts about guidance in second-level schools in order to ensure that the necessary resources for guidance are available to schools and are being used by them efficiently and effectively to meet the needs of their students. The audit will seek basic information on

The NCGE is also currently researching the provision of guidance and support services for early school leavers and plans, as an outcome of this research, to produce a national directory of such services. The Centre is also involved in a pilot programme on Adult Guidance funded by the Leonardo da Vinci programme and the Department of Education and Science.

Institute of Guidance Counsellors
Many School Guidance Counsellors are members of a professional body, the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, which was established in 1968 and has a current membership of over 700. The Institute, which is organised on both a national and local level, provides information and training support for its members. On behalf of its members and their clients the Institute has a liaison and advocacy role with government departments, management and trade union organisations, national parent bodies, third-level institutions, employment and training agencies, representatives of industry and a wide range of non-government organisations. The Institute has a constitution and a code of ethics. It promotes standards for entry into the profession and for the practice of guidance and counselling. It supports the professional development of its members through in-career training.

In addition to the administrative audit referred to above, the Department of Education and Science hopes to set up an action research project on guidance during the school year 1999/2000. This project will serve as a benchmarking exercise, whereby a small number of schools of different types with well-developed guidance services will provide detailed descriptions of how they organise guidance provision. It is planned to publish the results in order to provide models of good practice for other schools.

8.6 Issues

The Commission considers that good quality, comprehensive guidance can contribute significantly to broadening the views of second-level students and their parents on diverse pathways to careers. The Commission supports the need for an effective and comprehensive guidance and counselling service in schools and considers that the provision of such a service should be viewed in terms of the right of a student to access to an appropriate level of such services. It is hoped that the audit programme and the research project which are currently being undertaken, will provide a basis for future development of the service, building upon existing best practice.

As regards the deployment within schools of the existing cadre of guidance counsellors, there is no clear picture at national level of the breakdown of their time between subject teaching hours and time spent specifically on guidance and counselling. A survey undertaken in 1993 by Professor Liam Ryan on behalf of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, (Counselling the Adolescent in a Changing Ireland, National Survey of Second Level Schools Ireland), indicated that 28% of the time of the guidance counsellors surveyed was engaged in classroom teaching. In this regard it is noted that the Guidelines for the Practice of Guidance and Counselling in Schools recommend that "the existing provision of an ex-quota resource for guidance should be used for the provision of guidance services only, i.e., educational, vocational and personal/social guidance."

Circulars issued by the Department of Education and Science contain guidelines regarding the maximum hours of subject teaching to be done by guidance counsellors. These guidelines state that a reasonable proportion of an ex-quota guidance counsellor's time, subject to a minimum of three hours ordinary classroom teaching per week, should be assigned to guidance work. The Commission recommends that where a guidance counselling post is allocated to a school, the school should be facilitated in ensuring that the post is used for the purposes for which it was allocated, i.e. for guidance counselling. The Commission further recommends that the relevant circular should be amended and that the three hours should be a maximum limit. Furthermore, the Commission suggests that this maximum limit should generally only include guidance and counselling related classroom teaching, including such teaching within the Leaving Certificate Applied, the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme and the Transition Year. The Commission recognises that this recommendation may be difficult for some schools to implement given that existing guidance counsellors in schools may be the only teachers available for particular subjects. However, where the provision of guidance counsellors is additional to the quota, the Commission considers that they should be used for this purpose.

Many submissions to the Commission identified the inadequacy of the present provision of Guidance Counsellors in schools. The Commission considers that every pupil should have access to a comprehensive Guidance and Counselling service. It was noted that in 1983 the number of pupils required for an ex-quota Guidance Counsellor was doubled from 250:1 to 500:1. This situation has never been redressed and the ratio of 500:1 remains as the basis on which Guidance Counsellors are allocated. The Commission welcomes the recent decision of the Minister for Education and Science that the minimum allocation in respect of guidance for each school should be 8 hours per week irrespective of the size of school and also notes that the minimum allocation in respect of guidance for schools with an enrolment of less than 200 is being increased to 0.36 whole-time equivalents for the school year 1999/2000.

However, since 1983, the workload on Guidance Counsellors has increased substantially. Additional responsibilities have been placed on them by the introduction of new programmes and by increased retention rates. Complex societal and educational changes also impact on our schools and have increased the need for time consuming one-to-one guidance in our schools. It is hoped that the proposed audit will clarify the current position and that the pilot project to establish current practice will be of assistance.

The Commission recognises that there is an urgent need for guidance and counselling and recommends that the necessary resources be provided to restore the Guidance Counsellor quota to the pre 1983 figure in terms of base calculation. This should be operated in conjunction with a minimum allocation to small schools and enhanced by special additional allocation where there is evidence of disadvantage.

Some of those who contributed to the debate expressed the view that some school leavers place an undue emphasis on courses in higher education institutions to the detriment of PLC courses, apprenticeships and other post-school training opportunities. The point was made that all students should be provided with information on the full range of education and training options available for school leavers. The Commission agrees with this view. It must however be borne in mind that the students' own value systems and that of their peers and families influence their attitudes and expectations in this regard. The guidance counsellor has a role to play in ensuring that a broad range of courses and career possibilities are made known to students.

Concern was also expressed in the debate about the extent to which guidance counselling tends to be focused on pupils at senior cycle, especially during the months leading to the completion of the CAO form, often with little support or information available to pupils in junior cycle. This can give the impression that the role of the guidance counsellor is primarily to advise and help students to access higher education courses. It was pointed out that major decisions on subject options need to be made in the junior cycle and at the beginning of senior cycle and that such decisions could best be made by students and their parents with the support of a guidance and counselling service. The Commission agrees that guidance counselling should be available to pupils throughout second-level education, at both junior and senior cycles.

To ensure that the guidance and counselling service in second-level education can meet its evolving role, the Commission considers that there is a need to clarify and copperfasten the role of the National Centre for Guidance in Education. The Commission considers that the NCGE needs to be adequately supported to ensure that it will be a dynamic resource and learning centre for second-level guidance counsellors. In this regard, the Commission notes that the newly established Management Committee of the Centre will meet with representatives of the Department of Education and Science to discuss its aims and objectives.

This should not take away from the role of the Centre in guidance outside of second level. Nevertheless, it needs to be made clear that given that, within the education sector, the greatest expenditure is on guidance in second-level education, commensurate priority needs to be given to the support mechanisms for this. The clear need for national coordination of the guidance and counselling service was signalled by the setting up of the Centre and the Commission recommends that the Centre advances in meeting this challenge. The Commission suggests that the role of the Centre could include becoming:

In this way the Centre can play a key role at national level for all second-level guidance counsellors.

8.7 Information on Courses and Careers

The need for easy access to information on course options and career development was highlighted during the consultative process. While there are many sources for such information, many submissions indicated that there can often be difficulty in accessing relevant and up-to-date information. The long-term needs of students in terms of their prospective careers and life chances should be borne in mind by those involved in providing information on course options. It has been suggested that sometimes, courses in further and higher education are considered in a vacuum without reference to the subsequent career options to which they might lead. While it is, of course, important that students should be familiar with the content of the various course options which they are considering, information should also be available on the broader context of these courses, including the career options that might follow from them.

The Commission has noted that at times, guidance counsellors in second-level schools are expected to draw students' attention to specific career choices. For example, when skills shortages exist, Government and various State agencies try to encourage students to consider targeted options. Forfás currently coordinates a skills awareness campaign to attract greater numbers of students into areas where there are shortages or potential shortages. As part of this campaign, information is sent to all guidance counsellors. In addition, bodies promoting tourism training and nursing have also circularised guidance counsellors. Guidance counsellors can sometimes be inundated with information from a variety of sources about various career options. The Commission suggests that this information be coordinated by a single national body, the National Centre for Guidance in Education, which should be regarded as the designated provider and coordinator of information and support for guidance counsellors on career and course options. Agencies and organisations, which wish to circulate information to guidance counsellors, might channel such information through the NCGE. In addition, where information or materials are available for guidance counsellors, this could be indicated to guidance counsellors through access to the internet and guidance counsellors could then request the material from the NCGE.

In this context, the Commission recommends that the NCGE continue to work closely with the National Centre for Technology in Education to develop a national policy and good practice guidelines on the use of information technology for guidance counsellors in second-level schools. The Commission welcomes the announcement by the Minister for Education and Science at the launch of Careers World earlier this year that his Department will provide computer equipment for guidance counsellors

There is much potential for increasing co-operation between the NCGE and FÁS in the area of information provision. The NCGE, through its contact with guidance counsellors, can help to identify for FÁS where there are deficiencies in the supply of careers materials, e.g., an up-to-date video or CD ROM for a particular career, and FÁS might be encouraged in this way to ensure that relevant and up-to-date material is available. At local level, it should be possible to ensure that such materials are available in all Education Centres and that guidance counsellors can access them from there.

8.8 Guidance and Information for Mature Students

The submissions to the Commission referred to the lack of a guidance and counselling service for mature students interested in applying for higher education courses. The Commission considers that there should be a lifelong approach to guidance but maintains that information and guidance on third-level course options should not be provided separately from information and guidance on the many other education and training options that are available to mature students. In this regard, therefore, the Commission supports the recommendations in Adult Education in an Era of Lifelong Learning (the Green Paper on Adult Education published by the Government in November 1998) that a comprehensive guidance service for adults be provided. The Commission recommends that such a service should complement the broad range of guidance, counselling and information services, which are already provided by agencies outside of the education sector, and that there should be no duplication of scarce resources in this regard. As part of this service the Commission considers that a free phone information line on education opportunities should be available for mature students. Furthermore, the Commission recognises that the development of a comprehensive guidance service for adults will not necessarily mean a new service but may be a development of existing services with some new elements.

The Commission also recommends that third-level institutions should bear in mind the needs of mature applicants in the preparation and provision of information for potential applicants.

8.9 Third-Level Counselling and Advice

In third-level institutions, counselling services and career guidance are among the student services provided. Different institutions provide and support such services in different ways. The support system in the institutions includes lecturers, personal tutors, administrative staff and Student Services staff. Generally speaking, students with concerns which they would like to discuss confidentially, have the option of contacting a Counsellor. These concerns may have to do with settling or resettling in, personal relationships, family worries, isolation or shyness, academic pressures or any other number of issues. Alternatively, the issues could be discussed with a student's personal tutor or with a Chaplain. In most institutions, psychologists and/or counsellors are available for professional consultation on academic, personal and vocational problems. In addition, workshops are often held at the start of the first term to help students to cope with the transition to college and to establish new friendships. Through such workshops, students can be made aware of the resources and opportunities available in the institution. Careers services in third-level institutions seek to assist students in their career choices. They provide a mechanism for making information available about future education and training opportunities and about potential jobs. Furthermore, they facilitate interaction between students and employers by offering services to both. Such services can include the facilitation of employer presentations, site visits and interviews.

The Commission considers that the evaluation of the counselling and advice services within third-level institutions is not within its remit. Nevertheless, the Commission would consider that as third-level numbers continue to expand and as the third-level population becomes increasingly diverse, it is important to ensure that the counselling and advice services available to students continue to develop and be supported and that third-level institutions co-operate to ensure that best practice continues to be shared.

8.10 Counselling and Advice outside the Education Sector

A broad range of guidance, counselling and information services is provided by agencies outside of the education sector. The 1997 Government White Paper on Human Resource Development outlines plans for the further development of such services. It states that the National Employment Service, under FÁS,

will have the responsibility for the development and improvement of a general guidance and placement service at national level, the delivery of labour market activation programmes and the ongoing development of the Local Employment Service, ensuring in particular that its unique partnership and integrated character, its responsiveness to local needs, and its ethos and modus operandi are maintained and enhanced.

The White Paper further states,

in relation to the Local Employment Service, that individual intensive guidance, training, education and employment supports are at the heart of the service . . . the Local Employment Service will continue to develop an active mentoring/guidance service targeted at the disadvantaged and focused on progression to employment.

This report has already adverted to the need for close liaison between FAS and the NCGE in regard to the preparation and dissemination of relevant careers information to schools.

Other agencies, which provide career information and guidance, include the Area-Based Partnerships, under the aegis of the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation. The partnerships offer Local Employment Services to the long-term unemployed. In addition, the National Rehabilitation Board operates a guidance and counselling service for disabled young people and adults.

Chapter 9:Mature Students, Progression, Part-Time Students

9.1 Third-Level Education in the Context of Lifelong Learning

As pointed out in chapter 1, only about 5% of those entering full-time undergraduate higher education courses in this country are mature students (i.e. over 23 years of age). This is in stark contrast to other OECD countries where the equivalent figure can be as high as 40%.

At present, a school leaver in this country has a much better chance of entering third-level education than a mature person. Moreover, full-time courses are much more in demand than part-time courses. There are many inter-related reasons for this. Student support mechanisms are heavily weighted in favour of full-time study over part-time study and favour school leavers over mature students. Direct financial support in the form of grants is available only for full-time students and for full-time courses while the only support available for part-time students is through income tax relief. In general, third-level institutions are organised with the considerations of school leavers in mind. Moreover, there are strong assumptions among the general public that school leavers who have the capacity to benefit, should proceed immediately to third-level education after school.

A recent OECD publication, Redefining Tertiary Education (1998), shows how the situation has changed in other countries:

… one of the most striking phenomena in many countries is the substantial if uneven growth of demand from mature-age students. The "first years" can be entered at any age from late adolescence to old age. Part-time study opportunities are especially important… since many mature-age students are unable to participate full-time… institutions encourage part-time students by designing programmes and facilities to meet their needs. Hours of opening are long, access to libraries and equipment is flexible and teaching is specifically geared to a very varied clientele. Inclusive policies for the first years of tertiary education need to start from a recognition of the full scope and variety of students seeking or needing access. This will require many changes of values, attitudes, institutional organisation, modes of teaching and the provision of resources and facilities.

The report notes that "funding policies in some countries have been less favourable to part-time than to full-time students. In the perspective of lifelong learning for all, it is essential that part-time study and various combinations of work and study be given greater encouragement".

The same OECD report also identifies the possibilities for distance education in addressing demand in this area:

Of great potential significance… is distance education. The costs of initial design and development are very high… but probably the greatest barrier… is that off-campus, part-time study is regarded as "second best" or even quite inapplicable in certain fields. Successful experience over considerable periods of time in several countries should be sufficient to refute these opinions, yet the spread of distance education… has not been rapid across the OECD area….

As indicated in chapter 1, the Commission is of the opinion that in the coming decades, a more flexible and lifelong approach to accessing third-level education will be required in this country. Major changes in patterns of access to and participation in education, including third-level education, will be necessary if the concept of lifelong learning is to become a reality. A greater level of flexibility of access to and progression within education will be required than is currently the case.

The development of a system designed to foster lifelong learning will require progress on three key fronts within the remit of the Commission. This chapter therefore examines the situation concerning mature students, part-time students and the issue of progression within and across third-level institutions.

9.2 Mature Students

9.2.1 Definition

In general,students are classified as mature provided that they are at least 23 years old on 1 January in the year of their entry or re-entry to a third-level course. However, as noted in the CAO handbook, "some institutions have a different age requirement [and] different definitions of mature applicants". For higher education grants purposes, the 23 year age threshold also applies. Entry to part-time evening courses in universities and institutes of technology is generally open to persons aged 20 and over.

The Back to Education Allowance (BTEA) operated by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, is available to persons who have been in receipt of certain social welfare payments for at least six months and who wish to pursue approved second or third-level education courses. It replaces the Second and Third-level Allowance schemes previously operated by the same department. Eligibility is restricted to those aged 21 and over (24 is the age threshold for those who wish to undertake post-graduate studies).

The difference in the age thresholds for third-level entry/grant eligibility and for the BTEA could lead to inequality of access for students aged between 21 and 23. Although the objectives of the two systems differ, the effect of the dual age threshold is to improve the opportunities for access for certain persons aged 21-23. Others in this age bracket who fail to meet the BTEA eligibility criteria will not qualify for the same level of financial support.

The argument has been made to the Commission that the age threshold for mature students should be reduced to 21. Such a move would eliminate the BTEA anomaly. In addition, it would narrow the gap between school leaving age and eligibility for second chance entry as a mature student. Care is required in determining the appropriate threshold. If the threshold is too high, school leavers may not see entry as a mature student as a viable alternative career-path. Accordingly, this will do nothing to alleviate the pressure on students to achieve high points. If the threshold is too low, many students could view entry as a mature student as a "soft option", and this could have implications for the second-level system. In addition, it would tend to marginalise older mature students who may not have the same range of alternative options as school leavers do.

9.2.2 Existing Mechanisms for Entry to Full-Time Third-level Courses

Two entry routes are available to mature students. Firstly, applications may be made through the standard CAO process and assessed on the basis of Leaving Certificate results. Alternatively, applicants may apply for a place within the mature student quota of a third-level institution, in which event their application is assessed on an individual institutional basis. Many such applicants may not have sat the Leaving Certificate or may have left full-time education some time previously and their results might not be sufficient to secure a place in the normal way. Some applicants within the mature student quota will meet standard entry requirements but won't have the required points, whereas others will not, and will be eligible based on their age alone.

Most applications must be made through the CAO but in some cases, application must be made directly to the institution in question. In a small number of cases, application is made through a combination of both approaches.

Two universities (Dublin City University and the University of Limerick), most colleges of education and a number of other institutions require mature students to apply to them directly. Trinity College, Dublin requires direct application plus application through the CAO. The remaining universities and all institutes of technology require application through the CAO.

In 1998, 4% (1,364) of all CAO acceptances of certificate, diploma or degree places were mature students. Of these, 129 (9.5%) were offered places directly on the basis of their attainment in the Leaving Certificate and the remaining 1,235 were offered places based on other criteria. Mature students also entered some higher education institutions directly without applying through the CAO. The most recent year for which information is available on all mature students entering universities (both through the CAO and through direct application) is 1995. In that year, 7% of all students entering full-time undergraduate programmes in universities were mature students. It would appear that the proportion of mature students entering institutes of technology is somewhat lower. It is likely, therefore, that around 5-7% of all those entering undergraduate third-level education are mature students.

Every year the Department of Education and Science publishes a Guide for Mature Students, Entry to Full-Time Third-Level Courses. This publication lists all of the institutions, their entrance requirements and the proportion of places that have been set aside for mature students in each faculty. It also outlines, where information is available, the individual selection procedures for each institution. The number of places set aside for mature students varies by institution and across faculties within institutions. In the case of the University of Limerick, for example, the Guide states that all places are awarded on merit and no further detail is provided. For some institutes of technology, the Guide states that the reserved places are 5%, or up to 10%, or that 'applications are welcome (from mature students) and no quota applies'. Dublin City University states that between 5% and 10% of places are reserved for mature students in all faculties. University College Cork sets aside specific numbers for each course including, for example, 159 places in the Faculty of Arts, one place in medicine and one place in dentistry. Mechanisms for selecting mature students vary considerably by institution, but appear to include interview, aptitude tests, portfolio assessment, essay writing and personal statement.

Availability of Places for Mature Students
The number of places reserved for mature students in third-level institutions is quite limited compared to other countries. Consequently, many eligible mature applicants do not have access to third-level education. This issue was discussed in some detail in chapter 1. While there has been an increase in the number of mature students in third-level education in recent years, the Commission notes that participation rates in Ireland are still low by OECD standards. Figures published by the OECD (Education Policy Analysis, 1997) show that on average, 19.3% of new entrants to universities in all OECD countries in 1995 were aged 26 or over. This compared to an Irish figure of 2%. In the case of non-university tertiary education programmes, the Irish figure was 1.1% compared to an OECD average of 36.8%.

Historical factors contributed to the emphasis on provision for school leavers and the relative neglect (compared to other OECD countries) of mature students. Ireland's demographic profile, particularly the high birth rate and young population has been a significant factor in the drive for increased provision for school leavers. In addition, the increase in participation at second level in this country occurred later than in other western countries.

The Report of the Steering Committee on the Future Development of Higher Education recommended in 1995 that mature students as a proportion of full-time entrants to third-level education in this country should be progressively increased from a level of 1,000 full-time students in 1993/4 to 2,200 by the year 2000. The report states that

the percentage of mature students entering third-level education in Ireland is quite low by comparison with Britain. The comparison is even more unfavourable with such countries as Sweden, Germany, Australia, United States, etc. It is to be noted that in such countries school age-going populations declined at an earlier stage than in Ireland with a consequent reduced pressure for places for school leavers.

The report projected that by the year 2000, 6% of all entrants to third-level education would be mature students, by 2005 it would be 11%, by 2009, 15%, and by 2014, 20%. It would appear that the target for the year 2000 may already have been met.

Data are sketchy on unmet demand from mature applicants. As pointed out in chapter 1, a recent study shows that in 1997, University College Dublin received 1,347 applications on the basis of mature years, for full time degree courses. However, only 81 (6%) of applicants were offered places. The offer rate for the evening Modular BA degree was much higher at 84% (total offers - 250). It is likely that demand among mature students for access to further and higher education will continue to increase. The decline in the numbers of school leavers as a result of demographic change will free up some capacity. However, it is likely that in some areas, particularly in the short term, additional places will require to be made available for mature students. If demand from mature students increases in line with previous experience in other OECD countries, there will be considerable pressure on third-level capacity. The Commission is of the view that the State has a responsibility to provide third-level places for adults who did not have access to third level when they left school as well as having responsibility for providing third-level places for school leavers.

The Commission recommends that by the year 2005, each institution should set aside a quota of at least 15% of places for students entering at age 23 or above. This could be done by increasing the intake of mature students on a gradual basis over the next five years. In the longer term, say by the year 2015, this target might be raised to 25% - a proportion which would bring Ireland closer to the average participation rate for mature students in OECD countries as a whole.

In general, the 15% quota should apply to all courses, although as indicated below, there may be a small number of exceptions in the short term. The quota of 15% of places would be for those who are assessed other than on the basis of their school-leaving qualification and, therefore, mature students who succeed in entering third-level education on the basis of a school-leaving qualification should not be included within this quota.

It has been argued that certain courses are suited and others are not suited to mature student entry. The Commission is aware of concerns in this regard, particularly in the applied sciences and healthcare areas. The Commission accepts that if an institution identifies a course or courses where mature students clearly have a less successful completion rate than school leavers do, it may not be possible to implement the 15% target by 2005. In such cases, the Commission could envisage a situation where an institution might accept applicants for places and provide appropriate 'top-up' modules during the first year of the course. Alternatively, the institution might require the students in question to complete successfully further suitable and relevant programmes before commencing the particular third-level course.

9.2.3 Source of Places for Mature Students

Linked to the implementation of the quota strategy as set out above, is the question of the source of the third-level places for the mature student quotas. It has been argued that these places must be additional to the existing stock of places. Supporters of this view consider that setting aside a portion of existing and planned stock for mature students would increase the pressure on school leavers competing for a reduced total of places. They take the view that such a move would add to the high levels of stress experienced by school leavers and would run counter to the broad aims of the Points Commission.

It must be acknowledged that demographic change, alluded to earlier, will lead to a reduction in the size of the cohort of school leavers over the next fifteen years. Department of Education and Science enrolment projections predict a fall in numbers of Leaving Certificate school candidates (including repeats) from 58,100 in 2000 to 45,600 in 2013. A decreasing school-leaving population, even allowing for increased participation in second and third-level education, is likely to lead to a reduction in the number of applicants per school leaver place by 2005. This reduction will free up some existing capacity to be made available for mature students. However, more fundamental issues of principle must also be considered.

The Commission considers that it is necessary, in analysing the source of provision for mature students, to step back from the existing institutional culture of the third-level system and to examine the basic principles which should inform a decision. A number of - to some extent, competing - factors should in principle be taken into account in allocating numbers of places. These factors include:

The economy's and society's need for a certain quantity of third-level education is driven primarily by manpower planning considerations and market needs. Projections of employment growth, wastage patterns and the potential for deviation from forecast needs, may be used to generate the likely intake required over the short to medium term, to meet anticipated demand for graduates in that discipline. This approach is widely used to inform policy on allocating numbers of places. The Expert Group on Future Skills Needs has used these methods to estimate needs for graduates equipped with languages and IT skills. It can however, also be argued that in a knowledge-based economy, the supply of "knowledge-based workers" creates economic growth and consequently leads to further manpower demand. Hence, the cause and effect cycle in manpower planning is a complex one.

Competing demands on resources also influence the aggregate number of third-level places provided. The education sector is one of a number of areas in competition for public funding. In recent years, education has been a key strategic area of public investment and it has been shown that investment in education yields long term as well as short term economic returns. Within the education sector, there is competition from the various areas - primary and second-level schools, special needs and disadvantage, further and adult education, etc. The needs of the economy and society, levels of provision internationally and the level of demand among potential applicants all influence the relative allocations within the sector. Recommendations concerning appropriate provision were made by the Steering Committee on the Future Development of Higher Education in 1995, and an updated set of recommendations is expected later this year. Within the aggregate provision, the Committee will also consider the relative allocations of places between school leavers, mature students and other applicants.

In addition to considering the needs of the economy and society, policy makers must also take account of the needs, rights and expectations of individuals. This is particularly important in the context of a large volume of research which highlights the central importance of education to an individual's earning capacity, career opportunities and life chances. The rights and expectations of each group within society must be taken into account. The pervading culture in Ireland has been that school leavers have an automatic right to continue to third level and that their rights outweigh those of other groups. As a recent study of mature students in UCD notes,

The argument seems to be that we have a responsibility to meet the needs and interests of school leavers, even though they come from advantaged backgrounds, before we meet the needs of students, mature or otherwise, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The study goes on to state that:

To recommend, as the Steering Committee on the Future of Higher Education did, that more mature students should be taken into higher education as the school going population declines, is in some respects to reinforce the notion that … the educational needs of adults can and should only be catered for once the needs of young people are met.

In recent years there has been increasing recognition of the need to extend opportunities to those who were not as fortunate on leaving school. Second chance education is seen as an integral component of the lifelong learning philosophy and as crucial to meeting the needs of the economy in terms of replacing redundant skills and equipping individuals to re-enter the labour market. In addition, it is a central plank in a strategy to eliminate disadvantage and promote a more equitable and inclusive society. Therefore, there needs to be a balance between the previously automatic rights of school leavers and the need to take account of the needs of those previously excluded.

To balance the rights and expectations of school leavers with those of mature applicants would involve something of a "culture shift" in thinking. It is important to state that such a change would not necessarily lead to increased pressure on school leavers, rather the opposite could be the outcome. Increasing the relative allocation to mature students would enable school leavers to choose from a wider range of options and career paths. The effect of the present system is to stress the importance of immediate entry to third level. Those who do not enter straight from school will, under the present system, have limited opportunity to enter at a later date. They miss out on alternative pathways and are subjected to increased hype and pressure to perform at a single point in time. There are all sorts of reasons why students may wish to defer entry to third level for a few years, but the structure and culture of the present system deters them from doing so.

If a greater proportion of places were made available to mature students, there would be a reduction in the pressure on school leavers to perform well in a single exam. Failure to achieve entry to a desired third-level course as a school leaver would not be the "end of the world" if students had the option to re-enter a few years later. The "all or nothing" aspect of the terminal examination would be removed. As a quid pro quo, evening courses which are currently available only to older students, should be open to all applicants irrespective of age.

The Commission takes the view that it is necessary and desirable, for many reasons, to foster this culture shift and to moderate the traditional emphasis by society and our education system on performance in a single terminal examination at age 17 or 18 as the principal arbiter of a person's life chances. Decisions on the aggregate level of provision will be made by others, taking account of various factors outlined above. However, within this aggregate figure, the proportion of places allocated to mature students should be increased to bring about this culture change, to reduce the pressure on school leavers and to ensure more equitable treatment for those who may not have had access to third-level education upon leaving school.

The Commission has noted in chapter 2 that there are some areas within third-level education where demand among school leavers for places is extremely high. Allocating a quota for mature students within existing provision, would be likely to lead to some difficulties and increased pressure on school leavers. In some instances, it might be necessary to create some additional places for mature students. However, as noted in chapter 2 (see especially table 3), most of these areas are in the medical and healthcare sector. The approach proposed by the Higher Education Authority and supported by the Commission to deal with the pressures in these areas will hopefully result in an alleviation of the particular difficulties involved.

9.2.4 Application and Selection System

It is clear from the submissions made to the Commission that there is growing dissatisfaction with the diverse mechanisms operated by different institutions for mature student selection. Applicants have to undertake similar but separate assessment processes in each of the third-level institutions in which they seek a place, and there may be different assessment processes in separate faculties in the same institution. This can be both time-consuming and expensive from the point of view of the applicant and there is clearly a need to simplify and/or coordinate the process.

Where students do not succeed in getting a place it is not always clear to them how they can improve their chance of success when making a future application. Sometimes, those who are assessed as suitable/eligible are kept on a waiting list and may be informed of their order on the waiting list. Advice may be given to those who are deemed ineligible / unsuitable that they should undertake a formal course of study before applying again, e.g., attend a course in a local VEC school (perhaps under the Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme) or complete an access course. In some cases, it is possible that unsuitability may result from failure to understand what the course they have applied for entails and they are advised to carry out more research before applying again.

The lack of a guidance and counselling service for mature students interested in applying for higher education courses has been highlighted in the previous chapter. Inglis and Murphy note that "The chances of successfully negotiating each stage [of the application process] can be linked to the provision of a proper educational guidance and counselling service for adults". The Commission has recommended that such a service - including a free phone information line - be provided, and that it complement the existing range of services available outside of the education sector. The availability of such a service would assist applicants in their choice of course and in the application procedure.

The Commission distinguishes between selection criteria which are appropriate for school leavers and those which might be used for mature students. All school leavers applying for a place in higher education are required to have completed the Leaving Certificate and as indicated in chapter 4, the Commission regards the Leaving Certificate, appropriately developed, as the most appropriate mechanism for selecting these applicants. Many mature students will not have sat the Leaving Certificate and it is not always either feasible or appropriate for them to sit it at this stage. There are other ways in which they can demonstrate their suitability for higher education studies and different third-level institutions have developed a variety of approaches to assessing the suitability of mature students.

The Commission considers that there should be a single evaluation of a mature person's application for a third-level place in any broad course area and that where diverse courses are applied for there should be a common base evaluation of each application. In this regard the Commission recommends that third-level institutions should move towards a coordinated system of assessment of mature student applications, under the CAO, and that such a system be in place for mature students seeking a place commencing in Autumn 2002.

The Commission recommends that in moving towards a coordinated system of assessment, third-level institutions should consult with providers of adult and continuing education and training and of community education and training. They should also consult with the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland with regard to ensuring consistent approaches for the recognition of prior learning and of prior experiential learning.

The object of a coordinated system would be to ensure that there would not be multiple examination of an individual application for similar course areas. Moreover, where diverse course areas are applied for, there should not be separate evaluation except in cases where there are clearly identified needs for core attainment levels prior to commencing a particular course. Under the new system, feedback should be provided to unsuccessful applicants on their applications. Students should be aware of the timescale involved in assessing their applications and feedback should be provided within a specified period, e.g., by early July. The Commission recommends that there should be a named officer in each third-level institution to undertake this role. In particular, mature applicants should be informed whether they are eligible for the course or courses for which they have applied. If eligible, they should be put on a list and guaranteed a place within a specified number of years. Ineligible applicants should be advised as to the action that they should take to become eligible. For example, they might be advised to complete a course which would enable them to make good the deficit which has been identified in their application. The general aim would be that the new system would enable mature applicants to plan for entry to third-level education within a specified number of years, if that is their goal.

The setting up of a coordinated applications system for mature students would have a number of additional benefits for the third-level institutions involved. It would free up the time of the many academics who examine the applications of mature students at present. In addition, it would lead to increased co-operation between academics and institutions in devising appropriate selection criteria and in developing effective approaches for supporting mature students in third-level institutions.

The selection mechanism used for entry to the National Certificate in Manufacturing Technology course which commenced in some institutes of technology in January, 1998, and to the Information Technology Certificate course which commenced in January 1999 included interviews and an aptitude test. This selection mechanism might be one of the mechanisms which could be considered by third-level institutions in moving towards a coordinated system of assessment of mature student applications.

9.2.5 Access Courses

Access Courses for mature students are already in place in some third-level institutions and were mentioned in many of the submissions to the Commission. The Commission considers that there is a need for increased clarity in this area since at present, access courses do not necessarily lead to access to third-level institutions. To avoid misleading potential applicants, institutions should not use the title "access courses" unless there is guaranteed access to a third-level course on the successful completion of a so-called access course. Courses which are currently described as access courses but which do not guarantee access should be re-named in a manner reflecting their real status - preparatory or foundation courses might be an option in this regard.

Access could be guaranteed in the case of applicants who have been given a provisional offer of a place on a third-level course, subject to completing successfully an access course. Such a system might be particularly helpful in preparing disadvantaged mature students for entering third-level institutions.

Preparatory or foundation courses, such as those currently provided through VTOS and other schemes, would continue to have a key role in helping to prepare potential applicants. Students who have completed such courses would be in a position to apply for a place through the new central applications procedures and the preparatory course could aim to help them in the selection process, as is currently the case in some courses.

9.3 Support for Mature Students

9.3.1 Financial Support

At present, mature students have the same access to financial support as other students. The grants scheme is based on a means test. Different rates are payable depending on distance from the institution: the lower "adjacent" rate covers students living within 15 miles of the college.

The Minister for Education and Science announced in December, 1998, that as part of his Budget package £2.4 million would be provided over 1999 and 2000 to fund an extension of the maintenance grants scheme. The extension would mean that all eligible mature students would qualify for the higher, non-adjacent, rate of grant. The Commission welcomes this initiative which addresses an anomaly raised in the background document concerning the addresses used for grant applicants. Previously, mature students were assessed using their home address at the time of starting the course, whereas school leavers were assessed using addresses in use on the previous 1 October. Effectively, this meant that most mature students would be assessed for the lower non-adjacent rate (since they would already be in situ for the course).

The Commission has been made aware of the existence of another anomaly in the grants system. For mature students aged 23 and over, grant applicants may opt for means testing based on their independent means or on their parents'. However, for applicants aged under 23 (including married applicants under this age), means testing may be based only on their parents' income. This anomaly should be addressed.

The difference in the age thresholds for third-level entry/grant eligibility and for the BTEA could lead to inequality of access for students aged between 21 and 23. Although the objectives of the two systems differ, the effect of the dual age threshold is to improve the opportunities for access for certain persons aged 21-23. Others in this age bracket who fail to meet the BTEA eligibility criteria will not qualify for the same level of financial support. Again this is an issue which needs to be addressed.

The Commission notes the success of the Back to Education Allowance operated by the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. This is available to persons who have been in receipt of certain social welfare payments for at least six months and who wish to pursue approved second or third-level education courses. It replaces the Second and Third-level Allowance schemes introduced by the Department of Social Welfare in 1990. Eligibility is restricted to those aged 21 and over (24 is the age threshold for those who wish to undertake post-graduate studies). Eligible students can retain their social welfare entitlements while at third level and can also avail of further allowances. The Commission supports this initiative which has helped many who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to access third-level education.

Unfortunately, there is a clear divergence of opportunity between those who can avail of the Back to Education Allowance and those who cannot. The scheme provides an incentive for students aged 21 or over to be in receipt of social welfare payments for at least six months prior to entering third-level education. The question of transferring administration of student support payments (e.g., means testing and payments) from the Department of Education and Science to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs is currently under consideration.

A number of issues and anomalies in relation to consistency of approach and financial incentives and disincentives for mature students have been identified in the above paragraphs. The Commission has neither the expertise nor the resources to investigate these matters further with a view to recommending a solution. We recommend therefore that these matters be addressed by both the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, in consultation with the Higher Education Authority, and appropriate student and third-level representatives.

9.3.2 Other Support

Mechanisms for the induction of all students and for mature students in particular into third-level education and for ongoing monitoring and support are key elements in ensuring their successful participation in third-level education. The need for these supports is greatest during the first year as the available evidence indicates that non-completion rates are highest at this stage. Many mature students would benefit from a specific induction course either in the early weeks of first year or prior to the commencement of the first semester. Such a course might include an introduction to study skills, to the library and information systems of the institution and advice on essay and project work. An induction course might also include access to additional tutoring relating to the course being undertaken. This might be particularly useful in areas where there has not been a tradition of mature student participation or where such participation has not been successful. These supports are particularly necessary for mature students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There is also a need to ensure the effective participation of mature students in the social and cultural life of third-level institutions. Third-level institutions and the appropriate student organisations need to ensure that arrangements and supports for such participation are equally available to mature students and to school leavers and are inclusive of the student body as a whole.

9.4 Progression to and within Third-Level Education

While the vast majority of places in third-level institutions are filled on the basis of the results of the Leaving Certificate, a number of places are set aside on certificate, diploma and degree courses for students applying by routes other than the Leaving Certificate. For example, a quota of places in the institutes of technology is currently set aside for students who have completed Post-Leaving Certificate courses and who have attained NCVA Level 2 awards. In 1998, over 3,100 candidates applied for these places and almost 1,400 of these candidates accepted places. Of these, at least 567 accepted on the basis of their NCVA Level 2 awards. It is of interest to note that the majority of these students were accepted on to courses to which entry was quite competitive, i.e. where the Points at entry were relatively high. 5% of the applicants were accepted on courses with a Points level of 400 or over; 44% on courses with entry points between 300 and 399; 36% on courses with a points requirement of between 200 and 299; and the remaining 15% on courses where the points requirements were less than 200.

Places are also reserved on some national diploma courses for applicants who have achieved a sufficiently high result on a certificate course as are places on some degree courses for applicants with a sufficiently high award at diploma level. A pamphlet issued by the Higher Education Authority in 1998 provides an outline of the main transfer mechanisms available. The pamphlet advises students that procedures are not standardised between individual colleges and that in many instances, applications are assessed individually and an interview may be required.

While the Commission recognises that the key aim of certificate and national diploma courses is the provision of meaningful and relevant qualifications in their own right and that they are designed to lead directly to employment, it nevertheless considers that there should be more scope for transfer and progression, particularly to degree level. The publication, First Destination of Awards Recipients in Higher Education (1997), published by the Higher Education Authority in 1998 points out that 42.6% of those who successfully completed diploma courses in 1997 continued with further studies in Ireland (compared with 37% in 1996) and a further 6.6% abroad compared with 8% the previous year .

The Commission recommends that places should be set aside on relevant degree courses, in universities as well as in institutes of technology, for progression from diploma courses. The Commission also recommends that in setting aside degree places for transfer from diploma courses, there should be full recognition for attainment at diploma level and there should be no need to refer to school leaving examination results for matriculation or other purposes. A student transferring from a relevant diploma course should not have to recommence at the first year of a degree course. Degree providing institutions might develop their course structure in such a way as to allow access for such students and, where necessary, they should provide appropriate concurrent short modules to enable such students to integrate successfully into their degree courses.

At present students may transfer from certificate to diploma level if they have reached a certain standard. Where they do not meet this standard they may undertake some relevant work experience before progressing. The Commission supports the practice of ensuring that a specified standard is reached or experience gained before progressing to the next level, but it is anxious to ensure that in such situations, the number of students reaching the specified standard is not determined or influenced in any way by a shortage of places at the next level. Similarly, where students are seeking to progress from a diploma to a degree course, they are usually required to meet a specified standard. Where this standard is not met, a student can sometimes not progress further. The Commission suggests that in these instances mechanisms be developed to provide an opportunity for such students to meet these standards, perhaps by way of further experience. In general, the Commission recommends that full information about the conditions relating to transfer and progression as well as an indication of the record of previous students in this regard, be available to students at the point of application for the initial course.

There is also a need for an appropriate transfer system to be put in place for students who have a degree in a particular area and who seek to undertake further study at undergraduate level in a related area. For example, where a student has a degree in biology and seeks to undertake studies in medicine, one might ask whether such a student needs to start in the first year of the medical course. As a general rule, institutions should make provision for accepting transfer students in second and subsequent years. With increasing modularisation of degree courses, such transfers may become easier to operate. It would however be important that students were made aware that the free fees initiative in third-level education applies only to students taking one course to degree level and that it would not apply to students taking a second undergraduate degree course.

At present, third-level institutions are predominantly structured on the basis of entrance into a first year of full-time study and progression through successive years of full-time study until final qualification. The various supports from the State - including fee remission and grants schemes - are based on this model with financial support only for full-time students and for full-time courses. There is a need for greater opportunities for students to participate in third-level education on a part-time basis. This will be addressed in the next section.

9.5 Entry to Part-Time Undergraduate Courses

It is not possible to consider full-time mature student entry to third-level education without also looking at the entry of part-time students and the opportunities available for such potential entrants. The OECD has identified a number of inter-related factors which affect adults when they are considering embarking on third-level education, whether part-time or full-time. These include financial support, programme design, design of facilities, access to libraries and equipment, style of teaching and learning.

The dominant model of third-level education involves entry into a first year of full-time study with progression through successive years of full-time study until final qualification. In Ireland, the various supports from the State are based on this model with financial support primarily for full-time students and for full-time courses. There is a need for greater opportunities for students to return to third-level education on a part-time basis.

Definition of Part-Time Student
In the Consultative Process - Background Document the difficulty in getting an agreed definition of part-time students was raised. The Interim Report of the Technical Working Group of the Steering Committee on the Future Development of Higher Education (1995) stated that "in seeking to define part-time student we took as our starting point the OECD definition of part-time students in higher education as those enrolled in programmes organised in such a way that they were able to undertake another activity either full-time or part-time".

This definition seems imperfect - the Commission is aware that many full-time students also undertake other activities (either full-time or part-time) and in many cases need to do so to support themselves. Class contact hours do not provide a reliable indicator of the nature of a course. For example, students in the modular Arts degree in UCD (a part-time course) have more contact hours than students in fourth year Arts (full time course) in Trinity College. In addition, there may well be students currently classified as part-time students who are not involved in any other activity.

The definition of part-time education needs to be revisited. In the context of promoting lifelong learning and addressing skills needs (of individuals, the economy and society), there should be a move away from a focus on employment status to define whether a person is a part-time or full-time student. Instead, the focus should be on equipping those without qualifications or with inappropriate or inadequate qualifications. Policies currently based on what seems to be an imperfect definition, also require review. These policies include the differential provision of resources to institutions and within institutions and of support to students depending on the classification used. The review should take account of factors such as continuity, the promotion of equity, the integration of part-time students into third level and the benefits of part-time education for the economy.

The previous section noted that there is a need to develop appropriate opportunities for students to have real options for transfer and progression. More opportunities must be developed for students to return to third-level education on a part-time basis. A number of steps need to be taken in order to ensure that part-time learning can be opened up. For example, funding mechanisms should not discriminate between similar or identical courses which are offered on a part-time basis ( as compared to those which are offered on a full-time basis). The Commission notes the intention set out in Charting Our Education Future, the White Paper on Education (1995), that "as further resources become available, priority will be given to . . . reducing and abolishing fees for part-time students." The Commission considers that a person who did not enter third-level education on leaving school should have access to the same financial support as a school leaver, if he/she wishes to enter third-level education in later life, whether that be on a full-time or on a part-time basis.

As an immediate step, the Commission recommends that the Department of Education and Science and the Higher Education Authority develop a fund to support part-time undergraduate third-level courses. Institutions could seek an allocation from the fund on the basis of proposals for part-time courses over a certain period. Proposals would be evaluated on criteria to be drawn up by the Department of Education and Science and the Higher Education Authority. The criteria should take account of and reflect major policy priorities aimed at promoting equity across society and strengthening the economy. These priorities include the promotion of opportunities for lifelong learning, skills needs (of the individual, the economy and society) and increased participation among the disadvantaged. The extent to which courses are linked within the national framework of qualifications, particularly the extent to which they are linked to full-time courses, and the availability of transfers to these, would also be relevant. Other areas which could be taken into account in evaluating proposals include the emphasis in proposed courses on personal development and capability enhancement, as well as the need (highlighted earlier in the chapter) to develop further the provision of distance education.

It is envisaged that some of the fund would be spent within the institution on teaching resources, and on support and back-up services for part-time students, and some on reducing or removing fee payments. It is suggested that the aim would be that the fund would operate for a period of up to five years and would be appropriately evaluated.

Chapter 10:Students from Disadvantaged Backgrounds

10.1 Background

10.1.1 Government Policy

The ever-changing nature of Irish society and the Irish economy pose ongoing challenges for public policy. Some of the most significant challenges identified by the Government and by the social partners in recent years concern social inclusion and equality. In this context, a central aim of Government is to ensure that greater social inclusion accompanies the expansion of the economy and that there is an equitable distribution of future benefits across society. Many government initiatives, particularly the National Anti-Poverty Strategy have sought to develop policies to address these issues.

The key role of education as a major public policy tool in tackling problems of social inclusion and equality has been emphasised in a number of recent reports and government initiatives. Low levels of educational attainment have also been identified as a factor in social exclusion. However, although education is a powerful policy tool, education interventions should not be seen as "quick fix" solutions to the problems of social exclusion, nor can education alone solve all problems. A multi-faceted and integrated programme of policy strategies and interventions, involving a number of government departments and agencies will be required to tackle the long-term problems of social exclusion.

10.1.2 Legislative Requirements

One of the objectives of the Education Act, 1998 is "to promote equality of access to and participation in education and to promote the means whereby students may benefit from education". Educational disadvantage is defined in the Act as "the impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevent students from deriving appropriate benefit from education in schools". Section 32 provides for the Minister to set up a committee to advise him/her on policies to combat educational disadvantage. The Minister is required to consult with education partners prior to establishing the committee and the membership will be appointed from nominees of the relevant voluntary and other bodies.

The Regional Technical Colleges Act, 1992, sets out in section 7(5) that "In performing its functions a governing body shall have regard to the attainment of gender equity and of equality of opportunity in education". The Dublin Institute of Technology Act, 1992, contains a similar provision.

Under section 12 of the Universities Act, 1997, universities are required "to promote gender balance and equality of opportunity among students and employees of the university", having regard to the guarantee of academic freedom under Section 14. Universities must also ensure that the principles of gender balance and equality of opportunity are afforded to their students and staff. They are obliged to encourage greater access to the university by economically and socially disadvantaged sections of the community under Section 18. The Act requires universities to prepare and implement policies in furtherance of these objectives (Section 36).

Clearly third-level institutions have the legislative freedom to address third-level disadvantage as they see fit while the legislation, in turn, places a responsibility on them to do so.

10.1.3 Patterns of Participation

In relation to third-level education, while the Commission recognises that educationally disadvantaged students are not uniquely from lower socio-economic backgrounds, it is likely that significant numbers of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are disadvantaged. It has been noted in the Consultative Process - Background Document that participation by students from lower socio-economic backgrounds in third-level education has improved somewhat in the past twenty years, but their rate of participation is still very low compared to the participation of other socio-economic groups.

Initiatives to increase participation in third-level education by students with educational disadvantage should be the culmination of a range of strategies aimed to tackle educational disadvantage throughout a student's schooling. Fuller participation in third-level education by students who are educationally disadvantaged depends on measures to ensure access to and retention of students in full-time education at primary and second levels as well as initiatives which focus on the transition from second to third level and on the third-level sector itself.

In the context of access to third-level education, the Interim Report of the Technical Working Group of the Steering Committee on the Future Development of Higher Education (1995) identified three crucial schooling transition points at which the effects of socio-economic background are significant. The first transition relates to whether a student continues in school long enough to take the Leaving Certificate. While 22% of students left school without reaching Leaving Certificate level, only 3% of the Higher Professional group failed to make this transition compared with 47% of the Unskilled Manual Group.

The second transition relates to the level of achievement of those who remain in school and complete the Leaving Certificate. The level of achievement varies strikingly by socio-economic group. Less than 30% of the Semi-Skilled Manual Group and the Unskilled Manual Group attained at least 2Cs at Honours level, compared with 80% of the Higher Professional Group and 75% of the Lower Professional Group.

The third transition relates to those who complete the Leaving Certificate. Significant differences emerge between socio-economic groups in the percentages progressing to third-level education and these differences are most pronounced for those with modest levels of educational achievement. However, for those with Higher Levels of achievement, the differences are much less significant and for those with very high Leaving Certificate results, e.g., five or more subjects with grade C or higher on Higher Level papers, the percentage going on to third-level education was in excess of 81% for all socio-economic groups.

10.2 Second-Level Interventions

10.2.1 Curricular Changes

There has been a wide range of curricular change in recent years in second-level education. These are outlined in detail in the Consultative Process - Background Document. The developments include:

The key principles of these developments have been to provide breadth, balance and coherence in the curriculum at second level. Breadth involves the provision of a wide range of different experiences which nurture holistic development. Balance establishes appropriate relationships among the diverse aspects of the curriculum. Coherence provides students with broad and balanced programmes at the appropriate depth, while also encouraging students to make connections between the varying facets of their educational experiences.

10.2.2 Educational Interventions in Second-Level Schools to combat Disadvantage

It is generally agreed that there is a need for a continuum of integrated initiatives from first level through to third level in order to combat disadvantage. In this regard, a number of interventions have been put in place by the Department of Education and Science. These range from intervention programmes at pre-school level, to access and support programmes at third level. The Early Start programme is an early years intervention aimed at children aged three to five years of age in certain disadvantaged areas. At primary level, intervention programmes include Breaking the Cycle, the Home-School-Community Liaison scheme, the designation of certain schools as disadvantaged and the provision of additional resources to such schools. More recently, the 8 to 15 initiative and preventive programmes within the Area Development Management Partnership programmes, are also designed to provide additional support to primary age children in some disadvantaged areas.

Initiatives at second-level build upon those at primary level. These include the following and are outlined in more detail below:

The criteria for disadvantage which have been used to allocate disadvantage posts include the number of first year students within a school

So called 'disadvantage' posts have been allocated to 190 second-level schools and the allocation of these teachers within the school is decided by the school's management.

In 1998/9 there were 85 schools in the Home School Community Liaison Scheme, which focuses on disadvantaged areas. 64 of these had disadvantage posts and the remaining 21 were allocated special concessionary posts. In the case of the Home School Community Liaison Scheme, a coordinator (teacher) is assigned to a school, or group of schools in disadvantaged areas to work, not with students, but with school staff, students' parents and relevant community agencies in advancing the educational interests of children. Features of the scheme are:

Secondary schools with a disadvantage post receive an additional per capita grant of £30. For Community/Comprehensive and VEC schools, account is taken of the disadvantage status in determining the annual budget/block grant.

Overall, a total of 350 ex-quota remedial posts are allocated to second-level schools. In addition, 147 resource posts and 14 child care assistants have been allocated to second-level schools in the current year.

10.2.3 Expansion of Provision - Budget 1999

As part of the Budget 1999 package outlined in December, 1998, the Minister for Education and Science announced an expansion of the interventions listed above. 225 new second-level teachers are to be appointed. Combined with a change in the manner of dealing with over-quota staffing in schools, the Minister's aim is that these new teachers will enable the move towards the provision of a remedial resource in all schools and Home School Community Liaison in all disadvantaged schools. The new package is being resourced by allocating an additional teaching provision to schools which are within quota and lack the appropriate remedial and home/school provision. In the case of schools with over quota teachers who might otherwise be re-deployed, this resource will be utilised in the first instance to meet the remedial and home/school needs of the school.

10.2.4 Youthreach and Junior Education Centres

In addition to the above initiatives, designed to optimise the participation of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds within mainstream education, a number of other initiatives are in place to provide compensatory education for young people outside the mainstream system. Youthreach Centres provide basic skills training, practical work training and general education for early school leavers aged 15 to 18 and are funded by the Department of Education and Science and by FÁS. Junior Education Centres cater for 12-15 year old travellers who are not attending second-level schools. Senior Traveller Centres offer integrated education, vocational training and work experience for travellers, mainly in the 16-25 year age group. These centres are financed and resourced by the Department of Education and Science usually through local Vocational Education Committees.

10.2.5 Vocational Training and Opportunity Scheme

A further initiative designed to enable long-term unemployed to return to full-time education and improve their educational and vocational skills is the Vocational Training and Opportunity Scheme. The Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme, which is administered by the Department of Education and Science in conjunction with the Department of Social Welfare, offers the long-term unemployed over the age of twenty-one an opportunity to return to full-time vocational education and training. Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme courses focus on the development of employment-related skills, including technological and business skills. Modules are also provided on personal development.

The National Council for Vocational Awards has made National Foundation Level certification available nationally with effect from September 1997, and as a result participants in a wide range of programmes have registered for certification and have taken part in in-career development. Assessment at Foundation Level is now being offered twice yearly, in March/April and November in order to provide the flexibility for candidates to progress at an appropriate pace, and to accumulate credits towards awards on a modular basis. Level 1 modules have been developed as a progression option from Foundation training and were piloted extensively in 97/98 for national implementation in 98/99. Registration and in-service for Level 1 have already taken place and certification is being implemented nationally.

10.2.6 Area Based Partnerships Under the Operational Programme for Local Urban and Rural Development 1994-99.

38 Area Based partnership companies involving a partnership of statutory and voluntary agencies provide a range of education, training and support services in designated areas of disadvantage. The objectives are to support community development and social inclusion actions based on an analysis of existing provision, an assessment of priority area needs and the formulation of an integrated area action plan. Funding for the EU aided programme is coordinated by the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation. The Department of Education and Science funds a National Education Coordinator and 25 whole-time equivalent posts which enable a local education coordinator to be provided in each of the Partnership areas.

10.2.7 Integrated area-based Coordination of Services for young People at risk of Early School Leaving

As a result of the mid-term review of EU Structural Funds, £2.96m over the period 1998 and 1999 is being provided for the piloting and formal evaluation of a range of structured pilot projects in urban and rural disadvantaged areas which test models for the development of an integrated area based coordination of services for young people at risk of early school leaving. The objective of the pilot projects is to develop models of good practice with a view to their integration, after structured evaluation, into mainstream policy and practice. The initiative contains 3 strands:

The various initiatives at second level are not designed specifically to ensure increased participation of disadvantaged students in third-level education. Rather, the aim is to ensure that as many students as possible complete second-level education and thereby have the opportunity to choose appropriate options from among employment, further education and training or third-level education. The Commission supports this aim.

The above initiatives have developed over a number of years. Initial criteria for the allocation have changed and in many cases have become more rigorous as a result of further research into disadvantage. The criteria for allocating additional resources need to be reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure that they continue to be focused on the areas of greatest need. From time to time, some schools will cease to meet the criteria and in other cases, schools not previously designated will become eligible for additional resources if their situation deteriorates. The Commission recommends the continual evaluation of initiatives to tackle disadvantage at second-level and of the criteria used to allocate additional resources. The various interventions in second-level education need to be developed in an integrated and coherent fashion so as to ensure that the additional resources are focussed on areas of greatest need.

10.3 Third-Level Interventions

There have been a number of initiatives within the past decade designed to improve the participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in third-level education. The first three of these were special access initiatives involving Dublin City University, University of Limerick and Trinity College. The initiatives involved linkages between the universities and local second-level schools and incorporated supervised study facilities, extra tuition for students, information and advice for parents and students, including seminars, mentoring and support teaching in key subject areas.

A special fund, entitled the Disadvantaged Fund, was established in 1994 comprising two elements - The Hardship Fund and The Special Fund for Students with Disabilities. The objectives of the Hardship Fund are to assist in a sensitive and compassionate manner, students who might otherwise, due to their financial circumstances, suffer hardship or be unable to continue their third-level studies. The administration of the Hardship Fund is devolved to the third-level institutions. The allocation to the university sector is made through the Higher Education Authority and to the institutes of technology and the colleges of education directly by the Department of Education and Science. The allocations are based on total undergraduate enrolments in the previous academic year. Expenditure from the Hardship Fund was £120,000 in 1994, £182,000 in 1997 and £150,000 in 1998.

In addition, the Higher Education Authority in 1996, 1997 and 1998 provided funding of £260,000, £475,000 and £695,000 respectively for initiatives in a number of universities, specifically related to improving the participation of socially and economically disadvantaged school leavers to a level of 2% of all such entrants. This builds on the policy approach outlined in the White Paper on Education which states that "the Higher Education Authority, in consultation with third-level institutions, will be asked to advise on the most appropriate and effective means of achieving an annual increase in participation of 500 students from lower socio-economic groups in third-level education over the next five years."

These initiatives build on existing programmes and involve links with second-level schools and local communities. There are two aspects to these programmes. The first involves assistance to some students to meet the points requirement for courses, enabling them to obtain a college place through the standard CAO entry procedure. The other aspect of the programmes is the special entry arrangements through which more flexible entry criteria are applied and various supports put in place for students entering by this method.

Support from the Higher Education Authority for proposals from the universities to improve access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds is firmly based on the intention of meeting stated targets. Universities are required to submit progress reports on each of the programmes funded. In this regard, the Commission welcomes the commitment of the Higher Education Authority to continue to expand its targeted funding for higher education access initiatives. The Commission also welcomes the announcement in December 1998, by the Minister for Education and Science, that a further £3m will be allocated to promote access to third level among students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including people with disabilities.

Much progress has been made by universities in developing schemes to support educationally disadvantaged pupils since targeted funding was first made available by the HEA in 1996. Developments have also occurred in institutes of technology although these are less well documented. Most of the universities have appointed a designated access officer to develop appropriate support schemes for disadvantaged students and have drawn up a plan for the implementation of these schemes. Virtually all of the current initiatives are characterised by a close relationship between the third-level institutions and designated second-level schools. A variety of practices have developed to assist disadvantaged students in accessing third-level education, although there are many common elements in the different schemes.

Virtually all of the current initiatives are linked to particular schools and colleges and/or particular geographic areas adn of their nature can only impact on a certain proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Inevitably, the initiatives tend to be focused on urban areas, where third-level institutions are located, and do not generally include pupils from rural disadvantaged areas, where over 60% of disadvantaged pupils live. It must also be noted theat while second-level schools which are designated as disadvantaged have a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, many other schools both urban and rural also cater for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Such pupils are currently excluded from most of the special third-level access schemes.

Many useful lessons are being learned from the current initiatives and it is important that the initiatives are evaluated on an ongoing basis and their findings documented and disseminated. Already, these initiatives provide pointers towards a more widespread and national scheme of access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds - a scheme which will include students in rural as well as urban areas, attending schools which are designated as disadvantaged, as well as schools which are not so designated.

10.4 The Way Forward - Policy Approach of Commission

The challenge for policy-makers is to design and implement measures which offset the disadvantages and obstacles experienced by some students, so that conditions for all students wishing to enter third level are equalised in so far as it is feasible for policy measures to achieve this.

The Commission considers that the issue of access for disadvantaged students to third-level education should be addressed in a coherent and comprehensive fashion. It is clear from the interventions that have been in place for a number of years in second-level education and from the more recent interventions at third level that there is a commitment at both national and institutional level to improve access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, at present there is no information available on whether participation rates by socio-economic groups have changed in the past seven years. Since Clancy's study, Access to College: Patterns of Continuity and Change, looked at the entrants to third level in 1992, no national study of the socio-economic background of third-level entrants has been completed. The Commission understands, however, that a study is currently being carried out on more recent entrants.

10.4.1 Quota for Disadvantaged Students

About 16% of the population generally belongs to the lower socio-economic groups. If young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were equitably represented in third-level education, they would account for approximately 16% of third-level enrolments.

While the Commission welcomes the setting of targets for the participation of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in third-level education and recognises that some improvements in participation have occurred resulting from this target-setting, it recommends that the quota for disadvantaged students in third-level education should be increased to 5% of the intake into third-level education. This quota should apply to all courses. The longer term aspiration should be to increase the percentage of disadvantaged young people in third-level education so that it would reflect more accurately their proportion in the population as a whole. As is currently the case, students applying for a third-level place within the disadvantaged quota would also be eligible for a place under the normal CAO arrangements.

10.4.2 Designation and Definition of Disadvantaged Student

As stated in the previous paragraphs, the current third-level support schemes are largely based on links between third-level institutions and designated disadvantaged schools. To date, there has been no national scheme to address the individual disadvantaged student who is not enrolled in a designated disadvantaged school. The Commission acknowledges the need for the continuation of strategies that focus on designated schools because of the high concentration of disadvantaged students in such schools. However, it also notes that, throughout the process of consultation, there was a general view that initiatives to tackle disadvantage at third level should be capable of reaching out to all disadvantaged students.

The Commission considers that building on existing initiatives, there is a need to develop a national approach to ensuring that special access schemes should encompass disadvantaged students who are attending non-designated as well as designated schools. While the Commission recognises that there may be difficulties in this approach, it considers that there is a need to develop a definition of a disadvantaged student based on the individual student. In this regard, the Commission suggests that the Educational Disadvantage Committee to be set up under Section 32 of the 1998 Education Act, in consultation with the Higher Education Authority and the Combat Poverty Agency, might advise the Minister for Education and Science on the precise criteria for defining a disadvantaged student.

10.4.3 National Coordination - Appointment of a National Access Officer for Disadvantaged

While impressive work has been done by individual institutions in addressing the issue of the under-representation in third-level education by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, there is a need to coordinate and extend current practice. The Commission is particularly conscious of the fact that under the existing schemes, access to the various support initiatives is confined to students who live in relatively close proximity to a third-level institution. Those who live outside the immediate catchment area of a third-level institution have no access to a support scheme.

As a first step towards extending the access schemes, the Commission recommends that a National Access Officer for Disadvantaged be appointed to support and coordinate the current initiatives at third level. The role of such an officer would be to help third-level institutions to develop coordinated approaches to supporting disadvantaged students both before and after entry to third-level institutions. A further role would be to advise the HEA and the Department of Education and Science on appropriate criteria for defining disadvantaged students and on related policy issues.

While most of the universities have appointed an Access Officer to deal specifically with this area, there is currently no specific sanction from the Department of Education and Science for the post of Access Officer within the structure of the institutes of technology. For a National Access Officer to be effective it would be necessary to have such a person in place in each Institute.

10.4.4 Developing Links between Students from Disadvantaged Backgrounds and Third-Level Institutions

From information available to date, it would appear that the links between second and third-level institutions have been effective in providing a framework for supervised study facilities, extra tuition, and provision of information and advice to both students and parents. The available data also suggest that the schemes are beginning to show positive results in terms of increased participation by such students in third-level education. The Commission considers that there is a value in maintaining the links between individual third-level institutions and designated disadvantaged schools as well as extending these schemes to individual disadvantaged pupils.

10.4.5 Access Courses

While there may well be a need for short courses which will familiarise students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the third-level environment, the way in which such courses are designated should be carefully considered. The use of the title "access course" is not necessarily the most appropriate description for such courses, as has been pointed out in the chapter on Mature Students. It has been suggested in that chapter that access courses which do not guarantee access should be re-titled in a manner to reflect their real purpose - preparatory or foundation courses might be one option. As in the case of mature students, the Commission considers that institutions should not use the title "access courses" for courses for disadvantaged school leavers, unless there is guaranteed access to third-level education on successful completion of such courses.

The Commission does not rule out the possibility that substantive access courses might need to be provided for disadvantaged school leavers to enable them to make up some course requirements or to develop some prerequisite skills. But these courses might more appropriately be provided by bodies such as the VECs rather than by the third-level institutions. In general, the Commission is not convinced that school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds need to undertake a specific and substantive access course prior to entering third-level education. Any scheme that will increase the number of years which a disadvantaged student is required to spend in full-time education before graduating with a certificate or a diploma or a degree could well serve as a disincentive for such students to remain in full-time education.

That is not to deny that disadvantaged students would benefit from a specific induction course either in the early weeks of first year or prior to the commencement of the first term. Such courses are currently being provided by many institutions in the context of their support schemes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as outlined above.

10.4.6 Sup6port for Disadvantaged Students

Financial Support
It was pointed out in the Consultative Process - Background Document that the costs associated with third-level education would appear to be part of the reason for the under-representation of young people from lower socio-economic groups in third- level education. This issue was dealt with by a special advisory committee set up under the chairmanship of Donal de Buitléir, which reported in 1995. Many of the recommendations of this report, The Report of the Advisory Committee on Third-Level Student Support, related to the need to improve the level of maintenance grants for eligible third-level students. These recommendations have not been implemented.

Many of the submissions made to the Commission referred to the inadequacy of the maintenance grant currently available under the grants scheme. This inadequacy is particularly acute for disadvantaged students as their families are not generally in a position to provide the additional financial support which is needed to make up the difference between the students' costs of living and the maintenance grant. However, two of the studies referred to earlier on non-completion, indicate that while financial difficulties were a factor in non-completion, they were not the primary reason given for failure to complete. Similarly, the survey carried out by Patrick Clancy of students who received an offer of a third-level place from the CAO which they did not accept, suggests that the financial factor was not the key issue in the decision not to accept a place. In that study, only 10% of respondents stated that concern about the financial costs of going to college influenced their decision.

On the other hand, recent research carried out by Kathleen Lynch of the Equality Studies Centre in University College Dublin makes it clear that the inadequate level of the maintenance grant is a serious barrier to equal access and participation in higher education in this country. The report states that "having low levels of maintenance and support does not just affect those in college, it influences the plans and priorities of students (and their families) while they are still in second-level education".

It is clear that for some students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the inadequacy of the grants level is a contributory factor either to their decision not to accept a place or to drop out of college before completion. The Commission recommends that additional financial support, over and above the current maintenance grant scheme, be made available for disadvantaged students attending third-level education. This grant should be available to all such students and should not depend on whether a student's home was adjacent to the third-level institution.

The Commission also recommends that the Hardship Fund be increased so that all third-level institutions can have access to funds to help the financially less well-off.In this way, there will be greater freedom for third-level institutions to respod to the needs of less well off students, particularly those who are marginally above the eligibilty level for grant purposes or for the purposes of being classified as a disadvantaged student, or those whose circumstances worsen while they are in third-level education.

Other Support
The induction of disadvantaged students into third-level education and continued monitoring and support can be important elements in ensuring their successful participation in third-level education. The need for thes supports is greatest during the first year as the available evidence indicates that non-completion rates are highest at this stage. These general supports could be similar to those for mature students. In relation to disadvantaged students, it would be important that support services would not develop in such a way as to isolate them from the rest of the students population but would lead to their successful integration into the community of the third-level institution.

There is also a need to encourage the effective participation of disadvantaged students in the social and cultural life of third-level institutions. The recommendations of the Commission in relation to increased finacial support for disadvantaged students aim to reduce the need fro such students to take up part-time employment during their studies and thus enable them to play a fuller role in the social and cultural life of third-level institutions. Inadequate child-care facilities in third-level institutions further disadvantage single parents attempting to integrate and succeed in higher education.

Chapter 11:Students with Disabilities

"A student is disabled if she or he requires a facility, which is not part of the mainstream provision of the college concerned, to enable participation in college to the full extent of her or his capabilities and without which she or he would be educationally disadvantaged in comparison with peers."

The above definition of a student with disability was suggested by the Committee on Access and Participation of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education (1995) and was adopted by the Commission on the Points System in its deliberations.

Data on the number of students with disability in third-level education is not available but it is estimated that the number is in the region of 1,200 - 1,500. This is less than 2% of the total enrolment in higher education. Some of these students will have applied for a place in higher education through the CAO, disclosing their disability at the time of application. Others will have made direct application to the college of their choice.

As outlined in the Consultative Process - Background Document, a substantial number of students with physical and learning disabilities will not be able to achieve the required points for the course(s) of their choice. This does not however mean that they cannot successfully complete and benefit from third-level education. The Association for Higher Education Access and Disability, in a submission to the Commission, stated that

whatever the courses and whoever the student, academic ability to complete a programme is an important and necessary element of the selection procedures. A substantial number of disabled students will not be able, regardless of opportunities to repeat Leaving Certificate Examinations, to achieve the required points for the course(s) of their choice. In light of this, college faculties should be required to assess their courses and outline the prerequisite minimum academic requirements to successfully complete Certificate/Diploma and/or Degree programmes. Intending disabled students, and indeed non-standard students, should have the opportunity to reach these minimum courses requirements and present themselves for consideration. At no point should a student be admitted to a course solely on grounds of disability, they should have minimum academic requirements in order to matriculate.

The Irish Federation of University Teachers notes that in relation to physically disadvantaged students, as well as the socially disadvantaged and the mature student

the selection of such students must remain separate and distinct from the general selection process because an inherent characteristic of such students will be their inability to meet normal selection criteria. The special selection processes which are adopted in their case will be a matter for discussion and adaptation at local level. Again, the only generally applicable characteristics of such selection processes that we would advocate would be the fairness and transparency which general systems of selection enjoy.

The Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities made the point that the assessment of the curriculum as undertaken by the Leaving Certificate Examination does not reflect the true ability and effort of many very able students with specific learning disabilities. Therefore the points system as it now operates is inherently unfair to students with SLD wishing to enter third-level institutions.

The Association proposes that admission to third-level education for such students should not be based on points alone and that other factors should be taken into account. These would include consideration of the student's ability as indicated by a professional psycho-educational assessment report, specific aptitude tests, interview and consultation with the school authorities.

It should be pointed out that special arrangements are made by the Department of Education and Science to accommodate students with physical and learning disabilities in sitting the Leaving Certificate Examination. Circular letter S40/94 sets out the special arrangements that are in place in Certificate Examinations for such candidates. The arrangements are for candidates who would have difficulty in communicating what they know to an examiner because of a physical disability, including visual and hearing impairments, or a specific learning difficulty. The arrangements are intended to remove, as far as possible, the impact of the disability on the candidate's performance and thus enable the candidate to demonstrate his or her level of attainment. In addition, they are intended to ensure that, whilst giving candidates every opportunity to demonstrate their level of attainment, no unfair advantage over other candidates in the same examination is given. The Commission supports the continuation of these arrangements.

Students with a disability are categorised by the CAO as "special category applicants" and are invited to specify on their application form any special health or other special needs requirements. While many students with a disability compete with other students through the normal CAO channels, some third-level institutions operate a quota for disabled students and have special admissions procedures for such students. These procedures include direct application to the institution in question with individual assessment of each application. In some cases, forms of assessment other than the Leaving Certificate are used, and/or the applicants are invited to an interview. Some third-level institutions employ a Disability Support Officer who meets with the applicants and advises them in advance on the options and supports available to them. The Disability Support Officer also provides a wide range of supports for students with disabilities when they enrol in the institution. The Commission commends and supports such arrangements and recommends that each third-level institution should set aside a number of places for students with physical and learning disabilities. The Commission further suggests that the institutions should consult each other in relation to ensuring the consistent consideration of applications by such students.

Reference has already been made (section 10.3) to the Disadvantaged Fund, which was established in 1994 and comprises two elements - The Hardship Fund and The Special Fund for Students with Disabilities. The objectives of the Special Fund for Students with Disabilities are to assist students who have special needs in attending third-level institutions. Grants are provided to students for the purchase of special equipment, special materials, technological aids, targeted transport services and sign language assistance / interpreters. The Special Fund for Students with Disabilities is administered directly by the Department of Education and Science. Applications for assistance are made in October of each year by the individual students through their third-level institution. The allocations are paid to the relevant institutions in respect of the particular students. The institutions disburse the funds and certify the expenditure to be in accordance with the awards of the Department. Expenditure from the Fund has increased from £80,000 in 1994 to £218,000 in 1997 and £250,000 in 1998. The Commission recommends that the amount of the fund should be linked directly to the participation of disabled students in third-level education and that it should increase as participation increases. The Commission would also urge all third-level institutions to ensure that the physical environment on-campus is accessible to the physically disabled.

Chapter 12:Summary and Conclusions

In accordance with its terms of reference, the Commission on the Points System has carried out a review of the present selection arrangements for third-level education. As mentioned in the introduction to this report, these terms of reference highlighted the necessity to ensure a transparent, impartial and efficient system. The terms of reference also specify that particular account be taken of the personal development of students; the impact of the selection system on post-primary level, the selection of third-level courses; access to third level of disadvantaged and non-standard students and international experience of entry systems.

12.1 Lifelong Learning

Throughout this report, the importance of considering third-level education in the context of lifelong learning is emphasised. When the Points System was first introduced almost a quarter of a century ago, the third-level sector was considerably more limited in size and scope than it is today and third-level education was seen largely as the preserve of school leavers. The emphasis has shifted in recent years to the concept of lifelong learning which will require the provision of learning opportunities over a life-span rather than only in the earlier years. This will have to lead to more flexible forms of educational provision to meet a diverse range of needs of learners of all ages and social groups and will in turn, require more flexible routes of access and progression throughout the system. The Commission recognises that there are many more opportunities in further and higher education today than a decade or two ago with a more diverse range of courses and qualifications. While accepting that the key aim of certificate and national diploma courses is the provision of meaningful and relevant qualifications in their own right leading directly to employment, it nevertheless considers that there should be more scope for transfer and progression, particularly to degree level. Degree providing institutions might develop their course structures in such a way as to allow access for such students and, where necessary, they should provide appropriate concurrent short modules to enable such students to integrate successfully into their degree courses. In general, the Commission recommends that full information about the conditions relating to transfer and progression as well as an indication of the record of previous students in this regard, be available to students at the point of application for the initial course. (9.4)

12.2 Mature Students

The report points out that the rhetoric of lifelong learning has yet to be translated into practice and that this will be a major issue for third-level institutions in the coming decades. At present, only about 5% of those entering higher education in this country are mature students (i.e. 23 years of age and over) whereas in many OECD countries, such students account for up to 40% of third-level intake. The Commission recommends that by the year 2005, each third-level institution in this country should set aside a quota of at least 15% of places for students entering at age 23 or above. (9.2) If a greater proportion of places was made available for mature students, there would be a reduction in the pressure on school leavers to enter third-level education immediately on leaving school. Failure to achieve entry to a desired third-level course as a school leaver would not be the "end of the world" if students had the option to re-enter a few years later. The "all or nothing" aspect of the Leaving Certificate examination would be removed. The Commission takes the view that it is necessary and desirable, for many reasons, to foster this culture shift and to moderate the traditional emphasis by society and our education system on performance in a single terminal examination at age 17 or 18 as the principal arbiter of a person's life chances.

In this report, the Commission distinguishes between the entry requirements for school leavers and for non-standard entrants, e.g. mature students. The current approach to selection of mature students varies from institution to institution and can even vary by discipline within institutions. In general, there is a lack of transparency in mature student selection, which leads to frustration and dissatisfaction among many such applicants. The Commission recommends that third-level institutions should move towards a coordinated system of assessment of mature student applications, under the CAO, and that such a system be in place for those seeking a place commencing in Autumn 2002. (9.2)

The issue of financing of higher education for mature students is also addressed in the report. The Commission supports the Back to Education Allowance which has helped many mature students who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to access third-level education. However, a number of issues and anomalies in relation to consistency of approach and financial incentives and disincentives for mature students were identified by the Commission. The Commission has neither the expertise nor the resources to address these anomalies further. It is recommended therefore that these matters be addressed by both the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs, in consultation with the Higher Education Authority, and appropriate student and third-level representatives. (9.3.1)

The Commission recognises that some mature students may require to undertake a course of study before applying for a higher education place. However, concern was expressed that the impression may be given that unsuccessful applicants are being refused a place because of their unsuitability rather than because of a shortage of places for mature students. An increasing number of so-called access courses are being made available by a variety of providers for such applicants. The Commission is of the opinion that in order to avoid misleading potential applicants, institutions should not use the title "access courses" unless there is guaranteed access to a third-level course on the successful completion of such a course. (9.2.5)

12.3 Part-time Courses

The report addresses the issue of part-time courses and points out that there is a need for greater opportunities for students to return to third-level education on a part-time basis. (9.5)

It also suggests that the definition of part-time education needs to be revisited. In the context of promoting lifelong learning and addressing skills needs (of individuals, the economy and society), there should be a move away from a focus on employment status to define whether a person is a part-time or full-time student. Instead, the focus should be on equipping those without qualifications or with inappropriate or inadequate qualifications. Policies currently based on what seems to be an imperfect definition, also require review. These policies include the differential provision of resources to institutions and within institutions, and of support to students depending on the classification used.

The Commission considers that a person who did not enter third-level education on leaving school should have access to the same financial support as a school leaver, if he/she wishes to enter third-level education in later life, whether that be on a full-time or on a part-time basis. As an immediate step the Commission recommends that the Department of Education and Science and the Higher Education Authority develop a fund to support part-time undergraduate third-level courses. (9.5)

12.4 Support for Existing Third-level Selection System

In relation to the selection of school leavers, the Commission found during the course of its consultations, that there is a great deal of support for and acceptance of the existing selection arrangements. Transparency, impartiality and efficiency were highlighted as significant strengths of the system and were seen as the foundations of its credibility. The Commission notes that the existing Points system is generally accepted by the public and that a number of submissions cautioned against radical change. Although some misgivings were expressed during the consultative process, the lack of an alternative mechanism which could command credibility was cited in support of retaining the present approach. It was argued that alternatives had been criticised as potentially biased, unreliable, inefficient or unfair.

12.5 Students from Socially and Economically Disadvantaged Backgrounds

However, it was also argued that the existing system reinforces and accentuates inequality by contributing to an academic bias in second-level education. It was noted that socially disadvantaged students are, for various reasons, less able to cope with the demands of the existing system and that low participation rates among this group are perpetuated by the use of selection arrangements which, in treating all students in precisely the same way, fail to take account of the less favourable conditions experienced by some. In this regard the Commission notes that whereas 16% of the population generally belongs to the lower socio-economic groups, it is estimated that less than 2% of third-level students are from disadvantaged backgrounds. While the Commission welcomes the setting of targets for the participation of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in third-level education and notes that some improvements in participation appear to have occurred as a result of this target-setting, it recommends that the quota for disadvantaged students in third-level education should be increased to 5% of the intake into third-level education. This quota should apply to all courses. The longer term aspiration should be to increase the percentage of disadvantaged young people in third-level education to reflect more accurately their proportion in the population as a whole. (10.4.1)

The report commends the work of various third-level institutions in developing support schemes to improve access by pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and welcomes the various schemes that have already been put in place. The Commission notes that the majority of such schemes focus on designated schools in disadvantaged areas rather than on individual pupils. It considers that building on existing initiatives, there is a need to develop a national approach to ensuring that special access schemes should encompass disadvantaged students who are attending non-designated as well as designated schools.

While the Commission recognises that there may be difficulties in this approach, it considers that there is a need to develop a definition of a disadvantaged student based on the individual student rather than on the school attended. (10.4.2). As a first step towards extending the access schemes, the Commission recommends that a National Access Officer for Disadvantaged be appointed to support and coordinate the current initiatives at third level. (10.4.3). The Commission also recommends that additional financial support, over and above the current maintenance grant scheme, be made available for disadvantaged students attending third-level education. This grant should be available to all such students and should not depend on whether a student's home is adjacent to the third-level institution. (10.4.6)

The report notes that different support structures are provided by different institutions for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. These include the provision of substantive access courses. The Commission does not rule out the possibility that substantive access courses might need to be provided for disadvantaged school leavers to enable them to make up some course requirements or to develop some prerequisite skills. However, these courses might more appropriately be provided by bodies such as the VECs rather than by the third-level institutions. In general, the Commission is not convinced that school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds need to undertake a specific and substantive access course prior to entering third-level education. (10.4.5)

12.6 Supply of and Demand for Third-level Places - Healthcare Courses

While noting that the number of third-level places in this country has increased significantly in the last two decades, the Commission also notes the continuing mismatch between the supply of and demand for places. Although up to 60 courses in the current year accepted all qualified applicants, there continues to be an excessive demand for some other courses. The Commission has also adverted to the significant decrease in the number of births in Ireland during the past twenty years and to the implications that this is likely to have for demand for third-level places from school leavers during the next decade. Nevertheless, it is accepted that the pressure for places in some areas will continue. Since this pressure is largely in the healthcare area, the Commission has paid particular attention to this area in its report.

It is noted that (human) Medicine is one of a small number of courses on which there is a predetermined limit on the number of places which are funded by the government. In the case of Medicine the total number of places was set at 305 almost twenty years ago. Some of these places are filled today by students from other EU countries. It may well be that consideration should be given to increasing the number of places available for Medicine. In general the Commission considers that there should be a regular review of places on courses with capped numbers. The findings of such reviews should be in the public domain and the basis on which decisions are taken should be open and transparent. In undertaking such reviews, it will be important to ensure that no single interest group should have an overriding voice in fixing intake quotas. (2.4)

Members of the Commission were interested in a proposal from Dr. Martin Newell, Secretary of the CAO, that medical training courses should be at post-graduate level. The proposal would mean that those seeking admission to the healthcare professions would have to take a course in the Life Sciences or Healthcare Sciences. It would be envisaged that such a course could be provided in most universities and institutes of technology and that graduates of this course would compete for places in Medicine through a National Healthcare Admission Test. In its submission to the Commission, the Higher Education Authority noted that such a development could have very significant benefits for second-level students and the second-level system. However, the Authority recognises that all the implications of a change of this nature would have to be fully examined and that there needs to be full consultation with all those involved before any decision is taken.

The Commission agrees with these views and acknowledges that, in addition to the benefits outlined above, further advantages may accrue from such a development. These might include increased interest in the Sciences, with consequent benefits for the economy, and effectively, elimination of the difficulties concerning comparison of Leaving Certificate applicants' results with qualifications obtained outside the State. The time constraints faced by the Commission preclude it from undertaking the necessary consultation, but it believes that the proposal should be pursued further. The Commission therefore recommends that the key bodies and institutions involved in policy-making on healthcare training, e.g. the Medical Council, the universities, the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Health and Children, should set up a committee to explore the issue further. (2.10)

12.7 Entry to Third-level Education for School Leavers

The Commission is of the view that a more flexible third-level system with different routes of access and progression, as well as the postponement of entry to professional healthcare courses as suggested in the last paragraph, would be likely to reduce the pressure and stress on school leavers. However, having said that, the Commission recognises that there will continue to be a need for a selection system for many third-level courses for school leavers.

The effects of the present system of selection on students' personal development, education, career and life choices were highlighted in many of the submissions and are discussed by the Commission in its report. In considering possible alternatives to the present system, these aspects were given particular consideration. The experiences of selection systems in other countries were also taken into account, as were the views of the general public and of the students themselves.

It was generally accepted that whatever selection system is used for entry to third level, this system should select students who have a high probability of benefiting from third-level education. In this regard, research internationally and in this country in the past two decades, indicates that performance throughout a student's second-level schooling is the most reliable predictor of subsequent academic success. It is a more reliable predictor than ability / aptitude tests, interviews or other forms of selection.

The Commission strongly supports the integrity and independence of the second-level system and agrees that second-level education should provide a broad and balanced curriculum which should enable young people to benefit from a wide range of educational experiences. It agrees that the Leaving Certificate should begin to recognise a wider range of skills, intelligences and achievements than is currently the case. The Commission supports the view of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment that the Leaving Certificate should certify skills "that are variously described as involving observation, problem identification, problem solving, reasoning, the application of what is learned at school, and taking initiative in and responsibility for learning". It should also recognise the ability to work co-operatively and a variety of other aspects of social and personal development, which the NCCA refers to as "the qualities of the student as a human being". The Commission could envisage a Leaving Certificate which would ideally recognise achievements in areas which are currently perceived as extra-curricular, such as sports, drama, debating, musical, environmental projects and structured work experience programmes. The Commission is of the opinion that while a broad senior cycle education should be provided, and students' attainment in that senior cycle assessed and certificated, in some instances the certification might be of the nature of a record of participation and involvement rather than a grading of achievement. Some elements of the certification might not count for points purposes, but would be a pre-requisite for entry to third-level education. (4.6)

The Commission is aware that some countries e.g. the Netherlands and Germany, include some elements of continuous assessment by the class teacher in the final grade award. In Ireland however, there has been resistance to teachers assessing their own pupils for certification purposes and it has been argued that all assessment should be carried out by external examiners. On the other hand, the point has been made that a student's own teacher is the best placed person to make the relevant assessments. It is clear that radical and creative solutions are needed in this area. In the meantime consideration might be given to some of the suggestions made to the Commission, e.g. that different elements of a subject be taken at different times during the two year senior cycle, and that a greater use of coursework, projects, orals, practicals, fieldwork and portfolio assessment be included in the Leaving Certificate. However, the Commission acknowledges the difficulties involved in implementing these proposals and notes that major logistical issues are involved in meeting the existing demands of external assessment.

The Commission notes that the Education Act, 1998, provides for the setting up on a statutory basis of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment which will be "representative of bodies and persons involved in the education system at early childhood and primary and post-primary levels, in particular national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations, recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers." The Commission considers that the Council is the appropriate body to advise on precisely how the Leaving Certificate might be developed and broadened. It recommends that the certificate on completion of senior cycle second-level education, appropriately revised and developed by the Department of Education and Science, on the advice of the NCCA, in consultation with the partners in education, continue to be used as the criterion for third-level entry for school leavers generally. (4.6)

A range of alternative selection mechanisms is assessed in the report: standardised psychometric tests, school references, personal statements, interviews and random selection. However, the Commission feels that all of the alternatives to using the Leaving Certificate examination as the basis for third-level selection are either equally or even more problematic or incapable of securing widespread public support. (4.5.6)

12.8 Basic Entry Requirements and Special Subject Requirements

A number of other issues related to third-level selection and entry were considered by the Commission. These included basic entry requirements and special subject requirements. The Commission recommends that as far as possible, institutions should endeavour to ensure that basic entry requirements across the third-level sector are similar. (1.5.1) The Commission also recommends that special subject requirements for similar courses should not differ to any great extent. (1.5.2) It suggests that before any new entry requirements are introduced by third-level institutions, they should consult with the Department of Education and Science and/or the NCCA and the Higher Education Authority.

In general, the Commission considers that, as far as possible, in determining entry to third-level, institutions should not treat one element of the Leaving Certificate programme as more important than other elements. On balance therefore, the Commission does not recommend that bonus points be given for specific subjects. (5.1.1)

As regards rewarding applicants for being consistent in their choice of third-level places, the Commission recognises that individual applicants might have perfectly valid reasons for selecting quite different courses in their list of choices and does not accept that such applicants should be penalized. Research carried out for the Commission showed that when a large number of courses is available within a field of study, applicants were generally consistent in their choice of courses (i.e. a high proportion tended to express preferences for courses within the same field of study). The Commission does not favour a system which would attempt to reward consistency of choice. (5.1.3) Neither does it support the allocation of bonus points for top choices. (5.1.2)

12.9 Grades, Marks and Points

The Commission considered at some length the system of grading of the Leaving Certificate (A1, A2 …. D1, D2, D3 etc) noting that when grading was first introduced, the number of grades was limited to seven - (A,B,C,D,E,F,NG). A number of possible options to the present system was considered and after full consideration, the Commission recommends that the present system of grading be retained. (5.2.1)

The number of points allocated to each grade was also debated. On balance and having considered the arguments for and against a number of options, the Commission suggests that the number of points awarded to those with a higher level A1 should be reduced from 100 to 95. The result of this change will be that the maximum possible number of points for six subjects will be reduced from 600 to 570. (5.2.2) The reasoning behind the proposed adjustment to the points awarded for an A1 grade at Higher Level applies equally to ordinary level results. The Commission therefore considers that there should be a gap of 5 points between grades A1 and A2 on ordinary level papers. In order to eliminate the anomaly between points awarded for A1 and A2 grades, and in view of the need to adjust generally the points awarded at ordinary level, the Commission on balance suggests an increase in all ordinary level grades (other than the A1) by 5 points. (5.2.2)

The attention of the Commission was drawn to the lack of consistency in the patterns of grade allocation in different subjects of the Leaving Certificate. The Commission recommends that research be undertaken to identify the cause(s) of this variation and to consider possible strategies to ensure a more even distribution of grades across subjects. (5.2.3)

Attention was also drawn to the benefits in terms of additional points which can be gained by pupils who answer their Leaving Certificate examination papers through the medium of Irish. While fully supporting the development of further support services to Irish medium schools, the Commission considers that compensatory measures should not be introduced within the Leaving Certificate itself for answering through Irish. Such measures are at best an arbitrary and crude method of addressing perceived inequity and can produce an unintended unfair outcome. Accordingly, the Commission recommends that the practice of allocating bonus marks in the Leaving Certificate to candidates who answer through the medium of Irish should end. The Commission supports the continuing availability of the option to answer Leaving Certificate papers in either Irish or English. (5.2.4)

12.10 Repeating the Leaving Certificate

Statistics made available to the Commission by the CAO and research work carried out by David Tuohy showed that a significant number of young people repeat the Leaving Certificate every year in order obtain a place on a course - often a high points course. Concern was expressed that repeat students may have an unfair advantage over first-time candidates. Research undertaken for the Commission showed that by already fulfilling some of the basic entry requirements, repeat students have the advantage of greater leeway in planning their second Leaving Certificate. A number of suggestions to address this apparent advantage were considered and the Commission recommends that the points and basic entry requirements, with the exception of Irish in the NUI colleges, be attained in the same sitting of the Leaving Certificate.

In some cases, applicants may repeat the Leaving Certificate twice or even three times. The Commission recognises that in certain situations, there may be a value to students in terms of their personal development and maturity in undertaking an extra year at school. It is reluctant, particularly in view of the need to retain flexibility in the system to take account of individual circumstances (especially where repeat sittings may be necessitated as a result of illness or bereavement), to recommend an absolute prohibition on repeating the Leaving Certificate more than once. However, the Commission recommends that some disincentive, such as a reduction of 10% of the points score, for a candidate's third sitting and for each subsequent sitting should be introduced. (5.3.2)

12.11 Number of Subjects which form the Basis for a Total Points Score

The report addresses the question of the number of subjects on which the total points score should be calculated. On balance, the Commission recommends that six subjects should continue to be the basis for a total points score for the foreseeable future. However, the Commission suggests that the issue might be reconsidered in the light of developments over time in curriculum and assessment at senior cycle. (5.4.2)

12.12 Reserved places in Colleges of Education for Candidates from Gaeltacht Areas

In accordance with the long-standing policy of successive governments to support the Gaeltacht and the Irish language, up to 10% of the teacher training places in the colleges of education are reserved for Gaeltacht applicants. This practice arose because of the need to recruit primary school teachers with an excellent command of the Irish language. During the consultative process, the argument was made that these reserved places should be open to pupils who attend an all-Irish second-level school or who are in an all-Irish stream in a second-level school. The Commission accepts this argument and recommends that students who received all their second-level education through the medium of Irish should be eligible to apply for a place within this quota. (5.4.3)

12.13 Recognition of Qualifications other than the Leaving Certificate for Points Purposes

  1. GCE A-level

    Some concern was expressed during the consultative process about the treatment for points purposes of qualifications other than the Leaving Certificate, e.g. GCE A-levels. The report notes that different third-level institutions take different approaches to calculating points for such qualifications. The format of terminal second-level examinations varies widely throughout the EU and direct comparison of such examinations with the Leaving Certificate is difficult. However, in view of the obligations imposed on member States under EU law, the Commission recommends that third-level institutions in this country should, as far as is practicable, agree a common approach to the admission of applicants with qualifications from other member states, particularly applicants with GCE A-level qualifications. The Commission considers that the issue should be kept under continuous review by all third-level institutions. (5.4.1)

  2. The Link Modules of the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme

    When the consultative process was under way, a decision had not yet been taken by the universities as to whether or not they would recognise the Link modules of the LCVP for points purposes. This was an issue of some debate during the consultative process. During the course of the subsequent year, the universities decided to recognise the Link Modules for points purposes, but disappointment was expressed at their decision to award recognition at a lower level than had been suggested by the Department of Education and Science and than had been agreed by the institutes of technology (other than the Dublin Institute of Technology). However, the Commission notes the commitment from the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities to keep the level of points to be awarded for the link modules under review and recommends that the universities consider giving higher points to the link modules, as recommended by the Department of Education and Science, as soon as possible. (5.4.4)

  3. Post-Leaving Certificate Courses

    As stated earlier in this summary, the key aim of all further education and third-level courses, whether they lead to an NCVA or other award or to a certificate, a diploma or a degree award, should be the provision of meaningful and relevant qualifications in their own right. Students should be accepted on to these courses with this aim in mind. However, it is also important that a variety of routes of progression should be developed and supported in order to provide a greater degree of flexibility and more varied options for students. Arising from this, the Commission favours the continuing development of quotas at an appropriate level in third-level education for students who have not taken the Leaving Certificate or who have not gained the required results in the Leaving Certificate, rather than the introduction of points for courses at further education level which may deflect from their key role. (5.4.5)

  4. Junior Certificate

    During the consultative process, it was suggested that a student's results in the Junior Certificate might be taken into account in selection for third-level. Those who favoured such an approach argued that this would enable students to build up credit for academic achievement throughout their second-level schooling. Those who opposed such a development were concerned that any system which rewarded achievement at junior cycle level would simply add to the stress which the current points system causes. Having considered the opposing views, the Commission does not recommend that a student's performance in the Junior Certificate be taken into account in computing the points score of a student for entry to third level. (5.4.5)

12.14 The Operation of the Central Applications System

The question of moving away from a centralised system for processing applications was raised during the consultative process and was considered by the Commission. However, there is widespread support among the public and within the third-level institutions for the current system and a return to the practice of applying to individual institutions would not be popular, would be administratively chaotic and would result in confusion and hardship for applicants. The Commission recommends the continuation of the current centralised application system. (6.1)

  1. Number of Options available on Application Form
    The system operated by the CAO enables applicants, using a single application form, to apply for a total of up to 20 third-level courses. The Commission discussed whether the number of choices should be reduced, but having considered the various issues involved, it recommends maintaining the existing system whereby applicants may choose up to 10 options at degree level and/or up to 10 options at certificate or diploma level. (6.3)
  2. Separate List for Nursing
    During the course of the Commission's deliberations, the Commission of Nursing issued its final report in which it recommended that applications for nursing should be administered by the CAO. The Commission on the Points System welcomes this recommendation but it does not in general favour an increase in the number of lists available on the CAO form. However, it accepts that there are special circumstances related to nursing at present, which warrant the recommendation to provide a separate application list on the CAO form. The Commission suggests that the situation in relation to nursing courses should be monitored on a continuing basis and as the funding and other arrangements become more integrated with other third-level courses and arrangements, as recommended by the Commission on Nursing, the issue of a separate list should be reviewed. (6.3)
  3. Closing Date for Applications
    Having considered the views expressed during the consultative process, the Commission recommends that the existing system of a closing date for receipt of applications of early February with the possibility of changing one's mind up to the beginning of July be retained. (6.5)
  4. Acceptance Fee
    The Commission recommends that annual charges should not be collected as part of the acceptance process but should be billed after acceptance and become payable at registration as is the case with continuing students. It also recommends adoption of the advice of the Advisory Committee on Third-Level Student Support that grant eligibility should be determined before the CAO change of mind date of 1 July. The Commission is aware that the absence of payment on acceptance leads to spurious acceptances - up to 15% in the cases of some institutes of technology. This is not discovered until registration when it may be too late to make vacancies available to other applicants. Therefore, in order to reduce the number of spurious acceptances and to increase the number of places which are effectively available, the Commission recommends that all acceptors pay to CAO a uniform and reasonable acceptance fee - this fee to be refundable on registration. (6.7)
  5. Random Selection when more than one Applicant shares the same Cut-off Point
    It is difficult to envisage a more fair or transparent mechanism than random selection for selecting successful applicants for courses if applicants have the same number of points. The Commission therefore recommends that random selection should continue to be used to allocate places when a number of candidates share the same cut-off point. The Commission does not favour the suggestion that Leaving Certificate marks should be used to determine the order of merit within the same cut-off point. (6.8)

    In this regard it would appear that the way in which random selection operates varies across the institutions. Most institutes of technology delegate the administration of the random selection process to the CAO. However, this does not appear to be the case in the university sector where at least in some cases, random selection is administered by the universities themselves. The Commission recommends that, to promote transparency and consistency across institutions, the generation of random numbers be monitored centrally by the CAO. (6.8)

  6. Number of Places on Courses
    Throughout the course of its consultations, the Commission found it necessary to emphasise that the points level required for any specific course is determined by the number of applicants for the course, the points received by the applicants and the number of places available on the course. The Commission does not accept that the cut-off point for a particular course should be considered a performance indicator either in relation to the specific course or the institution involved. It would be helpful if applicants and their parents continued to be made aware that cut-off points are largely determined by the relative supply-demand situation and that the fewer places available on a course, the higher the points will be. It would also be useful if information was made available on a routine basis on the number of places available on courses so that applicants will have a fuller picture of the situation. The Commission recommends that the CAO include in its Handbook the approximate number of places available (or the numbers of places available in the previous year) on each course. Simple information of this kind would bring a greater degree of transparency into the third-level entry system than has been the case to date. (7.2)

12.15 Completion / non-completion of Courses

A study, which was carried out by Professor Kathleen Lynch and others for the Commission, provided valuable information on the completion/non-completion rate of students in third-level institutions. The study found that overall, 21% of those who entered college in 1992 did not complete their course. A further 3% were continuing their studies at the time of the research while 2% had completed their course but failed final examinations.

The rates of non-completion were higher in institutes of technology than in the university sector. Whereas in the latter, 9% had failed to complete, in the institutes of technology, the non-completion rate was 33%. These findings suggest that there may be a need for institutes of technology to reconsider the minimum entry requirements to some of their courses, in order to ensure that entrants have the knowledge, understanding, skills and competencies to engage successfully in these courses. Alternatively, top-up modules may need to be provided for some students before the beginning of some of the courses or at an early stage of the course. A mechanism might also be developed to ensure that students have adequate information about the course which they are being offered, particularly if this course was not a high choice on their CAO application. (7.1.3)

The Commission welcomes the commitment from the Minister to set aside £1.5m. in the period 1999 / 2000 to address issues relating to non-completion at third level. (7.1.3)

12.16 Broad-based versus specialised Courses

The Commission considers that all third-level institutions should, where feasible, offer broad-based courses in first year. These courses should be such as to enable students to make an informed choice in relation to specialisation at the end of the first year or later of their studies. While this may not be possible for all courses, the Commission considers that the best option for students is to delay as long as possible the final decision on the precise course to be followed. It considers that this recommendation is particularly relevant to certificate and diploma courses. In many instances courses share common modules in the first year and, given the high level of attrition on some of these courses, the Commission considers that institutes of technology should consider offering a much broader first term or semester on these courses in order to introduce students to the choices that are available. (7.3)

12.17 Guidance Counselling

The Commission recognises the important role played by Guidance Counsellors in supporting and advising young people when they are applying for a higher education place and agrees that every pupil should have access to a comprehensive Guidance and Counselling service (8.6). The Commission recommends that where a guidance counselling post is allocated to a school, the school should be facilitated in ensuring that the post is used for the purposes for which it was allocated, i.e. for guidance counselling.

The Commission recognises that there is an urgent need for guidance and counselling in schools and recommends that the necessary resources be provided to restore the Guidance Counsellor quota to the pre 1983 figure (of 1:250 pupils) in terms of base calculation. This should be operated in conjunction with a minimum allocation to small schools and enhanced by special additional allocation where there is evidence of disadvantage. (8.6)

The Commission suggests that the National Centre for Guidance in Education, should be regarded as the designated provider and coordinator of information and support for guidance counsellors on career and course options. (8.7)

The Commission also supports the recommendations in Adult Education in an Era of Lifelong Learning (the Green Paper on Adult Education published by the Government in November 1998) that a comprehensive guidance service for adults be provided. (8.8) It recognises that this may involve the development of existing services with some new elements. As part of the service, the Commission considers that a free phone information line on education opportunities should be available for mature students.

12.18 Students with a Disability

Students with a disability are categorised by the CAO as "special category applicants" and are invited to specify on their application form any special health or other special needs requirements. While many students with a disability compete with other students through the normal CAO channels, some third-level institutions operate a quota for disabled students and have special admissions procedures for such students. These procedures include direct application to the institution in question with individual assessment of each application. In some cases, forms of assessment other than the Leaving Certificate are used, and/or the applicants are invited to an interview. Some third-level institutions employ a Disability Support Officer who meets with the applicants and advises them in advance on the options and supports available to them. The Disability Support Officer also provides a wide range of supports for students with disabilities when they enrol in the institution. The Commission commends and supports such arrangements and recommends that each third-level institution should set aside a number of places for students with physical and learning disabilities. The Commission further suggests that the institutions should consult each other in relation to ensuring the consistent consideration of applications by such students. (11)

In relation to the special fund which is made available by the Higher Education Authority for students with disabilities, the Commission recommends that the amount of this fund should be linked directly to the participation of disabled students in third-level education and that it should increase as participation increases. The Commission would also urge all third-level institutions to ensure that the physical environment on-campus is accessible to the physically disabled.

Chapter 13:Towards Implementation

13.1 Overview

The Commission's terms of reference require it to: "draw up an implementation strategy for all recommendations which will include details of the cost, timing and other practical considerations." A number of factors make this a difficult task. Firstly, the Commission's recommendations cover a wide range of areas and are directed at a variety of statutory bodies, institutions and organisations. Secondly, in many cases, our recommendations are made in the context of ongoing policy development. The provision of costings and specific guidelines for implementation in such circumstances is not possible, nor in many cases, desirable. It is not our wish to pre-empt the findings of other bodies. Thirdly, the development of costings and of an implementation strategy for many of our recommendations can, for practical reasons concerning availability of data, only be undertaken by the bodies concerned. At best, in these cases, we can provide only general guidance.

Timescales for implementation have been provided in the report for some recommendations. However, in other instances, we feel that the provision of a target timescale would be unhelpful and ill-advised. This is particularly the case where further analyses and widespread consultation will be required. The report highlights a number of very important issues and it is essential that adequate time be taken to facilitate thorough analysis and consultation and effective implementation. We are confident that the organisations and interests concerned appreciate the importance of the issues highlighted by this report and the need to ensure that the report is not "left on the shelf". In addition, adequate notice of any changes and a sufficient lead-in time will be necessary.

As noted above, there are practical difficulties in developing costings. However, implementation of some of the recommendations will not involve any direct cost. Consequential (post-implementation) costs may, however, arise in some cases, whereas in others, net savings may accrue (e.g. a uniform system of assessment of applications from mature students). While the Commission acknowledges the need to focus on implementation costs, it would also make the point that implementation of many of the recommendations, particularly those designed to make third-level education more inclusive, should lead to significant benefits to the individuals concerned and to the economy and society. Reform of the system should be seen as an investment rather than a cost. The development of a more equitable system of selection for higher education will also contribute to the attainment of a more equitable and inclusive society.

Accordingly, this chapter seeks to provide some guidance for organisations and for the general public, on the factors which will influence implementation of the report's key recommendations. The recommendations are discussed in the order in which they are highlighted in chapter 12. Further discussion of recommendations which involve the maintenance of the status quo is not required.

13.2 Specific Recommendations

Lifelong Learning
A key factor in developing pathways for progression and enhancing the quality of information for applicants is the establishment of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland. The Commission understands that this process is in train. The costs of implementation will mostly be absorbed by the Authority - these tasks should be regarded as part and parcel of its function. The co-operation of higher education institutions in improving the quality and flow of information to applicants will be vital. Some additional costs may arise from the need to track students' post qualification experience with a view to guiding applicants on their likely prospects. However, these costs are likely to be limited since much of this work is already undertaken by Careers and Appointments Officers. The Higher Education Authority's First Destination Survey also provides a reference point.

As chapter 9 has already highlighted, real progress in the area of lifelong learning can only be achieved if there is a "culture shift" in thinking. A balance must be found concerning the rights of all applicants - school leavers and others - to access to higher education.

Mature Students
Target dates for the establishment of quotas for mature students are provided in the report: 15% by 2005 and 25% by 2015. However, it is not possible to provide estimates of the costs of these places since a separate committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Donal De Buitléir, has been considering aggregate third level provision and the distribution of places between the various groups, including mature students. The source of the quota of places for mature students will be influenced by their report. (9.2)

A coordinated system of assessment of mature student applicants should be in place for the academic year commencing in Autumn 2002. Responsibility for the development of the system lies with the higher education institutions. Some limited development costs may be incurred initially. However, the Commission is confident that in the longer term, savings will accrue to the institutions through the establishment of a single, streamlined system which will eliminate the existing need for multiple assessments of individual candidates and lead to savings on staff time and through economies of scale. These savings of course, are minor in comparison to the benefits for candidates. (9.2)

The elimination of highlighted anomalies in the existing grants system should be part of the ongoing responsibility of the Government Departments and agencies involved. The cost implications of removing the anomalies will depend on the approach used and on multiple variables (e.g. participation rates, candidates' incomes and circumstances) and cannot be estimated by the Commission. (9.3.1)

There is no apparent impediment or cost attaching to speedy progress on the correct use of the title "access course". (9.2.5)

Part-time Courses
The provision of part-time courses will be influenced by the De Buitléir report referred to above and is closely linked to the definition of "part-time", which the Commission considers should be reviewed. Accordingly, it is not possible to provide costings or implementation target dates in this regard. The development of a fund by the Department of Education and Science and the Higher Education Authority, to support the development of flexible, part-time courses (9.5), should be regarded as a separate issue which can be pursued in tandem with policy formulation on the related issues highlighted.

Students from Disadvantaged Backgrounds
As in the case of mature students, the establishment of quotas for disadvantaged students and the cost implications of progress in the area, is influenced by broader policy considerations and the De Buitléir report. (10.4.1) Policy development concerning extension of assistance to individual students who are not in designated schools will be the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science. The advice of the proposed Educational Disadvantage Committee, and consultation with the Combat Poverty Agency and the Higher Education Authority will be essential.

However, progress should not have to await the establishment of the Committee. In particular, there is no apparent obstacle to the immediate appointment of a National Access Officer for the Disadvantaged. (10.4.3) Funding for the post should be made available as soon as possible. Similarly, the provision of specific sanction for the appointment of Access Officers in each institute of technology may proceed independently of progress on the broader issues highlighted. Since many institutes already have such officers in place, implementation of this recommendation should be possible within a very short timeframe. The costs of implementing both recommendations will be determined primarily by the salary costs involved - we would estimate somewhere in the region of £0.5m - and the development of precise costs should pose no difficulty for the Department.

Selection for Healthcare Courses
The Commission considers that regular review of places on capped courses should be regarded as part of the ongoing work of the Government Departments and agencies and professional bodies involved. Some research costs may arise, but the costs involved would be small, particularly in the context of the annual cost of training medical graduates. The extent of the research required will determine the cost, but it is unlikely that the annual cost (assuming two research studies per annum) would exceed £20,000.

Limited research costs may also arise in respect of the committee to review access to healthcare courses. Estimating the costs of various options, including the Newell proposal, would be a matter for the committee. While extensive consultation and thorough analyses will be essential, these might be concluded within a reasonably short period.

Development of a Broad Senior Cycle
The recognition of a wider range of areas in the senior cycle and the development of a system of assessment and certification of participation is likely to be a gradual, ongoing process involving very extensive consultation. Progress on this front is primarily a matter for the Department of Education and Science and the NCCA. It is not possible at this stage to estimate the costs involved.

Basic Entry Requirements and Special Subject Requirements
The Commission sees no significant obstacle to a harmonisation of the basic entry requirements of third-level institutions. Progress should take place quickly and there should be no significant costs involved.

The harmonisation of special subject requirements is more complex and would require more time and analysis. Costs may arise from the need to restructure course provision in the year of entry and will vary by discipline and institution. The costs involved will be influenced by the extent of existing special subject requirements and the options available to modify/add to course content to compensate for the lack of previous exposure of students to the subject area. Developments in the healthcare area may eliminate the difficulties in some cases.

Grades, Marks and Points
Evaluation of the Commission's suggestions concerning the modifications to the points allocated to each grade, and discontinuing the practice of bonus points for Leaving Certificate candidates answering through the medium of Irish, should be possible in a fairly short timeframe. Adequate notice and a sufficient lead-in time will be required for any changes proposed. However, there should be no significant cost implications.

Research will be required to determine the causes of and solutions to variation in patterns of grade allocation between subjects. The commissioning and costing of this research, and possible strategies, will be a matter for the Department of Education and Science.

Repetition of the Leaving Certificate
Subject to the provision of adequate notice of change, there should be no significant obstacle to, or costs involved, in the implementation of the Commission's recommendations in this area. However, it will be necessary to develop a means of tracking individual students' participation over time in the Leaving Certificate, to ensure that multiple repetition may be detected. The costing and implementation of this aspect should be undertaken by the Department in consultation with the CAO.

Extension of Reserved Places in Colleges of Education
Implementation of this recommendation should not involve significant problems or costs.

The Operation of the Central Applications System
Responsibility for implementation in this area lies primarily with the institutions. Limited costs may arise in connection with the CAO's monitoring role (random numbers) and the provision of additional information (numbers of places) in the CAO handbook. Implementation should be possible within a short timeframe, with the exception of arrangements for nursing applications where ongoing review is recommended.

Completion/non-completion of Courses
Further analysis of possible strategies to tackle non-completion will be required, and the allocation of £1.5m by the Minister for Education and Science to address non-completion issues is welcome. In advance of this analysis, it is not possible to estimate costs or timeframes. However, given the scale of the problems highlighted by Research Paper No. 4, there is an urgent need for action in this area.

Broad-based Courses
As in the case of the special subject requirements, the costs of and timeframes for broader-based courses in the year of entry will vary by discipline and institution.

Guidance Counselling
In advance of the research to be undertaken on the need for and existing provision and use of guidance counselling resources, it is not possible to determine the scale, timeframe and cost (primarily salary-related) of additional provision required. The allocation of responsibility for provision/coordination of information and support to the National Centre for Guidance in Education will entail limited salary costs.

Students with a Disability
Implementation of the Commission's recommendations in this area should be straightforward and relatively inexpensive.

Appendices

APPENDIX A

Terms of Reference

1. Having regard to the necessity of ensuring a transparent, impartial and efficient system for entry to third-level institutions to review the present system with particular regard to:

  1. its effect on the personal development of students;
  2. its impact at the post-primary level, particularly on the senior cycle, in terms of its influence on teaching, learning and assessment techniques;
  3. its impact on selection of third-level courses;
  4. its effect on access to third level of students who have experienced significant educational disadvantage;
  5. its effect on access to third level of non-standard students, e.g., mature students;
  6. international experience of entry systems.

2. In the context of the review, to make recommendations as appropriate.

3. To draw up an implementation strategy for all recommendations which will include details of the cost, timing and other practical considerations.

4. In the course of its work, the Commission will take account of the need to ensure equity by institutions as between candidates with the Leaving Certificate and other comparable international second-level terminal examination certification and will make recommendations to that effect.

5. The Commission will consult widely in its review of the present system.

APPENDIX B

Membership of the Commission on the Points System

Professor Áine Hyland, Chairperson

Mr. Colman Byrne (to September 1998)
Ms. Maura Clancy
Sr. Marie Céline Clegg
Mr. Tony Deffely
Dr. Mary Dineen
Mr. John Hurley
Dr. Caroline Hussey
Ms. Roisin Kelleher
Mr. Tony Kilduff
Dr. Maureen Killeavy
Mr. Kevin Lewis
Mr. Darren McCallig (from September 1998)*
Sr. Teresa McCormack
Mr. Michael McGrath
Mr. John McKay
Dr. Martin Newell
Ms. Gráinne O'Carroll (to September 1998)
Mr. Diarmuid Ó Murchú
Mr. Tony Quinlan
Ms. Margaret Walsh
Mr. John Whyte

* Mr. McCallig replaced Mr. Byrne

Mr. Martin Hanevy, Special Advisor

Mr. Sean Ó Foghlú, Secretary (to May 1999)
Mr. John McCullagh, Secretary (from June 1999)

Secretariat
Ms Rosaleen Killian
Mr. Feilim McLaughlin
Ms. Jackie O'Brien
Ms. Marian White

APPENDIX C

Proposal from Dr. Martin Newell concerning Admission to Healthcare Training

In entry to higher education, healthcare courses have a prominence and effect which is greatly out of proportion to their 2% share of all admissions. Place quotas are tightly controlled and courses are available only in a very small number of higher education institutions. The healthcare professions enjoy great prestige in the popular mind and are regarded as a sure path to high income and social standing. These considerations, often reinforced by parental pressure, can take precedence over genuine career commitment in an appreciable number of cases. Quite commonly, candidates who have the potential to do very well at the Leaving Certificate Examination find themselves under pressure to apply for healthcare training rather than "waste their points" on such areas as the arts, sciences, business or technology. The combination of small quotas and popular interest means that extraordinary levels of Leaving Certificate performance are necessary for healthcare admission. It is noteworthy in itself that at least two-thirds of those who score maximum points in the Leaving Certificate annually opt for entry to Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Dentistry or Pharmacy.

Healthcare training has remained the tightly-controlled preserve of a small number of third-level institutions. It has not been affected by the great expansion of opportunity and the opening up of pathways of access which has taken place in other subject areas. The emergence of the Regional Technical Colleges (now Institutes of Technology) in the 1970s expanded access opportunities very greatly and brought third-level training within the reach of many people who otherwise could not have afforded it. This expansion concerned almost entirely the areas of applied science, technology and business. Healthcare was affected only in a peripheral way and to a minor extent through technician courses in such subjects as applied physiology and medical laboratory science. In consequence, one can now aspire to becoming an engineer, an accountant, a lawyer, a teacher or a scientist with relatively modest levels of Leaving Certificate performance and via a wide variety of avenues of progress. By contrast, there is only one very narrow "sudden death" route into the healthcare professions involving extraordinary levels of Leaving Certificate performance. There is the added burden of the finality of choice made by 17 or 18 year old students in opting for a course such as Medicine. After a highly-pressurised Leaving Certificate experience, they are catapulted into an arduous 7-year programme which offers little chance of turning aside. On emergence, they are expected to undergo up to 5 years of very demanding hospital work. Whereas most other studies offer plenty of opportunity for adjustment of direction in the early twenties, those opting for medical training can arrive at the age of 30 years before they have time to consider whether they have taken the right direction and without much option for change of career.

The pressure for places in healthcare courses can have significant backwash effects on the second-level educational system. The competition for admission to the 'prestige' courses can affect the entire school environment in a variety of ways. It is no exaggeration to say that schools are often judged by how many of their pupils 'got into Medicine'. Parental pressure can mean that educational policy can be directed away from best practice and from the needs of the majority towards facilitating the minority who have high aims. The stress felt by some can transmit itself to entire classes. What should be a broad-based educational and developmental programme can degenerate into a mere points race.

On the negative side, the "seller's market" nature of healthcare admission means that some admission authorities can feel entitled to set high entry requirements without reference to the effect on the second-level system. A case in point is the requirement of a Leaving Certificate Higher C3 in Chemistry for entry to certain courses. Since barely more than 50% of schools offer Chemistry, this has the effect of disenfranchising large numbers of candidates. There is also the basic unfairness in the fact that a large proportion of healthcare admission takes place on the basis of being able to afford an extra year at a "grind" school.

It is reasonable therefore to postulate that if healthcare courses were removed from the general third-level admission system, entry standards would take on a more reasonable appearance and Leaving Certificate students would benefit from a less-pressurised environment. It is well worth considering whether there is any way in which admission to healthcare training could be distanced from general third-level admission at the school-leaving stage without sacrificing the principles of fairness and lack of bias which are evident in the current points system.

There are some useful precedents in the American method of graduate admission to medical training and in the Irish practice of graduate admission to Chartered Accountancy training. Both of these, however, lack objectivity in the manner of selection.

If a logical system is desired, it would involve separating the initial training in the basic sciences from the later phases of training in clinical science and clinical practice. It is therefore proposed that those seeking admission to the healthcare professions would first embark on a course in the Life Sciences (or Healthcare Sciences). In the first two years, this would cover basic subjects such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Biochemistry, Genetics, Physiology, Introductory Anatomy, Computing and Communications. Students would be eligible for the award of a Certificate after two years study. There would be opportunities to proceed to a Diploma after three years or a Degree after four years involving more advanced or more specialised study. These awards should be available on the "ladder" system which obtains in other areas at present - principally in the Institutes of Technology. At least the Certificate level should be provided in most universities and Institutes of Technology so that access would be available widely.

Those wishing to proceed to professional healthcare training would be required to have (a) completed at least two years of a Life Sciences course in an approved institution in the Republic of Ireland and (b) to have undergone a supervised clinical attachment of at least three months duration. They would then take a National Healthcare Admission Test on the subject-matter of the Life Sciences course for which points would be awarded to give a basis for selection. There would be a limit to the number of times the test might be taken (two or three). A small bonus might be given to those who have completed the Life Sciences Diploma stage and perhaps also a small bonus for mature age. The Test would be administered by a National Healthcare Training Institute representative of the professions, the third-level institutions and the Depts. of Education and Health. The Institute might also have some function in the validation of courses and recognition of awards. Also, if there is to be reform along the lines suggested, the Institute should come into being at an early stage and should be the motor of reorganisation.

In the case of Medicine, the initial Life Sciences course would be followed by four years of intensive training in clinical sciences and clinical practice - not related to the traditional academic term structure. Possession of a Life Sciences Degree or Diploma might warrant certain exemptions in the clinical sciences. The other professions would have appropriate clinical arrangements.

Many advantages would arise from this proposal. The basis for Life Sciences courses already exists in all universities and Institutes of Technology - and is underutilised in many of them. If nothing else, there would be a much-needed impetus for the study of the sciences. Widespread availability of such courses would make admission relatively easy compared to present healthcare admission thereby relieving pressure at the school-leaving stage. The National Healthcare Admission Test would be taken on the basis of a 'level pitch' and would be well distanced from school-leaving. The annual difficulties over equating Leaving Certificate with GCE and other qualifications would be much less severe. There would be much less of an annual crisis over regraded Leaving Certificate results since most of the problems arise in the healthcare area. The extra two or three years before professional admission would ensure greater maturity in decision and would enable vocational suitability to be evaluated in a practical setting. In Medicine particularly, the clinical training is, at present, only nominally connected to academic institutions so there would be little new in separating it from basic scientific training.

There would of course be disappointed professional aspirants who undertook the Life Sciences course but did not gain admission to the traditional professions. This already happens in the cases of Chartered Accountancy aspirants who take Business Studies degrees but fail to get a professional training place. In fact, a good Business Studies degree has a value in its own right and can lead to many career avenues other than Chartered Accountancy. The same would be true of a Life Sciences degree which could form the basis of excellent careers outside or perhaps closely parallel to the mainstream professions. There springs to mind, for example, medical genetics and microbiology, forensics, medical manufacturing, marketing and management. One could mention also the rapidly-growing field of biomedical engineering which requires a Life Sciences background. There might also be a rethink on whether certain technical healthcare specialisations require the traditional clinical bedside training. One could mention such things as pathology, bacteriology and pharmacology. As it is already, a perusal of application statistics indicates that Science is a fallback for many unsuccessful applicants for Medicine courses - perhaps with a view to some parallel career.