Sunday, September 5, 2010

How to improve the CAO points system

This this the time of year when the Central Applications Office (CAO) announces who has been allocated places in the various courses run in the Irish Universities. It is common to read articles written around this time criticizing  the points system, but many of them don't offer any concrete advice for how a better replacement could be put in place. Therefore I thought I would stick my neck out and a practical suggestions for how to easily improve the system.

There seems to be consensus that there are three different problems with the existing points system:
  1. Many excellent students who want to study at 3rd level can't because there are not enough places available
  2. The selection system does not select the students who are best suited for the course.
  3. Students are encouraged to choose the course with the highest points score for which they can qualify rather than selecting the course that really suits them.
I don't intend trying to solve the first problem because I think that it can't be solved without either dramatically increasing the number of places available (which is not economically feasible at the moment). However, the two other problems could easily be solved by making a minor tweak to the current system whereby applicants for all courses are given bonus points for having studied relevant subjects in second level. Students who have studied relevant subjects at secondary school are naturally more likely to succeed at 3rd level because of this head start and in addition their choice of subject in secondary school probably shows a genuine interest in the field.

In the past many courses gave bonus points to students who studied higher level maths and/or scientific subjects. This practice was abandoned because it was felt to be unfair to students from schools where science subjects were not offered (surely there can't be many of these left) and because it was felt important to standardize the points system across all colleges. However, I don't think it is necessary for all colleges to standardize their points selection system. In fact if one college was brave college was willing to go it alone with such a modified point system they would have a competitive advantage (e.g. their business courses would be mainly filled with students who had studied business at second level) and other colleges would be likely to follow whichever college took this brave lead.

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