A Leaving Certificate student recently challenged the State Examination Commission’s policy to not re-check points in time to obtain their university place. Rebecca Carter had to fight for her place on the course that she would have been accepted into, with no issues, had her CAO points been calculated correctly. Her successful High Court challenge is a great step forward for Leaving Certificate students who have been wronged by flaws in the marking system.
Taking into consideration how long the State Examinations Commission has been in operation, it is astonishing that Carter is the first to bring a legal challenge against the Commission in relation to this policy. It seems painstakingly unfair that students could have missed out on the course of their dreams due to an administrative error, raising the question as to why it has only been challenged now? It is likely that the significant costs associated with bringing a legal challenge was a deterrent to students considering taking such action. There are probably many more students who could not afford to legally pursue the Commission, therefore missed out on their course as a result.
Thankfully this will not be an issue for future prospective students. The lawsuit brings down the barrier for the less privileged students’ access to education, a much-needed development. However, State Examination Commission flaws are not the only barriers faced by students with a limited household income.
Firstly, a comment that can be made about the Leaving Certificate university admission process, or the “points” system, is that it is, on the surface, fair. The sole factor for determining whether you get a place on a course is the number of points you have accumulated from your final exams, and for some courses, certain subject and grade requirements. This arguably makes the system fairer than comparable systems. For example, in the US admissions system, it is common knowledge that who you know and who you are has a significant impact on your likelihood of acceptance.
However, this does not mean that the advantages of privileged students in terms of university access are non-existent. In Ireland, students who have had a private education are, in some areas of the country, up to five times more likely to attend university than their public school counterparts. In other words, monied families are more likely to produce university students.
A number of years ago, in an attempt to bring lower income students to university, the government abolished university tuition fees and instead introduced a contribution fee at a lower cost. However, this move has not prompted any real change. The Irish Times’ Feeder Schools data still reports each year that private schools send a higher proportion of students to university, with 10 of the top 20 schools in the country for university progression fee-paying. This clearly shows a correlation between family income and university access. What causes this and how can it be resolved? Can it be resolved?
Private schools often have better resources and higher quality teachers. Although, this is not the sole cause. The Irish education system is plagued by a “grind culture”. Whether a student of financial means is struggling with a subject or even just lazy, many are shipped by their parents to expensive extra tuition in an attempt to bolster their grades, with some students receiving grinds for the six years of their secondary education or in multiple subjects. Grind schools, such as the Institute of Education, are also available for the final years of secondary school at an eye-watering cost.
Grinds are usually more exam-focused than school, taught by highly qualified teachers, and usually the course is cut down to notes on “safe” topics likely to appear on the exam, therefore reducing the student’s workload. This gives these students a significant leg up in preparation for state examination success, and, therefore, university access.
The CAO points allocation system is based on supply and demand. Students who attend grinds drive up the points required for everyone to get the same places, meaning that for a good student that struggles in one subject and is unable to afford extra tuition, the course of their dreams could be raised just out of their reach.
The Irish government has a grant system in place for students from low income households, and this is a good incentive for students to consider university when it would otherwise be impossible. This system, however, benefits students that have already achieved a place in the course of their dreams, and no such financial aid is available to secondary students to improve their chances at attending university.
Trinity has recognised these issues associated with university access. In 2014, they began trialling a unique project called the Feasibility Study, designed to counteract the clearly flawed traditional access method to university and admit “a more diverse student body”, according to its brochure. This study is designed to ascertain whether this is “a fairer and a better mechanism for admitting students to third-level”, by using a range of criteria to be considered alongside Leaving Certificate points. Among these criteria is the rank of the student relative to every other applicant from their school who has applied through the CAO system.
This study enables the admittance of students who are academically gifted and have potential that may not be shown through the CAO system, and is the first of its kind in Ireland. This means that students that are at the top of their class in a disadvantaged school would finally have a fair chance to enter university, without obtaining the CAO points, that can be improved with financial investment, being so heavily weighted. The assessment is carried out after Leaving Certificate results have been released and is carried out on students who may not have been offered a place through the traditional route. In the last few years, 25 students per year have been admitted to Trinity this way to study course with high point requirements such as Law. This is a triumph, as 25 talented students who would not have otherwise had the chance to get the course each year are now thriving within the university system.
We cannot get rid of all the incompetent teachers in secondary schools that hinder a student’s academic potential, nor can we realistically make every school an academically achieving one. It is clear that the money invested in a student’s education plays a significant role in their ability to access university education, and this is something that will be difficult to change. However, Trinity’s Feasibility Study seeks to address this, and hopefully will lead to an official alternative admittance procedure across the country.