Editorial: Staggered term starts disadvantage all students – but government isn’t solely to blame

Rather than taking rhetorical aim at government, universities should consider their own role in the consistently late start for first year students

For the fourth consecutive year, the first edition of this paper has been published before a quarter of the undergraduate population has set foot on campus. The first cohort of students to experience a delayed start to their first year are now entering their fourth and, for most, final year of their degree. Yet again, delays in the release of Leaving Certificate results have resulted in delays to the start of the College year for tens of thousands of first year students.

Freshers’ Week, a rite of passage vital to the continuation of a vibrant society scene, could not exist without the hours many students devote to clubs, societies, and publications completely voluntarily”

The disadvantages of this are obvious to most. First years are given little chance to find their feet as they play catch up and attempt to make the challenging transition to third level education while their older peers have had weeks to settle back in. Teaching for first years is forced to become even more condensed than usual, with crucial learning material sometimes being omitted or crammed in. The staggered start also places strain on returning students who volunteer extensively during Freshers’ Week, giving up valuable study time to organise countless events and provide support to incoming students, whilst themselves navigating a rapid 11-week teaching term. Freshers’ Week, a rite of passage vital to the continuation of a vibrant society scene, could not exist without the hours many students devote to clubs, societies, and publications completely voluntarily. While staggered starts make this much less attainable, College continues to rely on students to deliver to their usual high standard.

Fingers are pointed every year as to where ultimate blame lies for this recurring hold-up, usually landing jointly on the Department of Education and the State Examinations Commission who are vaguely ordered to put things back “the way they were before.” Following the announcement that this year’s results would be released on August 25, the first time they would be released in August since before the pandemic, USI VP for Academic Affairs Clodagh McGivern demanded that results return to their “pre-pandemic timeline.” College’s Vice-President Orla Sheils has claimed that “it is difficult to pinpoint an excuse” for the delay, however this is not entirely accurate. Such soundbites tend to obscure the fact that delays have actually come about as a result of measures to increase the fairness and the equitability of the Leaving Cert exams. 2022 saw the introduction of a deferred set of exams for students who experienced a bereavement or who had Covid-19 or another serious illness during the first exam period. This was repeated in 2023, updated to include students who suffered an extreme medical emergency during an exam. Though these arrangements benefit just a few hundred students every year, it is hard to argue in good conscience that they are reforms that should be rolled back.

Chief among the finger-pointers tend to be universities and their collective voice the Irish Universities Association (IUA), who fail to concede any responsibility for the delayed start for undergraduate students, instead calling rhetorically for a return to old norms. This year, Leaving Cert results were released on August 25, less than two weeks behind the pre-pandemic schedule. In 2017, such a delay, while frustrating, would have been manageable for students and universities. A two-week delay to CAO offers would have seen them released on September 4, three weeks prior to the start of the teaching term for all undergraduate years. With the introduction of semesterisation in 2018 however, the start of term was brought forward by two weeks, severely condensing the timeline between results and course offers, and the start of university life for school-leavers.

Rather than single-handedly bringing about a delay to the start of college for first years, the delayed release of Leaving Cert results has simply forced universities to realise that students already faced an alarmingly short turnaround between the offer of a course and the beginning of the academic term, almost entirely due to a change to university calendars just two years before the first delays to the Leaving Cert (in Trinity’s case at least). Under the pre-pandemic, post-semesterisation timeline, many students had just two weeks to secure accommodation, gather textbooks, prepare to move out of home, and begin life in a new place, if they didn’t wish to miss out on Freshers’ Week. The reality is that such a timeline was never satisfactory, and even a slight delay to the Leaving Cert – in the unlikely event of a global pandemic for example – would have unavoidable consequences for the start of the academic term.

“The Irish third-level sector has long left the responsibility of its admissions process entirely to secondary-level educators and government”

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the Irish third-level sector has long left the responsibility of its admissions process entirely to secondary-level educators and government. Though this allows for an exceptionally streamlined process for school-leavers applying to colleges and universities, it means that higher education institutions can stand back and criticise flaws in the process without themselves taking any responsibility for its organisation or execution. When Covid-19 led to enormous disruptions to the longstanding process and a need for difficult decisions, universities stepped back and let government and the CAO decide how students would be admitted to their ranks, foregoing the opportunity to find a long-term solution which suited the needs of all parties.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that Irish universities, led by the IUA, need to reconsider their applications and admissions process in the long term, towards a process more closely aligned with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) in the UK, and other international examples which see prospective students receive university offers far in advance of their final results. In the case of highly international universities such as Trinity, such a system would additionally benefit students from abroad wishing to study in Ireland. For now, HEIs could reduce the rhetoric they aim at government, and instead explore more pragmatic and solution-oriented approaches to removing staggered term starts, for the benefit of all students.