Pointing The Way - Op Ed for Irish Examiner - 22nd August 2012

IUA Op Ed for Irish Examiner

August 22 2012

“Pointing the Way”

Education is an immensely powerful force which enriches lives and is the cornerstone of civilised society. Ireland has a rich tradition of respect for education. One of our great successes has been the progressive democratisation of education, turning both second (and subsequently third level) from elite to mass participation systems. Nevertheless, the demand for higher education continues to increase, both in the aggregate and even more so for particular courses which are seen as highly desirable.
The points system has served the country very well in efficiently and transparently matching the available supply of education places to demand. This ensures that the valuable resource of a place at college is not squandered. In isolation, it could be said that the points system works extremely well. However, the truth is that system cannot be disconnected from the second level curriculum and assessment that precedes it.

From our perspective, the central concern is that the system is not doing enough to encourage positive educational values and the kind of rounded adaptable learning behaviours needed to flourish at college and through a lifetime of work and continuous learning.

It is for this reason that the Irish Universities, working collectively through the IUA, were glad to respond to the invitation from the Minister Quinn for proposals on how the system might be reformed. Our new report contains both a menu for change and some clear strategic recommendations which we wish to take forward. In the latter case we have identified three priorities.

The first of these is the collapsing of the Leaving Certificate Grading scale from fourteen to eight points. This will allow a different approach to marking the leaving certificate and we believe could be a significant help in making the exam less predictable. A less predictable exam in turn should help unwind the current problem of rote learning.

We are also looking at a move towards more common entry. While our system is not especially unusual in a European context, large numbers of highly specialised courses can have the effect of raising points levels due to strong competition for limited places. More common entry can help reduce that pressure and allow students more time to think about the areas they in which they want to specialise.

Thirdly, we are looking at whether there should be more incentives built into the system to encourage students to study some particular subjects. While there has been some debate over bonus points for maths, we are satisfied that it has achieved its primary goal of broadly increasing performance in maths which we see as an essential foundational skill not just for college but for lifelong learning.

In our report, we also explore other avenues such as the possibility of moving towards a ranking based approach to the award of points. Under this approach, success would depend on how the student performs relative to their peers in the subject. One advantage of this is that any differences in subject workload, real or apparent, become irrelevant, since the competition for points is among peers seeking to achieve within the individual subject. On the other hand, it may have collateral implications for behaviour in relation to subject choice which need careful consideration.

This example is illustrative of the findings of our report that while change is needed and will be forthcoming, there are no simple solutions. It is also true that what may seem attractive in theory can throw up some curve balls when it comes to implementation. It is for this reason that we are establishing an expert Taskforce to be chaired by Professor Philip Nolan, President of NUI Maynooth, and with input from key players in the curriculum and assessment space, to take the detail of our report and deliver a precise, sequenced set of interventions to build on the current system’s strengths but also address its weaknesses.

Selection and entry for university is a profoundly important part of the education jigsaw. Successful reform will see students better prepared for college and also continue to effectively utilise scarce educational resources. However, the quality of the education we are able to provide also depends on a comprehensive overhaul of how higher education is funded and regulated. Securing a place at college is only the first step. We need racial and courageous solutions across a whole range of areas to ensure that the quality of student experience and the outcomes achieved are best in class, and that our institutions are likewise. In the coming months, we look forward to bringing more proposals to government on how this can be achieved.
Ned Costello is Chief Executive of the Irish Universities Association