'Time to change our unfair CAO points system' by Joanna Siewierska


3rd September 2019

Time to change our unfair CAO points system

by Joanna Siewierska

UCDSU President 2019/2020

Education is a public good. It’s something that we should all be proud to invest in and ensure that all members of society have an opportunity to benefit from. Enabling broad access to education is undoubtedly the key to reducing inequalities in society, and promoting equality of outcome for our young people and adults.

With an expanding knowledge economy, where more and more jobs require a college degree just to apply for them, fair access to higher education is crucial to support everyone to reach their full potential.

While there are many issues that affect students once they are in higher education, from housing to fees and supports on campuses, there is also the matter of who gets over that threshold in the first place.

In Ireland, the main gateway to higher education is the Leaving Cert exam and the points system attached to it. This system drives competition between students in order to progress to higher education, and it is making access to some institutions and subject areas increasingly more difficult.

The pressure to perform well in order to access your future can be immense. If a student’s style of learning does not suit the limited assessment techniques used in the Leaving Cert, and they cannot afford grinds or expensive tutors, it can have a crushing effect on their confidence.


Of course, the Leaving Cert does not define students, nor does it have to play a role in what they decide to do after school. Once it’s over and done with, generally it’s easy to look back after some time and recognise that it wasn’t worth the stress that it caused.

The awareness that five or 10 points could stop you from accessing the course of your dreams can have a massive effect on your physical and mental health

A small number of companies consider it appropriate to reject an application to intern with them during or after college based on second-level school results, but the vast majority of people recognise how unreasonable that is.

However, when you’re still in school, and even doing well, the constant awareness that as little as five or 10 points could stop you from accessing the course of your dreams can have a massive effect on your physical and mental health. This is not okay.

Using a points system to allocate places in college leads to a situation where the points required for a course don’t reflect how difficult it is, but how popular it is.

While every university strives to be accessible, rankings and points-increases dominate student recruitment campaigns.

So, when popularity leads to points inflation, students can feel immediately discouraged from applying to a course for fear of disappointment, despite potentially being well capable of succeeding in that subject area. Likewise, students who achieve very high points might feel like they ought to apply to popular courses, rather than pursuing a subject that they feel genuinely passionate about, so as not to waste the work that they put in.


The competition between institutions is also concerning. While every university strives to be accessible, rankings and points-increases dominate student recruitment campaigns.

The public-funding crisis is resulting in fierce competition to attract international students to ensure financial sustainability of institutions. This focus on recruitment of more affluent students and climbing rankings does not make our colleges any friendlier towards non-traditional students, nor does it help to widen access and participation.

If we honestly believe in equality, then equality in education must be our priority. With regards to higher education, we need two things.

We need a serious commitment to funding the sector from the Government, so that institutions can focus on recruiting and supporting students from various backgrounds and with different needs, and to promote equality and social justice.

Secondly, there must be a fairer approach to allocating places in colleges and universities, rather than solely based on points accumulated during a high-pressure exam season at the end of school.

This new approach should assess the diversity of skills and talents of young people and its underlying aim should be to minimise systemic inequalities and injustices. Additionally, our conversation about widening participation has to engage with all students and to challenge them about their role in creating a fairer society.

Each year, we see some schools at the top of feeder-school lists, with 100 per cent of their Leaving Cert students moving on to college after school, while for students from schools in other areas progression to third level could be as low as 7 per cent.


Such starkly different numbers are not accidental; they are the product of a system that reproduces inequality in society and it needs to change. Access to education is a right of every student and their success would bring benefits to everyone in society.

Our Leaving Cert system has to change, and we need our Government and our education institutions to put supports in place to ensure that all students can pursue higher education and excel in it.

Joanna Siewierska is president of UCD students’ union.
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