Monday, August 23, 2010

Student myopia and the Points Race for university in Ireland

An article in todays Irish Times brings the news that the "points race" for university entrance is back. Of course it never actually went away since there is significant excess demand in general, the number of applicants being about twice the number of places.
However the article does record evidence of a fall in demand for degrees leading to qualifications in sectors hit by the down-turn notably construction (like architecture, civil engineering) and also law. This trend kicked in last year. This makes sense, doesn't it? Well not if you believe human capital theory which says that people choose their education to maximize (discounted) life cycle earnings. Remember by the time this year's university entrants start out on their careers (in 4 or 5 or 6 years time), the worst of the recession will be over. So it looks to me that students are putting far too much weight on current events. Or, more likely, their parents are. Of course other markets, like the stock market which has lots of highly sophisticated, highly paid agents, also display excess volatility. However decisions in that market are taken very very quickly whereas one hopes that decisions about career choice are made in a more sedate fashion.
I wonder is this an argument for moving to an American style system where professional degrees are at graduate level, taken after a fairly general undergraduate degree? At that point, students would make much more mature decisions. It would also remove much of the pressure at the Leaving Certificate level so pedagogy could be focused on actually learning useful skills and not rote-learning and the mindless accumulation of points. It would also help students from low SES backgrounds to access these professions since once they get into university they tend to do okay.


Liam Delaney said...

A big issue here, as you have pointed out before, is the lack of data on second level school quality. If even half the media attention were given over to analysing poorly performing schools at primary and secondlevel the debate would begin approaching something rational. We have such a huge body of evidence internationally on the effects of poor teacher quality and school peer effects and so on yet it hardly gets a look-in from the media. I really don't recall ever seeing any compelling evidence that starting college a bit later or other various twiddling with the entry mechanism has much of an effect. There are various strands that are worth thinking about e.g. Paul Devereux and others have been looking at school starting age, and people like Erica Field have been looking at simplifying entrance criteria. But other than that, the points issue seems like such an enormous red herring when compared to issues like barriers to entry in services, restriction of places, school quality, university quality and so on.

Liam Delaney said...

on the issue of professional qualifications at graduate level, as an individual there is a lot about this system that I like e.g. it stops undergrad being a ratrace and gives time for exploring the world etc., But again Kevin, noone has really given a compelling case against having both an undergraduate and graduate medicine track. Listening to the current debate it seems that a lot of people think that the problem lies with students who get 560 points plus going into medicine, law etc., In my experience these students tend to be very good and very motivated. The problem comes at the weaker end with students who have got in to university on low points and struggle to keep up in a self-directed environment. In our research, leaving certificate points do a good job at predicting college performance. There are a lot of other things that predict college performance but it is not true to say that the leaving cert measures only the specific ability to do well on that test.

Kevin Denny said...

Actually I think I have given good arguments against undergraduate professional degrees. I don't think people can make always informed decisions about careers when they are in their teens - I gave examples of this- and a lot of med students end up elsewhere or people choose not to enter IT or Architecture because there are no jobs there now. The fall of Lehman Brothers caused students to switch out of banking & finance tracks. That's daft. There is a problem with 560 points choosing medicine because they don't "want to waste their points". This is what they will be advised to do and its pretty irrational too and its unlikely to get the right people into medicine. The points race which totally distorts the system is driven by these high points courses.
So the points system is central to who goes to college and what they study. Doesn't sound like a red herring to me.

Judith D said...

I am not too convinced about the US undergrad - major/minor - style degree. I do agree that it does give students the chance to try out what they might be interested in before realizing what their true calling in life is but I think it is in general a waste of resources. I bet if you did a study the majority of students stick with their first choice, as I think being in high school already exposes the student to a wide array of subjects; I knew by junior cert that I detested science and gladly choose not to study it after after 3rd year. Also, I am a huge fan of free fees in Irish universities, and a general undergrad followed by a professional graduate degree would prolong the costs of education for either the student or the government and delay the entry of high skilled young people into the labour market.

I do agree that the points system definitely needs to be overhauled. Alot of potentially great doctors are not given the chance, because perhaps they scored only 550 points, I don't know what the correlation between exceptional intelligence and good doctor is but I bet above avergae intelligence + great personality equal great doctor. Aside from this, the points system puts too much pressure on young people and too much weight on one exam. Also, in my opinion the teacher has too much of an impact on the student's grade, it would be great to randomly take some culchies and stick them in a school like Gonzaga and vice versa, and we all know what would happen, which is a shame as the students who get to attend these top schools already have a huge advantage due to intergeneration transmission and the fact that good school =good teachers = high grades increases the already large gap between these folk and their not so advantaged counterpart. So, if we could design a system that places less weight on a one off set of exams (that is influenced by teachers, schools, family, peers etc) and more weight on the students actual intelligence, we would be in a better place. Some day...

Liam Delaney said...

I obviously have sympathy for the view that expecting young people to make decisions that long-ranging full rationally is problematic. Having said that, there is a big cost to spending four years doing a general qualification, particularly when you know that you want to be a doctor or a vet. Having the choice of doing it straight off would seem to be a very valuable option if you are really sure you want to be a doctor.

The issue of "wasting points" is a consequent of people's decisions not the system itself. The points just reflect scarcity. Lots of people want to go into medicine and veterinary and law because they are good courses giving you access to restricted professional jobs. If you took away that aspect, there would be less people worried about wasting points.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of Prof. Tom Collin's suggestion in the Irish Times of having a minimum requirements(say 450/600 points for medicine) and then selecting the students via lottery. This should kill the points race problem and teachers will then stop teaching to the test.

Liam Delaney said...

I confess a visceral reaction against the lottery system. If a student has secured 600 points and then doesn't get a place because a student on 450 got one in a lottery this just doesn't seem fair in any sense of the word fair. To the extent that grading is not perfect, there is an element of lottery to the leaving cert anyway, but the lottery embeds the chance element wholly and completely.

The SES argument is the other one put forward for lotteries. Basically, low SES students have a points disadvantage that is arguably related to lower parental resources and poorer schools. Much evidence (including papers by Kevin and a recent one by me and colleagues) would suggest that low SES students do fine once they get into college. So in this sense a lottery system might shake up the SES distribution without reducing the quality of students. There is some sense to this argument and it should be thrased through but there are so many other ways of promoting access for low SES students including straight-forward affirmative action that I really cannot get into the spirit of the argument.

There is another weirder argument that the current system is encouraging students to, shock and horror, study hard for their leaving cert. What is the problem with people having to compete on merit to gain access to scarce places? If certain subjects are being cherry picked because they are easier then this can easily be dealt with directly. Also, if the curricula are too narrow and we are in danger of producing badly trained students then broaden the curricula.

Martin Ryan said...

@ Kevin:

Re: The argument for moving to an American style system where professional degrees are at graduate level,

and - students from low SES backgrounds accessing professions:

Don Barry, president of UL, wrote an op-ed in the Irish Times about this issue in late 2007. I can't find the IT article, but his inaugral President's Address covers most of the same material; link here:

Barry describes how undergraduate curricula at the leading US universities today are based on the twin notions of distribution and concentration, a compromise between the theories of the European pioneers in university education, John Henry Newman and Wilhelm von Humboldt. Distribution, favoured by Newman, demands that the curriculum should ensure a broad education for the student. Concentration, proposed by Von Humboldt, demands that the curriculum should encourage the study of one particular subject in depth.

Barry said:

"Employers I meet praise Irish graduates as excellent employees. But, they often consider undergraduate curricula too narrow and overly focused on intensive training in technical skills that soon become obsolete. They feel universities fail to cultivate creativity, an ability to think "outside the box", effective communication skills or a commitment to lifelong learning."

One comment sometimes put forward is that "we don't know what the jobs of the future will be", and therefore, students are best served with a generalist education that will enable them to thrive in the modern economy. And of course, they can specialise after generalist education to fill a particular niche.

An important point is the distinction between general and specific human capital. ‘Specific’ being used to indicate ‘industry’-specific. We know what all of today's jobs "are", and even what some of the jobs will be in the near future. So some students have to acquire very specific human capital, such as studying Medicine intensively so they can fill vacancies in the medical industry.

What Professor Barry might be getting at is that immediate specialisation should be avoided unless it is absolutely necessary for a professional industry, i.e. Medicine. Professor Barry's argument aside, there is still the issue that specialisation is needed for many professional jobs - and the question remains as to *when* that specialisation should occur. Based on what we know (from your research with the NewERA team, and other research by Liam, Cathy and Colm) about socio-economic differences in academic achievement narrowing at third-level, I am inclined to favour the American model.

To base a policy suggestion on existing evidence, I would recommend that specialisation should occur after undergrad education; this should maximise the likelihood of equal access to professional occupations. Of course, a (fair) student-loan scheme would have to be in place for grad school, and students would have to be informed about what they should major in if they want to go to a particular grad-school.

In addition, an article from Science mentioned on this blog before describes a potential solution to preference misalignmnet - at least in the specific subject domain of science. The article describes how some American universities have been trying to match science students to their interests: "Linking Student Interests to Science Curricula":

A course called “The Chemistry and Biology of Everyday Life” (CBEL) was developed using students’ interests in everyday life as the starting point for instruction. Something like this could be rolled out at second-level in Ireland.

Martin Ryan said...

@ Kevin:

Re: the pressure of the Leaving Certificate -

and, pedagogy to be focused on actually learning useful skills and not rote-learning (and the mindless accumulation of points):

I agree that the stress levels currently associated with the Leaving Cert (4 out of 10 students not sleeping properly, according to ESRI research) are unacceptable. I am also inclined to look very dismally upon the cramming marathon that is used to navigate the points system. Okay, it's something to be able to persist and slog it out more than someone else, but who really cares about rote-learning and memorisation in this day and (information) age?

In the information age, real value comes from criticising information, not memorising it. Indeed, major US multinational companies have expressed alarm about falling standards at third level, which are arguably attributable to the cramming mararthon.

Of course, the introduction of subjectivity into the college admissions process would be very dangerous. The points system, despite its flaws, is the fairest and most transparent way that college places have been allocated to date in Ireland. I am surprised though that there has not been a review of international best practice in recent years, as the “grinds culture’’ has quite plainly come to dominate the Leaving Cert. People are worried that "money can buy points".

Of course, money can buy an advantage in whatever system is in place: be it the Leaving Cert, A-Levels or the SAT. But we should keep on thinking up new ways to minimise student stress, maximise student preparation for the modern economy, and facilitate inter-generational mobility.

Thinking about what can actually be changed, my suggestion (and it's just one suggestion) is that we need more continuous assessmnet (CA). However, here's the kick --- this CA should be marked anonymously, just as the exams are. This would serve to take away the pressure of the "Big Day", and the CA could even be designed to encourage critical thinking, while at the same avoiding subjectivity bias.

I think it's harder to prescribe a policy-change to create a more level playing-field in the college admission process. One idea is to follow the Oxford process, which gives more weight to academic performance based on information about the applicants’ backgrounds against five criteria. The idea is that getting 500 points is more of an achievement for some students than it is for others.

Last year, the UK Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, called for universities to follow suit and look beyond raw exam results when selecting applicants. This was translated by one newspaper into this headline: “Middle class students face university place struggle as Mandelson backs giving poorer students two-grade ‘head start’”. Of course, what the universities really want is to get the best students, selected on merit. They want the ones who are most likely to thrive at university.

Here is a BBC news story from last year which includes Lord Mandelson’s comments and a description of the Oxford admissions policy:

Martin Ryan said...

@ Judith:

"A general undergrad followed by a professional graduate degree would prolong the costs of education for either the student or the government and delay the entry of high skilled young people into the labour market."

The costs could be worth it though. If we don't know what the jobs of the future are, then that generalist undergrad could be very valuable, and reduce the likelihood of future unemployment.

I agree that there's too much importance given to one exam on one day. That in itself is too lottery-like for my liking.

@ Liam:

"If certain subjects are being cherry picked because they are easier then this can easily be dealt with directly."

Looking at Leaving Cert. subject choice between 1997 and 2005 (based on anslysis I conducted on the blog before:, we know that most students choose Geography, Business Studies, French and Biology for their optional subjects. The following are the most popular subjects, in order. (I should point out that after Accounting, the numbers taking any subject are quite low):

1. Geography
2. Business Studies
3. French
4. Biology
5. Home Econ.
6. History
7. Art
8. Construction
9. Physics
10. Chemistry
11. German
12. Accounting

I should also point out that there is a sizeable fall of about 50% in the numbers taking any subject after Home Economics. We can see that the top four (Geography, Business Studies, French and Biology) include one of Hist/Geog, one "Business" subject, one language and one science subject.

My hunch is that Geography, Business Studies, French, Biology and Home Econ are being chosen because they are easier exams to score more points from. I suspect that French is being chosen to get into NUI colleges, but that Home Econ would be a higher preference if the NUI language rule did not exist.

It could be argued that having four (instead of three) compulsory choices might be fairer, in that it could be viewed as a more level playing-field.

Mark McG said...

Liam I stand to be corrected but I would have thought that it is one thing to describe the situation as it is, but that you can’t necessarily say much about what would happen to things like the SES gradient in results if there was a rise in the proportion of students from low SES backgrounds attending college. There’s a serious sample selection issue with the current students in these categories. They are like to be the most talented, motivated etc.

Liam Delaney said...

That's a fair point Mark. I guess what we know so far (most clearly in the Denny, Doyle et al paper) is that students from lower SES schools who get in on reduced points don't do worse. In the IUS survey, lower SES students come in to college with far fewer "points to spare" than higher SES students but the difference in university grades becomes a lot smaller. I think we could probably say that there is not much risk of really changing the "quality" of students by having affirmative action of the limited type put forward by the access programmes. If you had a lottery system at very low points then I don't know. One real beneficiary of such a system would be weaker students from higher SES backgrounds.

Liam Delaney said...

I have Michael Sandel's lecture on distributive justice and affirmative action on in the background here. Nice setting for some of this discussion:

Part 1 - ARGUING AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: Sandel describes the 1996 court case of a white woman named Cheryl Hopwood who was denied admission to a Texas law school, even though she had higher grades and test scores than some of the minority applicants who were admitted. Hopwood took her case to court, arguing the school’s affirmative action program violated her rights. Students discuss the pros and cons of affirmative action.

Liam Delaney said...

One interesting thing in the Sandel lecture is the importance of legacy admissions in the US. I wonder how many of the people looking to move to various subjective admissions methods have things like this in mind. A legacy admissions policy would give preference to people whose parents or siblings went to the university. This seems to be fairly common for schools in Ireland.

Kevin Denny said...

Those are very interesting comments folks & I probably don't have much more to add. One thing to bear in mind is that we have here a combination of problems including I think (i) at least some students making bad choices because they are too young or badly advised (ii) excess demand for higher education and (iii) a big SES gradient in primary & secondary school attainment. This is all leaving aside the "mere" matter of lack of resources. There may be other factors too.
From first principles we know that it will need several different reforms to address these. So we're very much in "second best" mode and any reform addressed at one of these margins may worsen things elsewhere. Governments in general, and certainly the Irish one, are simply lousy at joined-up policy making.
My own view is that (iii) is the most serious issue but probably also the most intractable, for political resons if nothing else. So pending the solution to that I am sympathetic to affirmative action programs which would not be my first choice. It beats doing nothing.
Re-introducing university fees will have no effect one way or another on the SES gradient in university (assuming it is done moderately intelligently) but on social justice grounds seems desirable.