Jun 19, 2015

Trinity’s Alternative Admissions Feasibility Study Extended into its Third Year

University Council approved the extension of the study, which aims to influence national policy and shift focus away from the leaving cert points race.

Edmund Heaphy and Sinéad Baker

Trinity’s University Council has approved the extension into a third year of College’s alternative admissions feasibility study, described by its architect as the first research project into admissions since the CAO was founded 40 years ago.

The study, which opens 25 places in Trinity courses to students based on three separate criteria – their leaving certificate points, their relative performance ranking in their school and a personal statement – ran for the first time last year, admitting students for the 2014/15 academic year, and is set to admit another group of 25 students this coming August. The goal of the study is to inform national policy in the area, and was partly in response to former Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn’s call for institutions to explore possible options for a change in university admissions.

While the first two years of the study weighted the three criteria equally, with each making up a third of the students score, possible changes to the system for the third year are expected to be discussed at Univeristy Council in September. Speaking to The University Times yesterday, its project sponsor, Prof Patrick Geoghegan, the former Senior Lecturer and the person described as the architect of the study, said: “I definitely would be interested in trying something different for the third year, and we’re doing a research project where we’re trying to investigate which of the three is most valuable”. He described the relative performance ranking as a “complete triumph”, and said a qualitative assessment and interviews of students admitted through the study would be carried out.


Geoghegan said that the study was originally designed for two years, even though a four-year study could have looked at the natural life cycle of admitted students going from entry to graduation. He explained, however, that the study was deliberately designed for two years due to the large number of uncertainties that existed, such as whether or not anonymity would be successfully guaranteed during the process. Commenting on the success of the first two years, he said: “We were able to show that we had followed our own process, so the debate is really how good that process is.”

“We thought if there’s still a lot of data we’re collecting and lots of interesting stuff to be discovered, let’s continue with that”, he added. The study offered ten places in law, ten places in history, and five places in the ancient & medieval history and culture course, with 270 prospective students taking part last year. In a memo to University Council, Geoghegan noted there had been an increase in applicants for the coming year.

The CAO is responsible for compiling the relative performance ranking, while personal statements are edited to remove all personal data and marked by two people from College departments unless there is disagreement, when it is then opened to a panel of six. According to Geoghegan, not a single student challenged the score assigned to their personal statement.

The study, while widely praised in many quarters – such as by the Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan, in an interview with The University Times in September – has not been met without criticism. In a piece published by the Irish Times last October, former general manager of the CAO John McAvoy called the study an “outrageous experiment” that used students as “guinea pigs” and argued that students should be allocated places based on leaving certificate results alone as “no better alternative has ever come to light”.

In response, Geoghegan wrote op-eds for both the Irish Times and The University Times. He stated the study “hoped to provoke a debate about the way we admit students to third-level” and added: “We do not claim to have solved the problem of the points race, but we stand over the decision to attempt to solve it, rather than sitting back and accepting the status quo”.

Similarly, an editorial from this newspaper’s editorial board commended the exploring of the issue.

Geoghegan expressed strong interest in collaborating with other third-level institutions, as well as presenting a report on the study to the Irish Universities Association task group on the reform of university selection and entry. DIT has already expressed strong interest in the study, and its Head of Admissions, Frank Costello, sits on the study’s steering committee. “It’d be very interesting to see if Maynooth and UCD would be interested in doing something with us”, Geoghegan said.

With regards to the possibility of national implementation, Geoghegan said: “I don’t think you want to rush. I think you’d have to build trust gradually. I could see the value of still saying ‘let’s do it for ten places in each’, because you have to let people see the process in action and let them realise that it is transparent, that it is anonymous, that you have all these checks and balances.”

However, when asked if national consensus and wide agreement was to come about on the merits of considering the expanded criteria, Geoghegan said that while the study was really about sharing the results with the sector, it could be implemented across the board “very quickly” if that’s what was wanted.

Referring to a letter received by him from a mother whose daughter missed veterinary science in UCD by just 10 points, he pointed out that for the majority of courses, judging on points alone doesn’t make sense: “She had worked as an intern for a vet over summers, she had her own rabbit farm, she had a sister with Down syndrome who she was brilliant with. Someone who clearly would have been an amazing vet, and missed out by ten points.”

“Until we can find a system where the right people are being matched to the right course, we should continue to do work like this – and without us getting overconfident and saying, ‘oh we think this is the solution’. Maybe this isn’t. Maybe part of it is, and maybe part of it isn’t, and we shouldn’t be afraid of doing that and critiquing it and improving on it.”

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