"Brutal but fair" is the description often given to the system used to select university students in Ireland. Applications are made in January but offers are made only after the leaving certificate results are published in August, writes John Walsh.
Despite criticism, a government-appointed commission failed to come up with a workable alternative to the "points system".
Before the end of January, virtually every student taking the school leaving certificate fills in an application form through the Central Applications Office.
Students list their choices. They can opt for any subject and are eligible for up to ten choices for degree courses and ten for diploma and certificate courses. Only a small number of courses require interviews or portfolios or aptitude tests, for example music, art and - surprisingly - hotel management.
Most disciplines admit students on the basis of leaving certificate results. Students have to pass a number of subjects including English, Irish, maths and a foreign language.
Results are announced in mid-August and converted into points for college entry. The number of places on the courses is more or less fixed, so the demand for places in effect controls the entry level in terms of points required. If they have enough points for their first choice, students receive an offer in the post. If not, they are offered the next highest preference for which their points entitle them. Four out of five receive some kind of offer in this way. The acceptance deadline is at the end of August and a second round of offers is held in September to fill any remaining vacancies.
Controversy flares every now and then. It was pointed out, for instance, that very bright students who might be ideal doctors missed out on places in medicine by a handful of points. But calls for the introduction of interviews are rejected on the basis that their introduction in such a small country would leave the system open to charges of favouritism.
The main criticism is that the points system dominates teaching in secondary schools. "Hard" subjects, where high grades are more difficult to come by, are discarded by students for subjects where points are perceived as easier to get. Alternative routes into third-level education are being developed for mature and non-standard applicants.