Ireland is to switch to graduate-only entry to medicine and other healthcare courses in a radical break with the pattern in the rest of Europe.
Education minister Noel Dempsey announced plans for students to take an undergraduate programme of their choice in any area before deciding to enter medicine or one of the other health-science disciplines.
Academics have been taken by surprise by the speed at which the minister has moved on the plan, even though it was written into the programme for government when it came to power in 1999. Questions remain unanswered about the length of the courses and who will pay for them.
Entry requirements for undergraduate medicine, dentistry, physiotherapy and pharmacy have always been high in Ireland.
This year, entry requirements reached new heights for medicine, with students needing 570 out of a maximum of 600 points in their leaving certificate, and even then not all were guaranteed places.
Mr Dempsey said the requirements were distorting the universities' points system and fuelling the pressures on students.
By ensuring choices for healthcare courses were made at a more mature age, there was a better chance that people were making the right choice for the right reasons and not simply being shepherded on to high-points courses because they were high achievers, he argued. This, in turn, should have a positive impact on morale and retention in the professions concerned and ensure a wider variety of entrants with a greater range of backgrounds, experiences and skills.
Mr Dempsey wants to convert medicine, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacy and radiography to postgraduate entry.
Most primary degrees take four years. The state pays tuition fees at undergraduate level but not at postgraduate level, except for those on means-tested grants. If fees are charged for postgraduate healthcare courses, medicine could become more elitist.
But Mr Dempsey said while some implementation issues needed to be worked through, there would be a postgraduate programme for medicine by 2007.
Postgraduate entry to medicine is the norm in the US and Australia, but critics said the plans would put Ireland out of step with other European Union member states when the Bologna Process is pushing for convergence.