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Mature students: an examination of DIT’s policy and practice

Author - Dáire Mag Cuill


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“Lifelong learning includes progression, credit accumulation, diversification of provision, and flexible routeways between home, work, and education. It is lifelong, lifewide, voluntary and self-motivated.”

White Paper on Adult Education – Learning for Life, Department of Education, Dublin: Department of Education and Science, 2000.

This paper examines the current position of mature students in the Dublin Institute of Technology, the largest third-level institute in Ireland. It also deals with the treatment of mature applicants, and the position of mature students in the Republic of Ireland in general. The focus of the paper is on equity issues, and in all discussions of equity the underpinning principle is equality of opportunity. Where places on a third-level course are limited, for example, all applicants must be treated equally and the places allocated in a ‘fair’ manner. This does not mean that one cannot discriminate in the true sense of the word but that there should be no ‘unfair’ discrimination. Fair can be taken to mean that the criteria used to discriminate between applicants are appropriate and not arbitrary. For example, a given criterion, such as proficiency in a particular language, might be appropriate in one context and arbitrary in another.


Access to third-level education in the Republic of Ireland

The Irish third-level system is characterised by a demand for places which exceeds supply, in particular for ‘prestige’ courses such as medicine. To deal with this situation, places are allocated through the Central Applications Office on the basis of points, which are calculated from results in the Irish Leaving Certificate examinations (CAO, 2003a). In a small number of courses, interviews and/or portfolios also earn points for applicants. Equivalence tables exist to calculate points for applicants who undertake other school leaving examinations such as GC(S)Es (CAO, 2003b). In addition, applicants have to meet ‘minimum entry requirements’ for each course – typically a certain grade in mathematics, and Irish or English, as well as foreign languages and subjects directly relevant to the course in question. The first batch of standard places, in what is called Round 1, are allocated shortly after the publication of the Leaving Certificate results each August (CAO, 2003a). Medicine and dentistry, for example, are filled almost entirely by applicants who have obtained straight A1s, or close to it.

There is also a system for dealing with so-called non-standard applications: mature applicants, applicants with disabilities and applicants with other relevant qualifications or experience. Often these are called to interview by the colleges they have applied to, and they can be offered places in advance of the August Round 1 offering in what is known as ‘Round 0’. These offers may be made even if the applicant has not met the minimum entry requirements for the course (CAO, 2003a).

Although in general the points system has been accepted as a fact of life and a necessary evil by applicants, it has come under increased criticism in recent years., Each August sees cases of applicants missing courses by just a few points or – worse still – missing courses due to random selection among applicants with the same number of points. The criticism tends to focus on the harshness and inflexibility of the system. What is rarely questioned is the equity, or even the purpose, of the system. It is assumed to be fair, in that the same criteria are applied to all applicants, but the criteria themselves need to be examined. What is the purpose of a system for allocating places? Is it to allocate places to those who are likely to perform best; or to those who deserve the place most; or those who will benefit most from the place; or who are most likely to use the qualification? Does it take into account competing economical, individual and social goals? The question must be asked whether the current system is 'fit for purpose'.