Conference on Undergraduate Admissions for the 21st Century

Trinity Long Room Hub
18 May 2012

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning. I particularly welcome Mr Seán Ó Foghlú back to Trinity for his first official visit since his appointment as Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills.

I'm delighted to see so many here this morning for what is one of the most important conferences of my Provostship to date.

Just over a year ago, when I was presenting myself as a candidate for the Provostship, I set out my priorities - the key things I felt Trinity should do in order to continue to excel. Among these priorities was an unambiguous pledge ‘to revisit the process of admitting students to the university.’ I promised – and I'm quoting now from my manifesto:

‘to explore admissions criteria beyond a purely points-based mechanism, and further develop Trinity's pioneering work in non-traditional access routes.’

Why, among all the important tasks of a university, did I focus on admissions?

For three reasons:

  • First obviously, because I'm not satisfied with the current admissions system - this ‘purely points-based mechanism’. I'll look at the reasons for dissatisfaction in a moment but I'll just stress now that I don't regard the CAO points system as a bad system. Far from it. My problem with the points system is captured by that word ‘purely’. It's not a bad system, but it's bad that it's the only gateway to college. We need to provide other access routes for students whose potential is not captured by the Leaving Certificate.
  • The second reason I made admissions an ‘election issue’ if you like, was because I was aware, and am aware, that admissions is not something that will ever change or improve by itself. There's a system in place, and no incremental change or improvement is built into that system. So unless we force change, nothing will happen. The 21st century is now well underway. And we've done nothing fundamental about university admissions for decades. So I knew that it was only by making it an issue and convening a conference such as this, that something could actually happen.
  • Third, I was also aware – when thinking of my priorities as Provost – that quite often times of crisis are times of change, for the reason that people are more inclined to take risks in crises because they've invested less in the status quo. Ireland is now in crisis, no question about that, so let's do something positive with it.

So – why the dissatisfaction with a ‘purely points-based mechanism’ for undergraduate admissions? The system, to its great credit, is totally transparent, which is crucial in a small country where personal and family networks are so important. It was also technologically ground-breaking when it was introduced – pioneered in fact by one of my predecessors, Provost Watts; and the Central Applications Office is trusted and it's efficient; And every year we enrol excellent students. So what's the problem?

Well, as an educator, I've identified three problems which do impact seriously the type of education we seek to offer in Trinity.

First, the right student isn't always matched to the right course. I know this is a problem for universities across the world, but the nature of the points system means that the problem is exacerbated in Ireland. Courses get identified with points – so for instance because medicine is 600 plus points, then students gaining high points may feel their ‘fit’ is medicine even though they have greater aptitude for, and love of, say, the classics. “Don't waste your points”, is a phrase often heard.  Students - only 17 to 18 year olds remember – are subject to many pressures, including societal pressures valuing some kinds of knowledge over others.

A ten-year analysis of Trinity engineering students reveals that high overall points don't measure aptitude for the subject. Students with low overall CAO points but good achievement in certain subjects do better than those with high points but poor achievement in certain subjects. We should take these findings very seriously – they point to the need for a much more nuanced entry system.

Our studies have also shown that inadequate course information is the single biggest reason why students drop out of college1.

This brings into play the whole issue of retention, which is, of course, aligned to admissions. There’s little point enrolling great students and then have them drop out because they’re in the wrong course.  

In a time of limited resources we need to ensure that we match up students, courses, and colleges as accurately as possible across the sector.

Furthermore, if students stay to the bitter end of a course they're not suited to, that cannot count as success either.

A university acting in the public good will find a way to deal with these retention issues as effectively as possible.

In this regard, the points system is a bit of a blunt instrument. It doesn't take into account significant individuality, nor does it allow for the fact that different universities seek different attributes from students. In Ireland we have a dynamic third-level sector with numerous institutions of higher education, each with its own mission,each offering its own distinctive type of education.

In Trinity, for instance, we offer a research-based education focused towards a deep knowledge of the discipline, often interdisciplinary education, which prioritises critical thinking, inquisitiveness, and independence of mind – it's not primarily job oriented, whereas other institutions pride themselves on offering an education oriented to qualifying students for the immediate requirements of their first job.

Now this diversity is good; it is to be applauded, because different students have different needs.

One size certainly doesn't fit all; society needs diversity in its universities, and we would welcome admission paths that recognise this.

This is a big issue for the conference and before lunch we will examine the challenge of measuring potential, motivation, and suitability for a course.  One of our speakers, Georgina Smithwick, is just back from an Erasmus year in Strasbourg, and next year will be entering her final year in Trinity.  Starting out, Georgina picked the wrong course in the wrong college. Fortunately she was able to change, and is now thriving in Trinity.  Inadequate course information was the key problem in her case, and her story is typical of many.

Georgina decided to help other students avoid her mistake. She set up CourseHub2, an online resource where students from round the country discuss their courses and their colleges on a completely independent site.

We're proud of this initiative – not just because it was founded by a Trinity student – but because it serves a dual purpose: it helps prospective students make the decision that is right for them, and it helps us get a range of critical feedback – sometimes positive, sometimes negative - which we can listen to and learn from.

The second major problem I've identified with our admissions system is that when there's only one gateway, then one type of learning is unavoidably prioritised, the type of learning favoured by the system - in this case it's memory-based learning, or rote-learning.  Now I don't want to be perjorative here: memory, of course, is crucial to intellect. But in university students need other skills. So a lot of time is spent in the first year inspiring students with the new approach to learning. 

So I'm not against rote-learning per se; Even in the internet age, there is still no substitute for carrying knowledge in your head. But it's only one aspect of learning, so it shouldn't be given so much emphasis.

Across Trinity, over the past month, we've been looking at how we assess our students. The Schools have shared ideas and best practice and what has emerged are new ideas about matching assessment methods to learning outcomes. Through diversifying our assessment methods, we will meet our obligation to educate inquiring minds and active citizens.  

In Trinity we have always prized extra-curricular activities – we do not see these as simply leisure activities. We encourage our students to get involved in clubs and societies, in volunteering and in charity work, event organisation, debating and student politics. There is a whole range of ways students can develop outside the library, the laboratory, or the lecture theatre. While we don't allow such activity to substitute for academic course work, we do show our commitment to such development by organising College life to give time for the extra-curricular, and we also reward students for such activities through scholarships and awards – recently we recognised 450 students on the Dean of Students’ Roll of Honour.

As an aside: a little bit of history: Trinity is proud to have the oldest student undergraduate society in the world – the Philosophical Society (or ‘the Phil’), founded in 1683 – and the 'oldest documented football club', founded in 1854.

What’s fascinating to me is that these time-honoured methods of educating are also favoured by today’s employers.

A few months ago, David Broderick, who is in charge of graduate placement at IBEC noted: “What employers are looking for is someone who stands out from the crowd – someone who demonstrates organisational ability through clubs and societies.” And in last weekend's Sunday Business Post, Eamonn Sinnott, General Manager of Intel Ireland was quoted as saying: “We need people with a capacity for critical thinking, problem-solving, innovation and communication.”

What we have here is coalescence between the type of education we want to offer and the type of education employers want. Which is great. But if we want students gifted in critical thinking, problem-solving, innovation and organisational ability, shouldn't we be casting the net wide, while they're still in school? Yes, we can train them in such skills when they come here, but it's best – for us and for them – if they have the natural aptitude and wish to develop that way from the start.

So when I say that I want other gateways to college than the points system, I mean gateways that test those kinds of intelligences and aptitudes.

This brings me to my third and most fundamental problem with our purely points-based system: we are not only matching students to the wrong courses, we are not only having to inspire students away from rote-learning and towards critical-thinking, but we are missing out on students who would have the ability to thrive here – academically and socially – but whose abilities are not being properly captured in a crude points total.

These students are being failed by the system – in some cases they're not finding their place on any third-level course. This is a shocking waste of potential, and it's deeply unfair to the individual. 

My position here is based on firm evidence.

We know that the points system is failing students of potential and aptitude because in Trinity we do have a number of non-traditional access routes. For the past two decades, the Trinity Access Programmes, or TAP, has been bringing students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds to College through alternate means. Students, identified in their schools as having potential, are interviewed and assessed for suitability by TAP. I know that other universities, such as UCD, DCU, and UCC, now have related programmes.

I know how passionate and motivated these students are, and how much potential they have. This year I taught a guest class on TAP, and we debated how Ireland in general and Trinity in particular should commemorate the 1916 Rising.  Their enthusiasm, energy, and original thinking reaffirmed my belief that the points system fails some of our best students, and that higher education can and should be transformative for the life of each individual student.

Recently studies were carried out in Trinity, DCU, UCC, and UCD to assess the performance of non-traditional students. In all three universities the results of these students mirrored those attained by other graduates, with a majority attaining second class honours or better.

When you consider that these students began with socio-economic disadvantage, such results are truly telling, and we can say, with confidence, that academic ability as measured in Leaving Cert. ‘points’ doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Since the publication of my article in the Irish Times on Tuesday I have been struck by the incredible level of interest from teachers, parents, and especially students – who have got in touch with me by email or in person.  One student's story in particular stood out.  On Wednesday I met a young man who would love to come to Trinity to study physics.  He's the winner of prestigious national awards for his science projects.  As well as this, he has overcome incredible difficulties in his life.  He has lost two brothers to drugs - one, the eldest, committed suicide, the second has just been sentenced to a term in prison.  For this student, going to Trinity is not about pleasing his parents, it's about getting an education that will change his life and that of his family.  He doesn't know if he will get the 500 points to study Science, or Theoretical Physics, this year, and given all that has gone on this year, it's a real tribute to his character that he is still determined to sit his Leaving Certificate in less than three weeks time.  We want students like that in Trinity.  The fact that he has already been recognised nationally for his scientific achievements should surely count for something when we are admitting students, except the current system doesn't allow it.

If we were able to take contextual information into account, and assess students on more than just their exam results, but what they achieved in life, what they have overcome, and why 450 points for some is more of an achievement than 600 points for others, then we would have a lot more students like him getting the educational opportunity they can benefit from, and our society would be a better place because of it. 

So those are my three impacts of the current system. To recap:

1) Mismatches of students to courses and colleges;
2) The need to inspire students from rote learning to critical thinking;
3) Missing out on students who could thrive but whose abilities are not captured by a points-total.

Today we want to continue the debate which the Minister for Education began when he took up office, to see if we can take some practical steps to resolve the identified problems.

I have been talking about admissions in this country, but I should stress that this is a global problem. We are honoured to be joined today by some leading international experts on admission.

Professor Steven Schwartz, who will deliver the key-note address after me, is Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University. His groundbreaking report for the UK government on fair admissions provides a roadmap for how we might proceed in Ireland.  We share his belief that a fair admissions system is ‘one that provides equal opportunity for all individuals - regardless of background - to gain admission to a course suited to their ability and aspirations.’

And we strongly endorse his view that ‘preserving academic freedom requires that academic institutions retain three basic rights in relation to teaching: the right to choose who will teach, what will be taught, and to whom.’

Dr. Anna Zimdars of King's College, London, is on this morning's panel. She has done extensive work on undergraduate and graduate admission to the University of Oxford, and we look forward to hearing how her research on higher education and social stratification and education in the UK might help us in Ireland.

We are delighted to be joined by the Provost of Oklahoma State University, Dr. Robert Sternberg.  His ground-breaking book, College Admissions for the 21st Century, provides a radical way of thinking about how we admit our students and how we teach them. 

Sternberg's life-work has been to show the problems in relying on any single-scale to admit students. He believes that ‘we can do a much better job of college admissions, as well as instruction and assessment, if we think about student abilities in a broader way than we have. In particular, by valuing, assessing, and teaching for analytical, creative, practical, and wisdom-based skills as well as for memory-related ones’. 

We in Trinity support this view, and believe there is much to learn from Professor Sternberg on how to identify those students with what he calls ‘potential for future leadership and active citizenship’.

There is, of course, no ‘one right answer’ to this admissions challenge. At different times, different people have offered different solutions, ranging from interviews, to aptitude tests, personal statements, and student profiling. I am currently interested in exploring the use of digital technologies to record students’ progress through second-level, taking account of their learning outside the classroom, including volunteering, sporting, and artistic and creative endeavours. This information could be maintained online and consulted by universities and institutes of higher education.

The main thing is that we support the need to diversify enrolment. After lunch one of our leading broadcasters and, I'm happy to say, an Honorary Fellow of this College, Dr. John Bowman, will help us explore different admissions options.

In the two afternoon panels we will look at the theory of how we might admit students in an ideal world, and then the practicalities of how this might work using existing resources. We are delighted to welcome panellists from the CAO, the IUA, the IOTI, USI, the HEA, and the NCCA, as well as members of our own internal working group on admissions on the curriculum, including Stephen McIntyre, formerly a senior director at Google and now the head of Twitter's Europe Middle-East and Asia operations in Dublin. It is important to have an external perspective and one representing the needs of employers.  

Finally, we are honored to be joined by Professor Áine Hyland, one of the country's leading educationalists, and someone whose pioneering report, nine months ago, providing fresh impetus to this debate, by offering new ways of thinking about an old problem. 

This conference forms only part of that debate, and I hope there will be other opportunities in other venues to continue to look for solutions.

But it's no good spending our time talking about the issues year on year unless we are prepared to act. 

How can we expect a new generation of students to be radical about facing the challenges of the world, unless we are prepared to show them that we can be radical too?  

How can we demand a spirit of innovation at third-level and beyond, if we are not prepared to be innovative in how we assess and measure potential and a range of skills when we admit our students? 

Today we have set a challenge: to admit ten students on a hypothetical course, if all the other students are admitted in the usual way. 

If a good idea emerges from this challenge then we should be prepared to test it in real life – by setting aside ten places on a course, such as Law, that normally demands very high points – and seeing how it works in practice. 

A new generation demands that we do everything we can to rebuild our economy and our society. Reforming university admissions is a great place to start. This new generation must be more globally competitive than ever – they deserve an education system that is prepared to recognise and reward creativity, leadership, and independent-thinking.

I have never forgotten my own entrance to this great College. Coming up from Wexford and entering through Front Arch in 1983, I felt that rush, which every first-time Trinity student must feel, as I went through the dark arch and into the wide expanse of Front Square. This has always been for me a metaphor for what happens to the mind in Trinity – it opens out.

Front Arch is our gateway. So let's get different minds, and critical minds, and innovative minds, through this gateway, and watch how they expand. 

Thank you.








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