Economics can be useful. By this I dont mean the quasi’mathematical faffing about that some , including practitioners, think of as economics. Nor do I mean forecasting, something economists are both poor at and addicted to doing. I mean the way of thinking, the juxtaposing of scarce resources versus unlimited desires. In higher education this last while we see how useful it might be.
The points race , as it is so calmly described, is nothing of the sort. It is a price. Recall how points are allocated – a course with 200 places has a point set, in the main, by ranking the. say 500 persons who placed it first, with the points of the 201st person being the points for that course. It is simple supply and demand.
This year we have seen an unprecedented rise in the number of high points courses. In general students will need more points this year than before to get the course they wanted. Why is that?
Its really quite simple. First, we have an increase in demand : since 2013 we have had over 3000 extra applicants through the CAO. Places in university and IoT have not kept pace with this. So demand has increased faster than supply. Second, there has been an increase in the ability of students to “purchase”, consequent on the introduction of bonus points for mathematics. While this has had the desired effect of increasing the numbers taking higher level mathematics, the downstream effect has been to act like a form of quantitative easing : injecting more points into the growing demand has exacerbated the supply:demand imbalance noted above. Third, we see the usual handwringing and fingerpointing regarding small number courses. Each university and some IoT have responded over the years to government and industry demands for ever more specialised degrees. We now have direct entry courses in Herbal Science, Nanotechnology, actuarial mathematics, bioforensics… the list goes on. Universities have also proliferated courses with direct entry to areas that might in the past have been specialisms within more general courses. The consequence is that these small number courses will tend to have higher points.Lets return to this later.. But there is a fourth issue ; some courses are high in demand not because perhaps of student desire to undertake them but precisely because they are high in points. They are positional goods, or veblen goods. The old joke of the cork matriarch at the marina calling “help,help, my son, the doctor, is drowning” may be more relevant than we think.
Positional goods can have all or some of a triad of characteristics: there can be a zero sum aspect in consumption, where the consumption of the good (getting a place on a high points course) by one person locks out another, or this zero sum can be in the utility derived from the course, or it can be have a pricing mechanism to deter others. The latter is where some people will pay a higher price for a good which is functionally equivalent to another. This is where the small number courses arise. From the perspective of the skills gained there is probably very little difference between Actuarial and Financial Mathematics in UCD at 575 points and Actuarial, Financial and Mathematical Sciences in DCU at 500 points. Its important here to note that this is not to say that UCD are engaging in predatory pricing. It is to note that people are willing to pay more for a course that is, in all essence, the same as another, for social and other positional reasons. There is very little that can be done at the university level to counteract that.
One issue that has been discussed is to have much larger numbers of students entering into common entry courses, specialising later and reducing the pressure at the leaving cert points chokepoint. While attractive this is not a panacea. Yes, it would probably reduce points pressure. This would however come at the inevitable cost of increased pressure on students for entry to specialised courses in the later stages of college. Massification of teaching is also not without cost. Especially in lab and science courses we cannot expect that with static or slowly growing university resources we can provide the same skill set with 400 students in a first year class than we can with 40 or 100. In non STEM courses the situation is as bad, as there the key transferred skills should be the ability to critically argue and analyse, something much more difficult to do with 500 in a class than with 50.
Overall, the points system is decent system. But it is a pricing mechanism and should be understood as such.
A Version of a column published in the Irish Examiner