Comment & Analysis
Oct 1, 2020

The Leaving Cert Crisis Has Laid Bare A Wrecked Third-Level System

The leaving certificate crisis hurts everyone – but above all it sheds lights on what is a profoundly damaged third-level sector, writes Orla Murnaghan.

Orla Murnaghaneditor-at-large

For the leaving certificate class of 2020, it has been nothing but an enduring struggle. The constant confusion around the predicted grades system left a lot to be desired, but yesterday’s revelations that over 6500 students – or 10 per cent of the overall examination number – have received an incorrect grade would be almost laughable, if it weren’t so tragic.

There inevitably will always be those who will “lose out” in the Leaving Certificate system, but this year it is a zero-sum game. Of course, the news will come as an initial relief to those who narrowly missed out on their dream course, but at the systemic level, there is no solace to be found in this revelation.

It’s one of the biggest events in the history of the leaving certificate –  and even within the Department of Education itself. Minister for Education Norma Foley has accredited the error to failures in an algorithm used to calculate a candidate’s grade. In her defence, the Minister did offer an apology and rectification for the error, and arguably, she isn’t entirely to blame for this – but her promise to accommodate all students affected is far from clear.


Promising students that they will be offered a higher-points university course in the event of an increase in their grades is sound in theory, but how will this operate in practice? Foley today has been quoted as stating that there “may well be a number of students who have to defer” – although it is still “too early” to call. The exact mechanics of how this system will operate will undoubtedly leave first-year students in a state of anxiety.

If a student is offered their course of preference immediately, great – but if offered to defer for a year, this is highly problematic. The state is essentially asking the student to pay the price for its own errors – through either “taking a year out”, or by remaining on a course that will always have a question mark over its head. This is blatantly unfair – and disheartening – to students, who have already had to endure this constant state of limbo, only to have their hopes raised again to be quickly disappointed once more.

The reality is, a lot of students won’t have the luxury of simply “taking the year out” to wait for dreams to happen, when there are so few jobs available and nowhere to go. Will the minister consider these pertinent factors? And how will this affect the leaving certificate class of 2021? Will this snowball effect mean that they too become collateral damage in the process? The answers to these questions are beyond us – and right now, also beyond the Department of Education.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has also since weighed in on the matter, claiming that up to 1,000 new university places may need to be created to accommodate this development – which again, is arguably mere lip service to struggling students. Universities are underfunded as is. Courses such as medicine and engineering – those with a “practical element” – are already bursting at the seams to logistically facilitate effective, manual learning in overcrowded laboratories. Meanwhile, in the Arts Block, a seminar classroom designed for 16 has a class of 25.

Professors and TAs are struggling to manage class sizes now, so how would they deal with an extra thousand papers to correct? Underfunding and overcrowding has been a struggle that the third-level sector has failed to address for decades – but now, suddenly the government has found the resolve the issue in the middle of a global pandemic. But in the most pragmatic sense, where do we simply “create” more learning spaces, and in such a limited timeframe? It’s almost impossible to imagine.

We have always known that the leaving certificate is an imperfect system, but the episodes of 2020 have confirmed that it is simply an inadequate system that fails to address the needs of those it alleges to cater to. Creating new spaces to patch up a grave error – whether this year or next year – is a short-term solution to a perennial problem.

What we need to avoid repeating these mistakes from happening again is not a focus on the CAO points race – what we are crying out for are more university places, more funding, and a more accommodating third-level application system. Prevention is always better than cure, and both Foley and Harris will now have to come to terms with this reality.

It will necessitate greater cross-departmental coordination and a recalibration of objectives. Both Ministers are understandably new to the higher education sectors, but as our elected representatives, they must understand that said mistakes have tangible, serious and often unpleasant consequences for both universities and students alike. Nobody is a winner in this scenario.

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