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A points race and a boat to England - it's back to the '80s

At the weekend, a promotional email from Stena Line dropped in my inbox -- and brought me right back to the 1980s, a feeling which only grew when I read the CAO statistics this morning.

The email was offering cheap sailings for students taking the boat to go to college in the UK. The points announced this morning show why more and more Irish students will be choosing that option.

With points for many courses soaring as the demand for college places rises, we can expect "taking the boat", to use a phrase I had thought belonged to history, is set to become an increasingly familiar part of our educational scene.

The number of points needed for nursing has hit the 500 mark for the first time, though not, it should be emphasised, in all colleges. Still, we have arrived at an era in which entry to nursing, which surely requires a whole range of attributes and not only the ability to score points, will be increasingly difficult for many students unless they go to the UK.

For years, excellent and dedicated students wanting to go into teaching have found the points required were so high they had no hope of getting their qualification here. This is likely to be replicated across many more courses.

This is all an outcome of our economic woes and of our failure to change the points system when we could have afforded to do so. Change would have meant providing enough places on courses to make rationing through the points system irrelevant.

Instead, we partied on and ignored the things that really mattered. And because the children of parents who can afford to spend a lot of money on grinds have an edge over those whose parents can't meet the extra cost, we have stuck with a system that has an in-built unfairness.

On the plus side, the long-standing Irish belief in education as the way forward has kicked back in again. As well as 45,000 of this year's Leaving Cert students in the race for college places, we have 20,000 mature students also seeking to advance themselves through education.

It's a great thing to see people whose jobs are shaky or gone changing their prospects through education but these numbers also show that the points race, far from vanishing, is set to intensify until the economy changes again.



Competition

And with colleges complaining they are short of money and that they may have to put a cap on the number of places they offer, competition is going to soar.

The boat to England is going to be more and more crowded around September for some years to come.

In one way that's not a bad thing. Emigration brought Irish people a better life for many decades despite all the wailing that went on about it.

But it's not a good way to run an education system -- especially with huge pressure on college places in England too as people there seek go educate their way into being more employable.

One way to dampen down the points race is to provide more places -- unlikely in the present climate. Another is to devise a rationing system that doesn't depend solely on points. The chances of our political establishment sitting down and doing that are pretty remote.

So sorry, students -- but it's back to the future for you.