Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has said the Government will not be reopening the Leaving Cert grading system following the release of CAO first round offers.

"If you pull a thread here, you risk unravelling the entire system ... if all of a sudden I am allowed to take a teacher's grade in one subject and apply that to college then why can't someone else do the same?

"Nobody sat down in the Department of Education and said 'would it not be great to get rid of the Leaving Cert'? That is not what happened. What happened was there was not a safe way to hold the exams this year."

For those who were disappointed, he told a press briefing that there was an opportunity to sit one or more subjects in November.

Mr Harris said he wanted to congratulate students on receiving their first round CAO offers.

"This is a significant milestone for any student, but particularly this year, in light of the uniquely challenging year students have endured," he said.

"I am delighted to have been able to secure 2,225 additional places in the Higher Education sector in the last number of weeks.

"More students will be able to access third level than ever before with 12% more places, this translates into a rise of 2,300 people going to college."

The Minister said the outcomes show "some stability" compared to last year but acknowledged there had been increases in some courses.

"Last year 77% of applicants received a first round CAO offer, this year it is up to 80%."

He said around a third of students had already logged on to accept their CAO offer.

Read more: More than half of students offered first preference course

Mr Harris added: "Today is, of course, a difficult day for some who will be disappointed.

"But this is not the end, not be a long shot. There will be other offers in the next round. On Monday, the CAO will open up an available places portal.

"I would encourage students to take some time and consider the many options available to them. Education is a lifelong process and there are a variety of learning pathways available to students.

"Your future is not written. You will write that yourself," said the Minister.

"We were looking for every extra place we could," he said of college places.

Asked about possible legal action, he said it was right and proper that people could go down that route in a democracy.

However he told the briefing: "We will not be reopening the grading process".

The Minister said that removing the school profiling from the calculated grades was a brave decision by Minister for Education Norma Foley but the "right decision".

If there was no standarisation process, you would be looking at a "very high" grade inflation.

"When students look at the grades their teacher gave them, and think it would have resulted in higher points, they must remember that other students would also have got higher points from their teachers' grades."

Asked about fee-paying schools and grinds schools who were disappointed by the calculated grades process, Mr Harris said he did not want to "pit" any one group of students against another group.

"It is about having a system in place that is blind to such issues, whether you are male or female, whether you are rich or poor, whether your parents could afford to pay fees or not - a system that tries to provide as many opportunities as possible.

"It is my view that this system [used for Leaving Cert 2020] was as fair and robust as possible."

Mr Harris encouraged young people to look at "all options" in Higher and Further Education. "Doors are not shut to you today. Sometimes the route has to be more circuitous."

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He said the appeals system is also robust and fair insofar as it is based on calculated grades. He reminded students that they could sit the Leaving Cert exam in November.

He said there was €16m available in student funding and a €15m technology fund with 17,000 laptops to help college-goers study online.

"I am conscious that the registration fee can be a barrier to Third Level access but those on a SUSI grant will have it waived - around 44% of students do not pay the full registration fee."

The Minister was asked if the class of 2019 and previous years who were applying through the CAO this year had been treated fairly following grade inflation.

"We looked at various options and decided to offer more places. The legal advice on ringfencing places for previous years was clear - it would not have worked."

Mr Harris said that "85% of applicants from previous years" got a top three offer today, compared to 80% for the class of 2020.

"What we tried to do is plough as much resources and money to offer as many places to students as possible but some courses were constrained by capacity."

He agreed that due to the coronavirus, college would be a very different experience this year. "There is no getting away from that."

While a lot of time will be spent online, he will be having meetings in relation to students' needs for public transport.

Mr Harris was asked about pubs reopening on 21 September. "If there is a spike in cases in different areas then public health will respond.

"I have great faith that if you tell people the truth, they will respond in kind because they want to keep themselves and their families safe."

He said there is no certainty yet as to the final number of foreign students who are coming to Ireland to study this year. "There will not be real clarity on that until later this month.

"Many of them are post-graduate level not school-leaver level."

The Minister asked students to follow the public health advice while celebrating their Leaving Cert results. "Keep your gatherings small to no more than six indoors or 15 outdoors."

He told the press briefing: "Every age group has shown leadership in their own way. This generation has shown a level of resilience that quite frankly puts me to shame, and they have come out the other side."

Just under 79,000 applicants received offers this afternoon for third-level places.

More than 47,000 offers were made at Level 8 (degree) level, and 31,788 for Level 7/6 courses.

The points have risen for almost three-quarters of degree or Level 8 courses, according to this year's CAO data.

Call for reform of the college entry system

The Social Democrats have called for "meaningful reform of the college entry system" following today's release of the first round CAO offers. 

Spokesperson for Further and Higher Education, Holly Cairns said, "Every adjustment made to the Leaving Cert and CAO process creates more complications. It is unfortunate that there is still no reassurance today for students applying to college using results from previous years." 

Speaking to RTÉ's Drivetime programme, the Labour Party Spokesperson on Education Aodhán Ó Ríordáin called on the Government to create additional third level places for students who failed to get into their preferred course based on their calculated grades, but who would have been accepted based on their teachers' estimated grades.

Deputy Ríordáin said, "The Government and the department of education should use their imagination to ensure that people are not left devastated by the system."