Earlier this month in Britain, the Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, was reported as saying that students who would have failed A-level mathematics in the 1980s were now ‘easily passing’ because of dumbing down under the British Labour Government. At almost exactly the same time researchers from the Institute of Technology in Tralee who had conducted a study on educational standards in Ireland reported that there was considerable grade inflation in Irish universities and colleges and concluded:
Grade inflation in Irish higher education has been driven by institutions prioritising student numbers and growth at the expense of educational standards. Weaknesses inherent in the assessment process at third level have enabled an increasing divergence between academic performance and grades awarded.
The kind of evidence used by the Tralee team was that ‘in 1994 the percentage of first class honours awarded across the universities was 7%. By 2005 that figure had jumped to 17%.’
Complaints about grade inflation and falling standards are not new. In Britain they began to get serious circulation in the 1990s, so that every year when A-level results were issued and showed any improvements at all there were immediate shouts of dumbing down. We are now getting similar complaints about higher education.
Most people making such assertions are doing so on rather flimsy (and entirely circumstantial) evidence. Students getting better results could be put down to one of any number of reasons: under pressure from parents and teachers, students may actually be working harder, teaching could be better, rising entry requirements by universities and the competition for places could be driving students to prepare more for exams; and so forth. Also, if the standards of final school examinations were slipping the universities would see this immediately through falling standards at third level and the need for more remedial teaching in first year. That this hasn’t happened (except in cases where entry points requirements have been lowered) suggests that the charge of dumbing down is not a good one.
If there were serious drops in standards at university level, we would be hearing from employers about the declining standards of graduates. In fact while there may recently have been a shortage of graduates in some sectors, there have been no suggestions that the quality of those coming through is lower than in the past; often the reverse is stated.
If we are targeting better performance by students leading to better results, as we are, we should resist the temptation to assume that something has gone wrong when those better results materialise. It may be the opposite, standards may be rising. From my experience, students nowadays work much harder and are much more aware of the impact of their results on their job prospects. You would expect them to work harder and get better results, which is what has happened.
I believe that changes to the curriculum and working methods at secondary schools are needed fairly urgently, and there is always room for a discussion about higher quality education at third level. But this objective is undermined when we start talking about dumbing down as being the obvious and necessary cause of higher grades. That is a sloppy use of facts and data, and at the very least needs a better qualitative analysis of the reasons for (as distinct from just the fact of) better examination results.