Dumbing down?

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.

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19 Comments on “Dumbing down?”

  1. ultan Says:

    It could be due to those reasons, but I doubt it, an and its apparent having been in and out of third level educations for a quarter of century and having worked globally with some of the world’s biggest IT companies. Plus the reasons for high grades at second level are not necessarily the same as at third level either.

    In my experience, there IS dumbing down now going on in colleges. And employers do react – as Google recently said they couldn’t find 100 suitable people (http://www.herald.ie/national-news/dublin-dell–jobs-safe-but-2000-at-risk-1583088.html)

    Empirically, having dealt with graduates from all colleges, including DCU, it’s very naive to think there isn’t a credibility problem here. There are some fine people, sure, but some IT graduates today are clearly functionally illiterate. Some cannot even program anything more complex that a basic Java routine to subtract a percentage from a total and print a result. Yet they graduate with honours? Add to this the fact that they are massively expensive to employ by international standards, and there’s a huge economic problem.

    Part of the problem, of course, is that people don’t put any pressure on Irish universities to improve the quality of the education because it’s free. If you’re getting a first for free, why care? Bring back the fees and that dynamic changes. A lot can be learnt from private fee-paying schools.

  2. Ultan, the Google story doesn’t back that up. Their problem did not lie with the quality of graduates, but their number – they just couldn’t get those with the right qualifications.

    And I wonder about the issue you mention about graduates’ skills. Computing graduates are an exception to the grade inflation trend: their grades have been going down, partly due to the fact that, as the popularity of these courses declines, universities started admitting those with lower points.

    I’m afraid I stand by my point…

  3. Brendan Guilfoyle Says:

    As a co-author of two of the Reports cited in this blog, I’d like to make a few points.

    “The kind of evidence used by the Tralee team” is an almost complete database of awards for every third level course in the Ireland for the last 15 years, gathered with great effort by team members over a period of one year. That this data was not readily available to academics and policy-makers seriously hampered any informed discussion of award levels beyond anecdotal evidence and prompted us to make the dataset freely available. Perhaps not surprisingly, many third level institutions are now refusing to release the most recent award levels for us to update the database.

    “Most people making such assertions are doing so on rather flimsy (and entirely circumstantial) evidence.” We have endeavored in our data gathering and analysis to study the phenomena in as comprehensive and objective a manner as possible. As you rightly point out, that there has been grade increases is undeniable, and the majority of our work – 7 Reports consisting of 230 pages – has been to try and analyze the reasons for these increases.

    This has included comparisons with CAO entry points, variations across disciplines, academic quality assurance regulation changes, as well as social and institutional factors in education.

    The conclusion we come to is that there has been a lowering in standards across the third level sector caused by the dramatic increase in participation levels. This is the only plausible explanation for the ubiquitous and sustained increase in award levels. Moreover, this is exactly what happened in the US and UK education systems at the time when they underwent rapid expansion.

    Arguments to the contrary, made here and elsewhere, are made on precisely the kind of “rather flimsy (and entirely circumstantial) evidence” that you dislike. Where is the empirical (or even circumstantial) evidence that students are working harder, teachers are getting better at teaching etc?

    Indeed, in the presence of such sustained increases of award levels, the onus must be on the educational institutions to prove that this has NOT been caused by a lowering of standards.

    As for employers complaining, there is plenty of evidence that there is a growing concern, Google being only the most recent high profile example.

    For example, a 2004 Forfas submission to the DES states “There is a significant body of opinion, both in the enterprise community and among academics, that standards have declined in the Irish education system over the past decade, both at second and third level”. In addition, in his 2008 Presidential Address to the Royal Irish Academy, Prof. Jim Slevin made similar points.

    Within my own sector, the IoT’s, there is a growing acceptance at a national level that the process underway must be arrested. The recent draft of the HETAC Assessment and Standards Policy now includes the following: “Providers are responsible for demonstrating that their assessment instruments are valid and reliable. While the current external examiner system provides some anecdotal evidence, providers need to look to complementary processes to produce dependable evidence that their assessment results accurately reflect their learners’ true attainment.”

    The question for Irish universities is whether, without a national standards authority, they can do anything to halt the slide in standards in their institutions.

  4. Brendan, your comments are interesting, and I confess I have not seen all of your material and cannot therefore make a confident judgement about it. But your arguments set out above are not necessarily strong ones.

    First of all, you say that ‘the onus must be on the educational institutions to prove that this has NOT been caused by a lowering of standards’. With respect, that’s a highly doubtful way of putting your case. It is the equivalent of saying to a student whose grades have improved between first and final year that the onus is now on him or her to prove they were not cheating. The onus is the other way round.

    Nor did I make ‘arguments to the contrary’, in the sense that the points I raised were not designed to establish evidence of anything other than that there could easily be alternative explanations for the phenomena you chart. It seems to me that what you are suggesting (and apologies if this is not the case) that because grades have improved it must be due to falling standards; that simply does not follow.

    You suggest that growing participation in third level is always accompanied by rising grades. That is not so. Usually it is the opposite, and grades will tend to fall as quality problems emerge. In fact, in some subjects where numbers grew but points went down over recent years there is much less evidence of grade inflation.

    My point is that the charge of falling standards is made too easily and is often not established by the apparent evidence. The points you make above in support of your conclusion are mostly anecdotal or circular: as people keep mentioning grade inflation, some commentators and even lecturers will start to believe it. But that isn’t evidence of anything other than a growing perception, which may be quite unrelated to any facts.

    As I have already mentioned, the Google story doesn’t back this at all.

    I would love to know what you found, apart from the grades themselves and their trend, and apart from vox pop type comments, that you could use as scientific evidence of falling standards.

  5. Overnight I have read some of the papers that Brendan Guilfoyle and his colleagues have produced on grade inflation – they can be viewed here: http://www.stopgradeinflation.ie/index.html

    I am not finished with my reading, so this is an interim judgement; but so far nothing I have seen has changed my mind. I would not at all wish to challenge the statistical data which the research has produced; I am sure the figures are correct. But the process by which qualitative conclusions are drawn from the data in these papers is deeply flawed, and does more or less follow the pattern I suggested in my last comment: i.e. that because grades have gone up, standards must have gone down.

    Even in relation to the data, there is one key problem: as far as I can tell, no account whatsoever has been taken of student attrition, drop-outs or repeats. The key indicator one would expect to see reflecting a growth in participation is not lower grades but higher rates of drop-out, and this has in fact been the case, in some areas with dramatic effect; in one subject area that rate has at times been close to 50 per cent.

    But the bigger flaw lies in the way in which the conclusions are argued. Take for example the discussion of whether there could have been an improvement in standards of teaching (Paper 2). That whole possibility is simply summarily dismissed, as follows:

    “What of the possibility of productive changes in educational methodologies across the Universities? To result in the ubiquity, continuity and scale of the grade increase described above, such changes would have to be dramatic, universally applied and progressively more effective over time. Nothing at all has been reported from the University sector that in any way meets those criteria.”

    First, even at face value that is a totally inadequate conclusion as a way of establishing the case for grade inflation as a lowering of standards. But in any case it is manifestly wrong. The period covered by the research saw some of the most radical changes in teaching methodology in the history of higher education. I am not saying that these necessarily produced the improvements in grades, but it is at the very least something that would need to be explored properly and not simply ignored or denied.

    But perhaps my main gripe with this research is with the extraordinarily elitist assumptions that underpin it – coming close to suggesting that we (as a society) were wrong to bring into higher education those groups traditionally excluded from it. This is made most explicit in Paper 4. Allied to that are various assertions, with almost no attempt to back them up with evidence, that social changes (such as a ‘decline in social distance’ between students and faculty) undermine standards, or that allowing students to make a judgement on the quality of their programmes will have negative results.

    In fairness to Brendan and his colleagues, I do believe that we need to be vigilant about standards; but I also believe that we now have some pretty powerful mechanisms for doing so. But the real point is that we are a society that has only recently transitioned from being one in which education of a high standards was the preserve of the wealthy, to one in which it is part of what the population as a whole is entitled to expect. As the anticipation of high level educational achievement advances, so does the confidence of the participants (students and faculty) in the educational system. And that is what we have been observing.

    To be told now that the elitist model is actually better would be outrageous, and must be resisted strongly.

  6. Brendan Guilfoyle Says:

    Your objections appear to be (in inverse order of your perceived seriousness):

    1. lack of data on failure rates
    2. failure to take account of changes in teaching methodologies
    3. elitist assumptions

    Dealing with these in turn:

    1. lack of data on failure rates:
    We would certainly have included such data, were it available. However, this data is not supplied to the HEA by the institutions concerned and we have thus been unable to gain access to it. My understanding is that there is a reluctance to release such data as it could be politically sensitive. If, however, you believe that there would be no objection to its release in order to fully inform debates on standards, we would be very happy to include it to fill out the picture. I look forward to your comments on this.

    2. failure to take account of changes in teaching methodologies:
    The quotation from our paper you chose is apt. But what precisely are these “most radical changes in teaching methodology in the history of higher education” that you refer to? Have they been so dramatic, universally applied and progressively more effective over time as to explain the data? Has DCU been so successful in implementing these changes that the percentage of first class honours degrees has rocketed from 9.5% in 1994 to 20.6% in 2004, as compared, say, to UL who have only managed to increase their fist class honours from 7.2% to 11.7% over the same period? Perhaps both could learn from the IoT sector where, despite a sharp decline in CAO entry points, first class honours have still seen a 52% increase of firsts?

    3. elitist assumptions:
    Here your claims are pure nonsense and, as such, disappointing as a main gripe. While you only come round to openly stating your assumptions on our motivations at the end of your last post, it is clear from your initially juxtaposition of our work with some recent statements of David Cameron, that this is an opinion that you had formed before ever reading our papers in any detail.

    In any event, expansion of the higher education sector is not an issue per se, and does not necessarily lead to the lowering of standards. In the Irish context, however, we claim that this is precisely what has happened. Nor do we anywhere suggest that we should return to some more elitist model.
    The massive expansion of the sector and the resulting admittance of academically weaker students would inevitably put stress on any educational system. We claim that this challenge was not met in this country by a more graduated approach to the intake. Instead, a one-size-fits-all model was adopted that has poorly served both the weaker and the stronger students.

    Finally, as the Google case has had some degree of prominence in these posts, it may be worthwhile to consider the exact wording of the piece entitled “Ireland misses out on new Google jobs” that appeared in the Business section of the Sunday Times of 21.12.08:
    “Google has abandoned plans to locate up to 100 software jobs in Ireland because it was unable to find enough qualified candidates here. John Herlihy, Google’s vice-president for online sales and the head of its Dublin based European headquaters, said the highly skilled jobs went to other Google offices in Europe. He blamed the loss of the jobs on a “dumbing down” of educational standards. “We wanted to recruit up to 100 software engineers, but we couldn’t find candidates of the calibre we were looking for in Ireland” he said. “We hear a lot about this knowledge economy of ours. But I’ve been back in Ireland for four years now and I still don’t know what it is” said Herlihy. “I’m not sure the quality and output of our third level (colleges) is as good as we think it is”.

    I fail to see how this supports any of your arguments.

    • Thanks again to Brendan for is reply – debate is always good… The drop-out rates (more important than failure rates) are publicly available for all universities, and have increased significantly over the past decade or so; and this is where the impact of widening participation is seen. It is, incidentally, a major problem, so I am not suggesting that the growth in numbers has no effect.

      I’m not sure why you think I had made any assumptions about your ‘motivations’ when I wrote the original post; or now in fact, as I have no idea what these motivations are, and am quite happy to take it that your main objective is to start a debate. The elitist issue is spelt out fairly explicitly in your paper. It’s not an unusual position, but I disagree with it. I made no comment about it until today because I only read that paper last night.

      I think what caught my eye initially was this statement on your start page on the website: “Grade inflation in Irish higher education has been driven by institutions prioritising student numbers and growth at the expense of educational standards”. I have to say that is total nonsense. Every university has made huge efforts not just to maintain standards, but to improve them, and absolutely no institution has prioritised numbers over quality. In fact, the period you have assessed coincided with the development of quality assurance/improvement, which you disregard completely. Nor do you look at the impact of modularisation (which was led by DCU, which may explain DCU’s particular trend).

      I value your work as a basis for debate, but I do believe you assembled the data and then just rushed to judgement. There is a whole stage of evidence-based analysis that, in my view, is missing. And because what you write may help to confirm some people in their prejudices, it matters.

  7. Barry Says:

    Having recently spent 4 years studying in Irish universities (for a BA and an MA), I have to say I thought standards there were extremely low, at least in the courses I studied.

    I recently completed an MA, the focus of which was translation. The course was supposed to have a vocational slant but as a preparation for the real work of a translator, it was almost worthless. Put simply, it was just too easy – both in terms of the amount and the nature of the work.

    I also remember when I started in first year at undergraduate level how shocked I was at the low standards in my German class. The material was ridiculously easy for a group of people who had been learning the language for 5 or 6 years prior to starting college. And yet despite that, many of the students in the class struggled with the course, which suggests to me that they shouldn’t have been in the class at all.

    I also distinctly remember going to Germany for the first time for my Erasmus year. At this stage, I had been learning German for 7 years and yet I was barely able to communicate with people there – despite the fact that I was top of my class at home. In fact, I would say in my first two years at university, my proficiency in the language declined.

    As far as I can see, something is seriously amiss in Irish universities, especially in Arts/humanities courses. Many people view their time in university as a hiatus between the high standards of the Leaving Cert. and the pressures of the working world. Attendance levels are often abysmal. And though it would be reassuring to think that those who don’t attend their classes don’t pass their exams, this is often not the case. The levels of alcohol consumption among students are also shockingly high, which would again suggest that they don’t necessarily take their studies that seriously. The streets of any college town/city on weeknights, particularly Thursdays, are as busy as they are on Saturday nights.

    I agree with Ultan when he talks about bringing back fees. Students, lecturers and the course organsiers might then be forced to take the whole thing a bit more seriously. Perhaps fees could be paid for those students who genuinely wouldn’t be able to attend college otherwise, for students who have attained high grades (either in the Leaving Cert. or college exams) and for students taking courses where they will end up performing some useful function in society or the economy afterards. But paying fees regardless of students financial situations, academic performance or course of study is too generous and I think a lot of money has been wasted here over the past few years.

  8. pennybridged Says:

    I spent some time recently on the “http://www.stopgradeinflation.ie” website, going through the links to articles etc. See “http://pennybridged.wordpress.com/2009/02/07/125/” and “http://pennybridged.wordpress.com/2009/02/07/what-was-that-last-post-all-about/”.

    At the very least it seems that the level of debate, opinion, feelings, facts, and figures around the issue is in itself sufficient cause for a proper investigation.

  9. ultan Says:

    @Barry, I think fees are a big part in this. Perhaps a “voucher” model where students can take their money to a university of choice, one that delivers the goods academically and stands out internationally, would drive up standards overall.

    However, in my opinion, and based on my experience – there is something wrong in Ireland in terms of grade inflation and it needs to be faced and acted on. It’s not just some banks who have a credibility problem made worse by the fact that we all now have to play by global rules, not local ones.

    Otherwise, the country as a whole suffers.

  10. Perry Share Says:

    In my view the perception of ‘grade inflation’ may be related to the much better knowledge that students now have in relation to how they are assessed. Purely anecdotally, when I sat for the Leaving Certificate in the late 1970s, there were no ‘marking schemes’ on the internet, no supplements in the papers and no way of finding out how to strategically approach an exam paper. I was fortunate (being in the private education sector) in having (some) teachers who had figured out good exam strategy. We didn’t know it was strategy – we thought they had a direct line to the examiners! (maybe they had).

    Similarly, while at university, myself and colleagues did not have a clue how the assessment was conducted, we just wrote essays and did exams, with precious little feedback from most lecturers. There were no appeals against results and again, basic knowledge of exam strategy was markedly lacking.

    Nowadays students at both 2nd and 3rd level are extremely well informed and strongly active in relation to assessmemt strategies. Luck is no longer as important as it used to be – partly driven by the process of replacing unseen exams with continuous assessment strategies.

    As for students’ greater level of alcohol consumption – I suspect that is related to greater disposable income and alcohol that is much cheaper in real terms – not to mention the marketing strategies of the alcohol industry that specifically target the student market. I don’t think the characteristics of students have changed much in this regard.

    Now that I am a Head of Department in an IT, I can honestly say that I see little or no evidence of grade inflation in my own area. Indeed the demands made of students, in terms of group work, presentations, reflective journals, structured work placements &c would have made me blanch in my student days. Though I admit we probably wrote better conventional essays.

  11. Ferdinand may be correct to suggest that the case for dumbing down is not proven. However, the high marks in recent years and particularly the unevenness of such throughout the system do suggest that there is cause for concern which many do not believe can be more plausibly explained by other causes. So even if we were to accept that the cause is debatable, it does suggest that the onus in on institutions to explain the changes in their grades, particularly if they are significant.

    As someone who has had some exposure to the techniques of measurement and quality assurance in industry it has always seemed to me that the techniques used in higher education are quite feeble and unreliable.

    The following is an interesting little example: A number of years ago we were asked to move to an alphabetic grading system and were given a set of numeric bands alligned to the grades that lecturers who awarded marks could used to determine alphabetic grades. It was remarked later that the number of high overall grades seemed to be higher than before. So we ran a simulation, using randomly generated numeric grades and ran them through both the older and newer systems. The overall grade levels were indeed higher indicating that the recommended bands were misalligned. I myself, brought this to the attention of management within my own and other institutions several times. I am not aware of any action being taken on this. In measurement terms, this is a relatively simple (if very serious) mistake compared to the problems of accurately measuring educational achievement and ensuring consistent standards from year to year, and of which I have never seen any serious attempts to achieve.

    My conclusion from this example and my general experience is that the standards of measurement and quality assurance in the sector are very poor and if (by chance?) there is a natural human tendency to reduce standards from year to year, there is no adequate system of measurement in place either to detect or resist this.

    Interestingly the UK universities do consider that there has been grade inflation in second level in the UK. This was illustrated by the Economist magazine some time ago where they showed that the A level grades to enter UK universities has increased over the last 20 years to a greater extent than the required Leaving Certificate grades.

  12. Wendymr Says:

    there has been grade inflation in second level in the UK. This was illustrated by the Economist magazine some time ago where they showed that the A level grades to enter UK universities has increased over the last 20 years…

    I was an undergraduate course director and admissions officer at a British university for five years, and can absolutely tell you that that doesn’t follow. Entry requirements are not and have never been driven by the need for a particular grade at A-level. They’re driven by demand. Otherwise why would Oxford University require three or four A* grades for a subject, while a less-renowned university will accept three Cs? My own university determined and adjusted admission requirements based on demand.

    Whether or not there has been grade inflation at university level in the UK or Ireland – and, anecdotally, I’m not convinced of it in the UK, as my course committee did actually monitor and compare from year to year the proportion of awards at each grade level and we observed no significant upward trend – I think the reasons for changes in grade distribution are far more complex than reports so far suggest. One important point not so far raised relates to participation rates. In the 1960s and 1970s – and even in the 1980s – what percentage of the student-age population went to university? Graduates, for the most part, had their pick of jobs and opportunities, because they were the elite, the top ten or perhaps twenty per cent. From the late 80s and 90s, with the expansion of higher education, there was a corresponding expansion of competition among graduates – meaning that grades mattered in a way they hadn’t previously. In the 1970s, a graduate with a 2:2 could be pretty sure of walking into a decent job. Now, that graduate is going to need at least a 2:1 to impress an employer, or perhaps even a Masters on top of that BA – and students are aware of this. They’re also, as someone noted above, much more instrumental about their studies, making themselves aware of what will earn them marks and what doesn’t count at all.

    But, seriously, if you want to talk about easy courses and assessments, look at some of the examination techniques commonly used in North America, particularly multiple-choice tests – and compare workloads for a typical module of a degree programme as between North America and Europe. I had Erasmus students from the US, in the third year of their degree programmes, shocked at the amount of work I expected from undergraduates in a first-year module, which was 3-4 times what they thought was acceptable (and they also all seemed to expect As).

  13. Neil Says:

    Well, I haven’t read all the comments on this topic, but it is a pet subject of mine. As a Physicist and one that has spent a significant amount of time working in the semi-conductor industry, (almost 25yrs at this stage, both in Ireland and California) I can offer the following, purely anecdotal, but experiential on my part.
    1. We used to have in Ireland, Degrees. In hard sciences and engineering, they typically took 4 years, and I don’t think that any of them were easy, so to speak. For the arts, commerce & others, they sometimes took 3 years.
    2. We also had Diplomas in same;- they took 3 years typically, and then Certificates, that took 1 or 2 years.
    3. Some years ago however, somebody (if memory serves me correctly the then Tanaiste Mary Harney TD) decided that 4 yr degrees should be called Higher Degrees, 3 yr Diplomas should largely be termed Ordinary Degrees and the Certificate (although the name never bothered me in an interview) should become a Diploma.
    4. In conversations with some of the DCU Physics Dept. lecturing staff some years ago, I was told that the mathematics & physics that students came into first year with (i.e. understood from their leaving cert year in second level) in the late eighties and early nineties, in latter years takes most of the first year of a degree to cover. Naturally, then, given the fixed 4 year duration, something had to give…….the ultimate quality of the graduate. An anecdotal piece of evidence to back this up;- I recently interviewed a candidate with a Diploma in Electronics (not, clearly, a DCU graduate) who not only was un-able to perform a continuity test using a fairly standard multi-meter, HE COULDN’T EVEN TURN THE METER ON.
    5. Mathematics, physics, chemistry & biology are built on a foundation that is laid in second level. I was personally fortunate enough to have a secondary school physics teacher (Joey Ryder, in case anyone knows him) who was a physicicist and a lover of his subect. He was a big influence in my career choice, because he both instilled a love of the subject and a solid grounding.
    6. I don’t know any recent physics or chemistry graduates that teach their subject in secondary school. (I don’t know any maths graduates, so I can’t comment.) So if the physics and chemistry graduates are all working in other fields (industry, government or further research etc.) then just whom specifically, is teaching physics and chemistry in our secondary schools? I suspect that it may be biology graduates. If I am correct (and don’t shoot me down on a specific example here;- I’m talking in generalities across the full population) then that’s a bit like asking me to adequately explain the reproductive cycle of a mammal to a 5th year biology class;- I can probably get through it by reading the relevant chapter in the book before they do, but I won’t inspire any of them to become ground-breaking marine biologists (if you’ll excuse the contradiction.) If we want better quality graduates then the incoming raw material needs to be better;- leaving cert standards need to go up, and the teaching issues need to be resolved.
    8. This all started about dumbing down and I ended up rambling a bit;- graduate quality (in my humble opinion, based on my experience) has decreased over the last decade or two.
    9. Changing the naming convention for our third level qualifications hasn’t helped (it smacks of copying the US conventions, where a degree could be had in hamburgerology, if my memory is correct.)
    10. The plethora of “distance learning degrees” available both here and in the neighbouring parish across the Irish Sea hasn’t helped either. An open university degree in technical engineering design or whatever, is not, nor will it ever be, the same as a B.Sc. (Hons) in Physics, earned with the blood, sweat & tears of 4 years in a proper university.
    11. Bottom-line;- a degree earned in a reputable 3rd level institution like DCU should be to a standard that doesn’t change much. It looks to me like the standard may have slipped by an academic year or so over the past 10 to 15 years, when judged by what the graduate has covered, let alone by what they might actually have retained.
    If we hope to have an engine for economic recovery generated from among our graduates, they need to be able to perform.
    So if you are an electronics graduate, I expect that you can turn on a multi-meter to the correct setting perform a continuity test on a piece of wire, and not be trying to measure the current that somehow might be present…..

  14. Recent DCU Graduate Says:

    CAO points are based on popularity not how difficult a course is. I recently graduated from science in DCU and the points were really low (about 340) but points for business were over 400 and business is generally thought of as a much “easier” option to study due to the lesser workload.
    The people who did really well in my year were the ones who studied hard, never missed labs/tutorials and handed reports up on time.
    I did not do physics or chemistry for the leaving and only got a C2 in biology higher level. i also did ordinary maths and got a B2. This didn’t matter when I started university because i worked hard and ended up specializing in chemistry. Others who got over 500 points and did all higher level in the leaving failed because they had the wrong attitude and thought they would sail through the exams.

    In my opinion teaching standards have improved and I think it is mostly got to do with better technologies e.g. email, moodle, powerpoint presentations for lectures.
    My sister graduated from science in DCU 10 years ago and she told me the lecturers would just stand at the top of the room mumbling and scribbling on the blackboard. At best they had notes on acetate which they put on the overhead projector and everybody spent the whole hour writing everything down as fast as possible.
    In my experience 90% of the lecture notes were handed out or put up on moodle where the students could print them out before class. This left more time to concentrate on what the class was about instead of worrying about how fast you were writing.

    Also the lecturers give out their office number and email address and encouraged people to call up if they have any questions. My sister told me nobody ever asked questions when she was in DCU and if you didn’t understand something it was your own problem.

    On many occasions I called up to lecturers offices and emailed them with questions. I found they all would sit with you one to one until you understood. Extra tutorials were also arranged upon request and it was never a problem.

    I think students are very competitive these days. Everyone in my year was out for themselves and nobody was afraid to approach a lecturer with questions. My sister told me that when she was in college 10 years ago everybody was afraid of the lecturers and never questioned anything.
    I don’t need any proof that teaching standards have improved because I have experienced it for myself.

    In relation to IT graduates not knowing how to program, I have to agree. I know a lot of IT graduates who don’t have a clue and got through college by copying other people’s code for continuous assessment and learning things off by heart for exams without actually understanding any of it. In saying that obviously there had to be some people who did know what they were doing but i know copying does go on.
    I agree with Perry Share when he says that students are taught exam strategy. I did extra lessons and grinds in the institute at xmas of 6th year for this purpose and i learned so much. They gave me marking schemes and sample answers to show how to get better grades. The marker looks for certain criteria and only an allocated amount is awarded for different areas so this helped me with time management. i think exams are all about timing and knowing what they’re looking for and none of this was explained to students in the past.

    Also the semesterisation exams were brought in which made it easier in one sense on students because I had a 12 week semester of material to learn for a two hour exam instead of 24 weeks of notes to study for a 3 hour exam (that’s how it was previously).
    Along with the lowering of points for science and engineering degrees due to a lack of popularity came smaller class sizes. In my final year there were only 22 but when my sister was in DCU there were twice that. As everyone knows, smaller class sizes means more individual attention.

    I also agree that the leaving cert standard for foreign languages is appalling. I studied Spanish for the leaving and my class were terrible. But in my opinion the teachers we had were awful. I think students need native speakers. The only reason I did well was because I spent every summer studying in a language academy in Madrid. The level that is expected for leaving cert was covered in one month of classes 2 hours per day. So in 40 hours I had revised everything I learned in 5 years of school. Since that experience I would never go to classes taught by a non-native speaker and have spent every summer throughout college studying in Madrid and have improved my fluency to a very advanced level.

    If I was doing a degree course that had a language part like Barry I would make it my business to do language exchanges with foreign students throughout the academic year and spend my summers studying abroad in preparation for the Erasmus year. I think spending time in the country where the language is spoken and living with native speakers is the only way to learn.

    I am completely against bringing fees back in fact I think the €800 (approx) that students have to pay is already too much. Bringing in a means test will end up being a joke much like the grant scheme is at the moment. In order to get a grant you either have to lie about your income or come from a single parent family or both your parents have to be pretty much on social welfare. And not only that you have to fight for it. In order to get my grant I had to call into Wood Quay offices on a weekly basis until they sorted it out because I think the staff are lazy and incompetent. Also if I sent anything in by post they claimed they never received it which is why I ended up dropping all documentation in in person and kept numerous copies just in case. It wasn’t until the end of the year when I got any cheques from them and they had no reason for the delay.

    I can’t imagine a means test being used to determine if a student should pay fees or not being any different. They can’t even cope at the moment, so putting an extra workload on them will be a nightmare. Students will end up graduating and still waiting for their money!!!

    Also, banks are not giving out loans to anybody let alone students. So bringing back fees is only going to make a bad situation worse as a lot of students rely on loans to pay for accommodation etc.

    Bringing fees back will cause many students who can’t afford to attend 3rd level to try to get work, and at the moment they won’t find any. More people will end up signing on, which is a huge problem. Bringing back fees will only cause the children of parents with money to become educated and the poor to stay that way. You only have to look at the disaster of the education system in the USA for proof. I have spent altogether 8 months travelling and working in the states (California, NY, Boston, Chicago, Florida and Texas). All of the people I met and worked with gave out about the education system and many didn’t go because they couldn’t afford it.
    I agree with Wendymr when he talks about US Erasmus students thinking the workload is too much. There were students from the US in one of my classes in final year and the rest of the classes they took were 2nd and 3rd year modules because they were told the 4th year classes would be too difficult for them! Even though they were in final year too!

    Students have more disposable income in recent years because they work part time. When my sister was in DCU nobody had jobs because there were none. Having more disposible income results in students spending more money socialising e.g. drinking. The reason why Thursday is so busy is because it’s the last night for students to go out in Dublin. The majority of students in my year were from the country and went home on Friday afternoons so Thursday was the ideal night to get together.

    When I did my INTRA placement in a QC lab I felt completely over educated and I hadn’t even done 4th year yet. The labs and classes in DCU had well prepared me for industry. After that, myself and most of my class mates decided that further study and research was the only option for us because it felt like such a waste of education to study so hard and then get a job that we could have done after 2nd year of the degree course. As a result only a quarter of graduates went into industry and the rest began further studies in Ireland and abroad.

    Everything that I have written is based on my own experiences in DCU and from talking to friends and family members. None of it is based on statistics or anything I have read.

  15. cormac Says:

    V interesting debate. As a lecturer and member of Academic Council at WIT who lectures on four different courses per semester, I would like to point out that one of the possible pieces of evidence suggested by Ferdinand – a significant increase in demand for remedial teaching at 1st year level – has very defnitely occured in our college, most particularly in courses involving mathematics. This has not been precipitated by a drop in entry points.
    We have also been repeatedly made aware by industry of a worrying drop in the code-writing ability of the graduates of our well-regarded degree in applied computing

  16. Perry Share Says:

    A recent article in the New York Times (kindly brought to my attention by a colleague) tends to back up my point about assessment strategy. It also points to the baleful influence of the US education system, where everybody expects to get an A as a matter of course! The article can be found at http://tinyurl.com/onlyAs

    Neil (above) – I think your remarks about distance education programmes are unjustified. There is no reason why a well-constructed programme should not be as demanding as a face-to-face course.

  17. Indeed, as a US Citizen, I find similar issues, challenges, and continued future problems with the same. It’s unfortunate especially considering that we are living in a more complex world than yesterday, and it is not getting any simpler.

  18. […] of bad press in March 2009 that so upset Baron Prondzynski. After all, was it not FvP himself who poo-pooed the very notion of declining standards a year earlier, claiming “If there were serious drops in standards at university level, we would […]

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