The grade inflation show comes to the Dail

Last week during parliamentary questions in Dáil Éireann (the lower house of the Irish parliament), the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD, was asked to provide information on the outcome of the two investigations he had launched earlier in the week into ‘grade inflation’. Here is what he had to say on third level results.

With regard to higher education, it is the case that the data presented indicate a trend of increasing award levels. The proportion of students gaining first class honours in level 8 degree programmes increased from 11.2% to 16.6% in the institutes of technology between 1998 and 2008, and from 8.3% to 16.2% in the universities between 1997 and 2008. Several contributory factors must be considered, including deliberate decisions on assessment standards prompted by external examiner findings aimed at aligning Irish standards more closely with international norms. Improved and more explicit assessment methods, with the development of learning outcomes-based approaches, and better prepared students are also arguably important factors.

Grade increases in higher education are, however, also argued by some to be indicative of a relaxation of standards. This is a subject of debate across systems internationally. Notwithstanding the inconclusive nature of that debate, my principal concerns in an Irish context are on two fronts. I want to safeguard and enhance the quality of our graduates and to ensure the robustness of our systems of quality assurance. The question of graduate quality is a complex one of fundamental strategic importance. The higher education strategy group is currently addressing the broader challenges involved.

It would have to be acknowledged that this statement is a a more reasoned and thoughtful response than some of the other statements that have been floating around. A couple of minutes later he also made the following statement.

We must not undermine in any way the quality of the degrees awarded by Irish institutions and, therefore, of the graduates they produce. It is because of the flexibility of our graduates and the high quality of the education they have received that multinationals choose to locate here. Continuing announcements of the creation of high-tech jobs indicate that there is confidence in our education system. We must challenge that system into the future. That is why I am putting in place a new qualifications and quality assurance agency which can go into the various institutions and compare one with another.

The first part of that last passage is sensible. The last statement – about using the new combined quality agency to ‘compare the various institutions with one another’ might give more cause for concern, not least because it would appear not to favour diversity of mission within the sector. In the end, for any high quality system of higher education, the autonomy of individual institutions must be respected, and diversity should be encouraged and celebrated. I confess I remain nervous about the future.

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6 Comments on “The grade inflation show comes to the Dail”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    As Prince advised recently “Tell the cat to chill”. I somehow doubt if the new agency is cause for concern. In practice these institutions are inevitably subject to regulatory capture e.g. you may be on the board. So bland reports, no great harm or good done, everybody’s happy.

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    maybe Kevin, but the ‘collateral damage’ could be substantial in terms of increased paperwork, centralised approval of new programmes, etc. Such bureaucracy is the bane of so many other systems imposed elsewhere and can have a significant effect, particularly at a time when administrative support is being cut across the sector.

    • kevin denny Says:

      True, but I imagine (hope) that it will be the light-touch regulation beloved of our financial sector – where it has clearly been so succesful. We certainly need more paperwork like the proverbial hole in the head.


      • ‘…like the proverbial hole in the head.’ – One newspaper report last week had Batt O’Keeffe saying that he had had a ‘no holes barred’ meeting with the tech companies. That must have been what he was referring to… 🙂

  3. Vincent Says:

    If ‘new’ means just one, then you will not do to badly. And for the NUI Universities it may even mean one less. But if new means another, then not so good, eh.

    On a very outside subject, are either Oxbridge Universities running access courses for the very local areas like DCU and the others.

    • kevin denny Says:

      The Access programs in Irish universities are relatively unusual as far as I know. But Oxford does make efforts to increase participation by low SES groups I think but I don’t know the details. I know there is a Department of Adult Education.


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