‘Grade inflation’ and the Irish Universities Quality Board

Yesterday’s Sunday Business Post carried an interview with Padraig Walsh, the chief executive of the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB). Over the past fortnight when the ‘grade inflation’ story was doing the rounds, some commentators picked on the IUQB and wondered why a body with a remit to protect quality did not address this alleged decline in standards. In the interview Padraig Walsh makes the point that the IUQB is not a regulatory body and cannot compel the universities to adjust their marking systems.

There may be people who will respond to that by asking what the purpose of the IUQB is if it cannot restrain universities when they are compromising standards. The answer is that there is an important difference between quality and standards: quality assurance is about checking whether decision-making processes are transparent and consistent, whereas standards relate to the substance of the curriculum and its appropriateness. Under law the latter is a matter for each university; changing that would require the state (or some other body designated for this) to implement a centralised curriculum for the entire sector, a move that would be totally incompatible not just with university autonomy but also with international best practice.

Under plans announced some time ago by the government, the IUQB’s functions in relation to quality assurance are to be transferred to a new regulatory agency that will be in charge of quality assurance for the entire post-secondary education sector. There is a risk, I believe, that there will be expectations that this new body will be able to compel individual institutions to revise or change their standards. If this were to happen, the implications will be far more damaging to the reputation of Irish higher education than any perceived grade inflation.

It is worth saying that the IUQB, contrary to the impression given by some commentators, has played an enormously important role in addressing quality issues. Across the university sector it is now accepted without argument that institutions owe a duty to the public to demonstrate that they use methods and apply decisions in a consistent and fair manner, and that publishing quality reviews so that everyone can consult them is in the interests of transparency. These are major advances.

On the other hand, the universities themselves need to explain to the wider public much more convincingly than they have done how they determine standards and how they ensure that these are in line with international benchmarks. Simply declaring that there is no problem will not be sufficiently convincing. There is more work to be done.

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4 Comments on “‘Grade inflation’ and the Irish Universities Quality Board”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I have to admit to being puzzled about the IUQB a body I was never really aware of & the entry here didn’t tell me much either. So I went to the website: lots of waffle. So I went to the reports for UCD, since I have worked there since 1992. In my view the reports, link below, are entirely without value. It is completely bland, uninformative waffle which is of no real benefit to anyone other the people who make a living doing this stuff or those who need political cover.
    The chair of this body is a retired judge and I can’t help wondering what she would have done if presented with this nonsense in court? And is it any wonder that intelligent people like Declan Kiberd get frustrated by all this?


  2. belfield Says:

    What’s most striking for me is the deeper nature of the commentary. It’s not so much waffle as toxically formulaic. Most worrying of all – I’d no difficulty whatsoever ‘seeing’ the subtext.
    A seriously distressing we are the Borg moment!

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