Posted tagged ‘Intel’

Grade inflation, educational standards, and everything…

March 2, 2010

Yesterday was one of those days – the Minister for Education and Science tells the world (via the Irish Times) that he is investigating grade inflation in the Leaving Certificate and in higher education, and immediately a confused (or at least confusing) debate gets under way about standards. The problem with this is, however, that all sorts of different (and not necessarily even related) issues get thrown together. Let me try to disentangle them a little.

First, it seems to me that the allegation of ‘grade inflation’ (where the sub-text is that students are now receiving marks they would not have received some years ago and which they do not objectively deserve) is a complete distraction. Yes, the Minister’s ‘investigations’ will show (as we already all know, as the figures are readily available) that the proportion of students getting higher grades has risen. But this is hardly surprising, as students’ working methods have changed dramatically, as have the pressures on them to perform to the highest possible standards: their success in the labour market depends on it. So students work harder and are driven to maximise their grades by making tactical choices about which subjects they study and how the do their work. In any case, if we benchmark our exam results against other countries, we will find that Irish grades are still relatively lower than elsewhere. It is perhaps strange that Google, a US company, is said to have complained, since the highest grade inflation of all has been in the United States. Also, while grades may have risen in third level institutions, student attrition has also, mostly caused by failed examinations. There is simply no evidence that Irish universities and colleges have been dumbing down.

It is odd that the Minister cited former Intel CEO Craig Barrett’s recent speech as the catalyst for his concerns about ‘grade inflation’, because Mr Barrett made no comment whatsoever about this issue; I can say this with confidence, as I was there. What he did say was that the Irish education system was now no better than average, and that in terms of international competition this was not adequate. His main worry was that we were not graduating sufficient numbers in mathematics and science, as these subjects were the basis of all the new industries. Other industry representatives have warned about the insufficient number of graduates with qualifications in software engineering and biotechnology. This is hugely important, but completely unrelated to grade inflation.

Then, during an interview on RTE radio, the Minister allowed himself to be walked into a statement that some unnamed Irish third level institution or institutions in particular were considered to be below the expected quality threshold. This is an incredibly damaging statement, and I suspect one without any foundation, and it should not have been made (or at least not without very solid evidence). It must be acknowledged that the Minister was pushed into responding to a point put to him, but it was still an unfortunate response.

Lest all of this sounds too defensive, let me emphasise that we do indeed have a problem, or indeed a series of problems, in Irish education. We have two main issues. The first is that we have a school system that is offering an education that, while staffed by dedicated teachers, is largely out of date, with questionable learning methods and with a syllabus that is not sufficiently adapted to society’s changing needs. The wholly inadequate proportion of students doing Higher Level Mathematics for the Leaving Certificate is an example of that issue. Higher education institutions need to acknowledge that we reinforce this by allowing the very questionable influence of the CAO points system to continue. The second problem is in higher education itself, where we have built up expectations of a world class system that we are however unable to deliver due to rapidly declining resources and huge financial instability, accompanied moreover by an exponentially rising tide of bureaucratic controls. We have generated targets of participation rates in higher education that would, if achieved, take us amongst the top countries in the world for third level qualifications, but with resources only just better than those of a developing country. This cannot succeed, and we must move swiftly to ensure that the resourcing framework is sufficient, stable, predictable and focused on the right results in terms of educational outputs.

Yesterday’s announcements by the Minister were quickly followed by me-too statements from Fine Gael and Labour; as far as I know, none of these thought it might be helpful to have private discussions with the universities before picking up the megaphone. In the end none of this was helpful. Setting up investigations into grade inflation means getting lots of dogs to bark up the wrong tree. We do have a problem, probably even several problems; but we won’t solve them by going after something else entirely.

Global thoughts

September 22, 2009

Maybe like you, I was not invited to the Global Irish Economic Forum held in Farmleigh last weekend. I think many of the other university presidents were present, so maybe there’s a hint there somewhere, or maybe those organising the event simply made a rational decision. But seriously, the Forum (which, overall, was a good idea) produced some interesting comments which merit further attention.

From a higher education point of view, the most significant address at the Forum was delivered by the former CEO of Intel, Craig Barrett. According to the Irish Times, this is what he said:

‘Former Intel boss Craig Barrett had some harsh words for Ireland’s record in research and development when he addressed the forum in a closed session on Friday, according to those present. Dr Barrett is reported to have told the conference that many of the reasons why Intel came to Ireland in the first place no longer applied, and that spending on R&D was only half the level it should be.’

I’ll come back to that in a moment. But again according to newspaper reports, one other participant, Professor Martina Newell-McGloughlin of the University of California at Davis, said that Irish universities were ‘a bunch of ivory towers’ with no joined-up thinking. And she added: ‘We need to get past the tribalism that exists in Ireland and make sure we don’t become risk-averse.’

There are some messages in all this that we need to consider further. Whatever we may want to think about the accuracy or fairness of critiques made of our national performance in research and development, there is clearly a view held in influential circles overseas that there is a problem here, and moreover a problem that could have an economic impact. Dr Barrett implied, as we are told, that the expectation of significant R&D activity and funding in Ireland influenced Intel’s investment decisions here. Secondly, it appears that the universities themselves are still seen with suspicion by some key opinion formers.

It would seem sensible to me to do a follow-up to this forum and to explore in more detail how we can, both as a country and as a higher education sector, address some of these issues and resolve the problems. Maybe that needs to be the next step.