O'Keeffe orders probe as college scores 900pc inflation in grades
THERE has been a remarkable 900pc increase in the percentage of first-class honours degrees awarded by one university, the Irish Independent has learned.
A confidential report also reveals dramatic rises in first class and 2.1 degrees across the university sector.
The rise has prompted an inquiry by Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe, who expects to have a report on 'grade inflation' within a few days.
But a separate study -- seen by the Irish Independent -- has uncovered massive grade increases ranging from 167pc to 900pc in the percentage of first-class honours degrees awarded by Irish universities.
"In stark terms, it could be concluded that the academic worth of a primary degree from Irish universities (and UK universities) since 1994 has been devalued significantly," states the report, prepared by TCD's academic secretary Patricia Callaghan.
The report shows the percentage of firsts rose from a very low base of 1.5pc in 1994 at NUI Maynooth to 11.1pc in 2004 and 13.3pc in 2008 -- an increase of 900pc.
University sources last night claimed the increase was just bringing Maynooth into line with other universities.
Other percentage increases from 1994 to 2008 disclosed in the report are:
- UCC: up 273pc.
- TCD: up 226pc.
- NUIG: up 215pc.
- UL: up 207pc
- DCU: up 167pc
The rate of award of second- class division one grades has also increased dramatically.
Trinity went up from 23.2pc in 1994 to 50.2pc in 2008; UCC from 29.1pc to 51.3pc; NUIG from 30.9 to 45.3pc, DCU remained the same at 41pc while the University of Limerick went up from 21.2pc to 34pc. Comparable figures were not available for UCD.
"There is no doubt that the Irish higher education sector has experienced significant grade inflation over the period 1994-2008," the report states.
"However, the upward trend has, it would appear, slowed down and remained relatively stable in the past four to five years. The reasons for grade inflation are not entirely clear, but increased student participation, greater assessment transparency, greater focus on learning outcomes, greater student and parental expectations, and, of course, lower standards, have all probably contributed to this phenomenon.
"The proliferation of master level degrees requiring a 2.1 honours grade in the primary degree is also likely to be a significant factor in grade inflation at this level."
The minister's inquiry into the upward trend in Leaving Cert and college grades was welcomed by the Network for Irish Educational Standards which has been campaigning on this issue for years. Its spokesperson Martin O'Grady said what was striking was that the concerns and impetus for action came from employers rather than from within the educational system or within the educational regulatory system such as the HEA, HETAC and Examinations Commission.
However, Labour education spokesperson Ruairi Quinn accused Mr O'Keeffe of doing a U-turn on the issue, saying he expressed no concerns about reports of grade inflation as recently as last Christmas. He quoted a Dail reply in which Mr O'Keeffe said he was not aware of any direct evidence to suggest that the number of awards was too high or was unjustified.
The National University of Ireland said analyses conducted across its universities provided no evidence of serious grade inflation in the awarding of first-class honours degrees.
In 1999, 9.4pc of graduating students were awarded firsts by the four NUI constituent universities.
At that time, significant numbers of extern examiners appointed by the NUI Senate commented on the relatively low proportions of first-class honours degrees awarded in the constituent universities. In 2007, the percentage of firsts degrees was 15.6pc.
Mr O'Keeffe said a review was vital to ensure quality.
"If our education is being described by one of the foremost industrialists in the country as being 'average', then I think we always believed that our education was above average. It is my job to ensure that we get back to a situation -- if it's merited -- that we would establish Irish education, and the quality of that education to ensure that we continue to attract multinational investment," he said.