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The only way is up – one in four graduates get a ‘first’ due to grade inflation as pandemic continues to make its mark

24pc get top marks due to Covid compared to 16pc in 2016


Almost one in four graduates (24pc) were awarded a first class honours degree in 2021. Photo: PA

Almost one in four graduates (24pc) were awarded a first class honours degree in 2021. Photo: PA

Almost one in four graduates (24pc) were awarded a first class honours degree in 2021. Photo: PA

About one in four graduates (24pc) were awarded a first-class honours degree in 2021, as Covid-era grade inflation continued to make its mark.

The figure is even higher among undergraduates who did an “honours degree”, where the proportion who got a “first” shot up to 28pc last year.

An underlying rise in the proportion of students achieving a ‘first’ has been evident since 2014, but the pace quickened after the pandemic started.

While there may be a number of reasons for the increase, the accelerated inflation is attributed to a switch from in-person exams, forced by Covid-related public health measures.

Graduates will enjoy the accolade of a ‘first’ but, if the rise in attainment is not well-founded, then it will raise questions about standards.

In 2019, 16pc of all graduates – undergraduate and post-graduate – achieved a first, rising sharply to 21pc in 2020 – when colleges closed suddenly and assessment switched online. It jumped further to 24pc in 2021.

Grade inflation has been even steeper for undergraduates, with 18pc of those on honours degree courses achieving a “first” in 2019, climbing to 24pc in 2020 and 28pc in 2021

In-person exams were cancelled in 2020 and, with colleges closed for 2020/21, there continued to be extensive use of online exams and assessment by assignment.

Ireland is not alone in seeing grade inflation, at both second and third level, since Covid and, while the detail may vary, it is an international phenomenon.

Universities and other higher education providers in the UK recently stated that by next year their members would cut the proportion of first and 2:1 grades given to students to 2019 levels.

The latest snapshot of what is happening in third-level has emerged in the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA), Facts and Figures 2021/22.

The data shows that the gender gap is continuing to widen. More than half – 55pc – of students in 2021/22 were female, up from 54pc the previous year and 51pc in 2015/16.

Economic recovery since 2015 – following the banking crisis that started in 2008 – is probably a major factor in the widening gap, with boys more likely than girls to go straight into work after school, if it is available.

The construction industry is among the sectors that have seen a resurgence since the recession of a decade ago, while there are growing opportunities for apprenticeships, both in traditional trades and other areas, which tend to have a greater uptake among males.

The HEA figures confirm an ongoing shift in undergraduate student aspirations, with an increase in uptake in honours degree (Level 8) studies. Only 7pc of students pursued an ordinary degree (Level 7) in 2021/22, down from 11pc in 2015/16.

Mature students accounted for less than 7pc of new entrants last year, down from 11pc in 2015/16, with the greater availability of jobs seen as the reason for this decline.

The 2021/22 year saw a small increase, to 246,299, in higher education student numbers. Almost two-thirds (62pc) were on undergraduate honours degrees, and 11pc were pursuing a taught master’s degree. The most popular subject group in 2021/2022 was business/administration and law (21pc), followed by health and welfare (18pc).

The figures show a rise in international students, to 12pc of the student population, up from 10pc in 2020/21. The US was the most common country of origin, followed by India and China. In a reference to the 12pc figure for international students, HEA CEO Dr Alan Wall said it was “positive to see that this has reverted to pre-pandemic levels”.

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