A degree of competition


Forget the points race the fastest growing area of intense competition between students is now at degree level. More students, the increasing demand for post graduate courses and a chronic shortage of jobs means that final year results are more important now than ever before.

But unlike the CAO system, where every school leaver takes the same exam and is marked by the same" criteria, there are massive variations in how colleges mark and grade their students. Whether you get a first or even fail depends almost as much on your choice of college, faculty or course, as on your performance in the exams.

Add to this the obsessive secrecy with which the colleges guard their exam procedures and the lack of any national monitoring in the university sector, and you have all the elements for the confusion, rumour mongering and sense of grievance which prevails among many students.

The enormous demand for postgraduate places has pushed up the entry requirements and spawned a new rat race, but one in which not all entrants start from the same line, or jump through the same hoops.

For example, the proportion of students obtaining honours in UCD can vary from 30 to 80 per cent, depending on the course. Some of this may be explained by differences in student ability, but surely not all.

The squeeze on postgraduate places is most apparent in the professional area. Take medicine for example here there are 300 graduates a year, but only 55 GP traineeships, and 80-100 traineeships in other areas.

The universities now produce 600 law graduates a year, but where do they go to? Not law, in the case of the majority, because there are only 50 places in the King's Inns, and 200 in the Law Society.

In the Inns, only those law students with a first were guaranteed entry last year, and nobody with a 2.2 was admitted. Would be solicitors bound for the Law Society have to wait 18 months.

The story is the same in teaching, where there were more than six applicants for each of the 800 places on offer in H. Dip. courses last year.

So much for the demand for postgraduate places. At the same time, there is evidence of some "grade inflation", in the same way that Leaving Cert results have risen steadily with increasing competition for entry to university. For example, the proportion of university students graduating with honours has increased dramatically, from 30 per cent in 1965 to 41 per cent in 1980 and 72 per cent in 1992.

As Prof Aidan Moran, registrar of UCC points out, this phenomenon can be partly explained by the slow death of the pass degree "There was a tradition of having separate pass and honours degrees, but the trend now is towards the introduction of a common programme all students should have the opportunity of seeking honours if they can".

In the RTC/DIT sector, the proportion of honours students has doubled from 39 per cent in 1980 to 77 per cent in 1992. However, the proportion of students obtaining a merit or distinction at certificate or diploma level has remained relatively constant.

At the other end of the scale, there is little information on failure rates in the colleges. However, an unpublished Higher Education Authority study shows that about 19 per cent of students who started in 1989/90 failed to complete their degree.

At present, the universities have complete autonomy in their exam procedures. Outside involvement is restricted to the external examiner and the visitor, who acts as the court of final appeal.

MORAN explains how the process works "The exam papers are sent in advance to the external examiners. They have regard to the standards which applied in the past and to the standards which apply in the other universities including their own. The extern has total access to exam subjects".

"The proportion of firsts in various classes will vary and is affected by the ability of students in different disciplines. It also reflects the tradition in the discipline for example, in medicine the proportion of honours has been low traditionally."

According to Eugene Wall, president of the Irish Federation of University Teachers and a lecturer in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, external examiners generally look at a sample of student scripts. "They also examine the firsts, and borderline cases. In UL, their written report is distributed to staff, considered internally and debated at academic council."

In the NUI colleges, the external examiners come from outside the NUI, usually from the UK. More rarely, they come from the continent or from a profession related to the area of study.

The colleges believe the external examiner system works well. Others disagree, saying the examiners are only familiar with their own university and that they have to work in isolation.

MORE seriously, some question their independence, asking how individual examiners can resist the pressure exerted by strong university departments backed by years of tradition. And, they ask, who examines the examiners?

The Higher Education Authority collects data on the numbers of degrees each college gives in each category of grade, but it doesn't follow up on this information in any way. This kind of monitoring simply doesn't form part of its remit at the moment, but it is likely to do so when the HEA's powers are expanded, as planned in the near future.

In the absence of transparency, rumours about the marking system abound among students. Many believe a quota system operates, with a predetermined number of firsts. The distribution of marks is said to follow the bell curve, with most of the marks bunched in the middle.

The colleges usually deny the existence of quotas. However, the fact that the distribution of grades in many subjects tends not to vary much from year to year, when it does vary so dramatically between subjects, would seem to belie this claim. After all, what is "custom and practice" but an adherence to predetermined notions of how many firsts there should be?

Even the commonly used grades can mean different things in different colleges. A pass is usually 40 per cent, but it is 50 per cent in medicine. In UCD, a first is generally understood to mean 70 per cent and above. A 2.1 starts from 62 per cent, and a 2.2 from 55 per cent.

However, these gradations are not cast in stone, and may vary from course to course. In addition, borderline cases will receive special consideration. UL and some other colleges use a rolling point average which tells students what they have to do in order to achieve a given grade in their finals.

Perhaps many academics would claim the concerns about standards are not justified. As Aidan Moran points out, to judge the worth of Irish degrees, "you only have to look at how excellently Irish graduates perform when they are admitted to graduate schools abroad".