Are Irish university students getting smarter?

Are students becoming smarter or are university honours qualifications becoming easier to obtain? Controversy over grade inflation rumbles on with pressure being exerted from inside and outside of the educational system. As demand from business grows and government funding falls short, universities are under intense pressure to attract more foreign fee-paying students and produce higher-qualified graduates. It is an international phenomenon that is particularly evident in the United States. On the basis of research conducted by our Education Correspondent Joe Humphreys, however, Irish universities are not serious offenders.

In Britain last year, some 70 per cent of all university graduates received a 2.1 degree of higher (a mark above 60 per cent) while, in Ireland, the average was considerably lower. Performance outcomes in terms honours degrees have, however, been rising. This has been attributed, in part, to the publication of university league tables and growing competition to attract students. The development has been criticised by some academics as an incentive to intellectual dishonesty. There has been a slow but measurable increase in standards achieved by students at both second and third levels here. A suggestion that top universities are more likely to award higher degrees, so as compete internationally and attract foreign fee-paying students, has been denied.

Recruitment agencies are now winnowing candidates on the basis of their honours qualifications. Learning on the job and a conscientious approach to work have been largely discounted. This blunt approach to recruitment has negative effects: it depresses the salaries and expectations of ambitious pass graduates; it fails to give proper weight to relevant work experience and it may inhibit flexibility and innovative thinking within society. Grade inflation is nothing new. It has been complained about for decades by academics. Driven by economic demands, however, the process is likely to continue.