Colleges warn of ‘cruel’ grade inflation following Leaving Cert decision

High-points students may lose out on chosen courses, say higher education sources

High levels of grade inflation in this year’s Leaving Cert exams run the risk of students on high points losing out on their chosen courses due to increased use of random selection, higher education sources have said.

The warning follows Minister for Education Norma Foley’s announcement that this year’s Leaving Cert will be held as a series of traditional exams this summer with additional choice and fewer questions.

Significantly, the Minister said the overall marks would be "no lower" than last year's record-breaking set. This will be achieved by allowing the State Examinations Commission (SEC) to apply a "post-marking intervention", which will lift all students' marks, if necessary. Students' marks will not be lowered, however, if they are above last year's high grade profile.

Higher education sources on Tuesday night said that “cruel” levels of grade inflation were not sustainable, especially for high-points courses such as medicine, dentistry and pharmacy. Universities in many cases were forced to use a lottery to determine entry into high-points courses last year.


“Our fear is this will lead to a repeat of last year, or worse, when many students lost out on their first-choice courses on this basis,” said one senior figure.

“Some of these students achieved maximum points and still lost out. It also permanently locks out thousands of students reapplying for courses on the basis of results they secured in 2020 or earlier. These are talented and capable students who can’t compete with these inflated grades.”


Ms Foley said students had raised concerns over the potential disadvantage the class of 2022 would face when compared to the class of 2021 in terms of grade inflation.

“To alleviate this concern, I have asked the SEC to put in place measures to ensure that the overall set of results in the aggregate for this year will be no lower than last year,” she said.

The CAO (Central Applications Office), meanwhile, has confirmed there are 78,162 college applications this year, one of the highest figures on record and just below last year’s record-breaking 79,303.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, criticised the move to rule out a hybrid approach to the Leaving Cert which would have allowed students choose between sitting exams and receiving teachers’ estimated grades.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald described it as "an appalling decision" and a "massive mistake". However, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said an accredited grades system "could not have been applied as fairly as it was last year" because 25 per cent of Leaving Cert students this year did not sit the Junior Cert.

“Their data would not have been available for a grades alternative,” he said. “I haven’t seen anybody put forward an alternative to that in any meaningful way.”


Mr Martin said other countries were returning to their pre-Covid assessment approach, "so we're not out of line with what's happening in Europe".

The decision to press ahead with an exams-only approach has drawn contrasting reactions from the education sector. The Irish Second Level Students’ Union accused the Government of “not listening” to students whose education had been heavily disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, teachers’ unions welcomed the decision as a “fair and equitable” one for all students. The Teachers’ Union of Ireland said there was no viable alternative that could guarantee fairness, while the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland said the changes would create a “level playing field”. The Joint Managerial Body, which represents 400 secondary schools, said the decision was “proportionate and fair”.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent