Grade inflation undermining quality of university degrees, President Higgins warns

Academic freedom and breadth of teaching at universities under threat, says President

The quality of university degrees is a source of great concern, with grade inflation that does not reflect improved standards of scholarship, President Michael D Higgins has warned.

He was speaking at an online conference on academic freedom and intellectual dissent organised by Scholars at Risk – Ireland and the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities.

He said grade inflation was the sign of an “ongoing slip in examination standards, emanating from pressure, sourced internally and external to the university, to report the achievement of continually higher ‘outputs’”.

President Higgins made the comments in a wider address which argued that academic freedom and the breadth of teaching and learning at university is under grave threat from market forces.


Universities have suffered an “attrition of range and depth, loss of interdisciplinary exchange, leading in too many cases to a degradation of the very scholarship and teaching for which they were established,” he said.

President Higgins said these changes have usually been rationalised as a search for relevance, often in the name of market forces and the “inexorable drive towards a utilitarian reductionism that is now so pervasive”.

Concerns over the loss of academic freedom were not just at the level of the individual scholar, but involved the loss of the institution of the university itself and the space of university discourse.

“It is not an overstatement, I believe, to make the argument that the ruination of the university tradition, by a process of attrition, surrender to the quiet hegemony of that which is really unaccountable, is at hand.

“ Indeed the very raison d’être of the university, I believe, is at stake. Academics all over the world should be concerned that future generations may weep for the destruction of the concept of the university that has occurred in so many places, which has led to little less than the degradation and debasement of learning, the substitution of information packaging for a discursive engagement or search for knowledge,” he said.

President Higgins said the “crisis” we are facing is an intellectual one within a moral context.

“It reflects, for example, how in the subjects now taught as economics, we have passed from moral economy through political economy to a technical training in measurement of that for which we have neither a theory nor an adequate scholarly methodology,” he said.

He said academic courses are now viewed as economic units whose success is too often judged in terms of “arbitrary quantitative outputs of graduates, as opposed to the quality of the courses and the standards of academic excellence achieved by those participating in them.”

“Indeed, university provosts, presidents and rectors now often describe and introduce themselves as CEOs of multi-million euro enterprises rather than as academics first and foremost whose main responsibility might be to defend and cultivate the intellectual life of their academic institutions, facilitating an enriching learning environment for staff and students alike,” Mr Higgins said.

He said relatively expensive science-based courses, and those in arts that are not seen as utilitarian or lead to a direct route towards financial gain, are sometimes under threat.

Meanwhile, the “rise of business courses continues unabated”, as does the establishment of campus companies, all of which reflects the “increasingly market orientation of the modern university”.

He also questioned whether individual scholars were passive bystanders of this ongoing degradation.

“If not theirs, whose responsibility is it to adequately defend the great traditions of scholarship and their settings, which, while defective in so many ways in terms of inclusivity, have served us for centuries, that have over these centuries spearheaded new movements of thought, new paradigms of existence?

“Are the great universities of the world, rather like the stones of the monastic sites visited today, to become like them, in time, merely the tourist attractions of the future?

“I often wonder, as tourists tramp through the cloisters of abbeys and told of where vespers were sung, will we have tales of where lectures were once given, disputations, brilliant expositions encountered, or books consulted?”

President Higgins said a core tenet of academic freedom relates to security of tenure, ensuring that staff can be dismissed only in extreme cases such as gross professional incompetence.

“As I say this, I am so deeply aware of the lamentable precarity of so many scholars, young and not-so-young who, without security of tenure or protection, continue to wrestle within a system that, far from realising their intellectual and moral potential, is sometimes a source of disaffection, allowing a limited, distorted resonance with the joy and agony of life as it is lived,” he said.

Mr Higgins said tenure was essential because it protects academic freedom in cases when a scholar’s politics may run counter to those of their department, institution, or funding bodies, or when their work innovates in ways that challenge received wisdom and orthodoxy in a field.

Mr Higgins said a “modest proposal” that could be easily implemented was to teach a module on the nature and role of the university, including the cornerstone of academic freedom, to every incoming university student.

“We have an opportunity in the wake of the Covid pandemic, with all its personal, social and economic consequences, to reclaim and re-energise academia for the pursuit of real knowledge; unbiased study that can yield insights that may be applied for the enrichment of society in its widest, in its most all-encompassing definition, and enabled to address our great challenges. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that should not be squandered,” he added.

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