Irish universities’ grade inflation sparks claims of ‘dumbing down’

Authorities reject claims that colleges are under pressure to increase their grades

Exam boards are ‘having to put up a fight’ to avoid grades being inflated. Photograph: iStock

Students are most likely to secure first or upper-second class degrees at Dublin City University (72 per cent), followed by University College Dublin (71 per cent) and University College Cork (69 per cent).

They are more difficult to come by at University of Limerick (53 per cent) and NUI Galway (63 per cent).

Trinity College Dublin’s figures are more difficult to calculate as it has changed the way it categorises second-class honour degrees. Based on first- class honours, students are most likely to get a first in Trinity (20 per cent) than in any other university.

The upward trend in grades has sparked accusations from some academics that colleges are under increasing pressure to award more top degrees.


Brendan Guilfoyle, a lecturer and member of the Network for Irish Educational Standards, said exam boards are "having to put up a fight" to avoid grades being inflated.

"If almost everyone is getting a 2.1 [upper-second class], their degree could have less meaning. But the pressure from the Higher Education Authority and management of the various third-levels is all one-way: the only way is up," he said.

The HEA, however, rejected claims it has applied pressure. “Grades are really a matter for the institutions,” a spokesman said. “On the issue of quality, there is no evidence of a decline in the quality of our graduates and in fact, national employers’ surveys show strong satisfaction rates with them.”

The State watchdog for quality in third-level institutions, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), said grade inflation was a symptom of a variety of factors.

It said students are more focused on securing higher grades because degrees are used more widely for selection into employment or advanced studies. This has prompted changes such as greater levels of feedback for students on how to improve their performance in assessments.

Tralee IT

Meanwhile, most members of Institute of Technology Tralee’s academic council have resigned in protest at an exam board upwardly revising marks for all students in a psychology module taught by lecturer Martin O’Grady. He had failed every student in the class.

Every student in the class received a fail grade from the lecturer - until IT Tralee intervened to raise their grades

There has been controversy on a number of occasions involving Mr O’Grady’s marks, though for the most part they have been upheld by external examiners.

In a recent letter to the college president, Dr Oliver Murphy, staff said they feared the move could lead to the rejection of the college's awards and graduates. "We consider that the provisional results issued [adjusted upwards from Mr O'Grady's grades]. . . have compromised and undermined the academic standards and integrity of IT Tralee," they said.

In a statement, the college said the exam board was entitled to adjust marks and this was common practice in the sector.

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