Testing times in the west

 

PROFILE GALWAY-MAYO INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY – GMIT:HENRY Kissinger’s oft-quoted maxim about the viciousness of university politics, has taken on a new resonance over the past 12 months in one third-level institution on the western seaboard.

Yet the former US secretary of state’s quip that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small, doesn’t quite fit when the focus is central to a college’s reputation.

That college is Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), which has been dogged by allegations of plagiarism, of abuse by students of the exam appeals mechanism, and of lobbying on behalf of students involved in sport during the past academic year.

Last May, the college’s legal advisers agreed to an apology and payment of damages to a lecturer who had taken the first civil libel case on record here over e-mail content.

Terry Casey, a marketing lecturer in GMIT’s business school, had sued two senior business school colleagues, Larry Elwood and Deirdre Lusby, over e-mail attachments circulated by them to other staff in 2005. As part of the settlement, the defendants said they wished to “withdraw the imputations and unreservedly and publicly apologise” to Casey, who in turn welcomed the result as a “complete vindication” of his position.

GMIT subsequently told this newspaper that there was “no question” of any disciplinary action arising against either of the two lecturers who were defendants.

Come autumn 2010, and the college was again the focus of unwelcome publicity, when Galway’s weekly City Tribunepublished a series of reports relating to claims of plagiarism by students and the college’s response to same. It was reported that “staff” had boycotted a school of engineering graduation ceremony in November due to dissatisfaction with decisions recently made by appeals board sittings.

It was claimed that two MSc in environmental systems students, who had received very low marks in their dissertations, had their marks raised to an overall 2:1 on appeal, despite strong objections from supervisors.

It was also claimed that two students with strong GAA links, who failed a subject in their degree course, had their marks raised.

An e-mail circulated to all staff on November 14th, by then GMIT president, Dr Marion Coy referred to the sources of the report, which was picked up by this and other newspapers. It was, she said, an “anonymous e-mail” which “contained allegations . . . which are completely untrue and have caused deep distress”.

She outlined the facts as being that three students who had admitted to plagiarism at a recent disciplinary hearing had their mark on a continuous assessment, worth 10 per cent on one module, reduced to zero.

In the case of four other students, the case was found “to be not proved”, she said.

Coy said that in a separate case, three students were involved in an examinations’ appeal. Two had marks increased and one was referred for review to an external examiner. She said that there was “absolutely no substance to the allegation that ‘inter-county footballers’ were given ‘preferential treatment in some exams’”, and said that she “greatly “ regretted the “upset caused by this report to so many people”.

The controversy did not end there, however. Claims were made in a series of anonymous “whistleblower” e-mails circulated to the media, that GMIT lecturers had expressed concerns to senior management back in 2006 about “breaches of academic procedures in relation to the altering of students’ examination results”, and that the issue had arisen at an annual exams board meeting in April 2010.

As with other third-level institutions, GMIT has strict procedures relating to plagiarism. Lecturers are trained to use detection software, and students must sign plagiarism disclaimers on assignment cover sheets.

However, college sources suggested that the procedures were not always implemented, and claimed that some lecturers told of being instructed for “legal reasons” not to accuse students of same. Contract and part-time lecturers were described as being particularly vulnerable to “pressure” from management on this issue.

In December, the City Tribune also reported that GMIT’s governing body was set to conduct an investigation into how a post-graduate student plagiarised an instructor’s manual in an assignment. The manual was not freely available, in that a password and GMIT e-mail address was required to obtain the access code to model answers. The student had reportedly “escaped serious punishment and graduated” earlier in 2010.

By this stage, Coy was no longer in situ. Earlier in the year, she had signalled that she would be stepping down by the end of 2010, earlier than her contract termination date. The college’s financial controller Jim Fennell is currently serve as acting president.

Last month, Fennell e-mailed staff to inform them that he has asked the college registrar to review the case involving one incident of plagiarism in the 2009-10 academic year. He said that “academic standards and quality assurance” would be discussed at the next academic council meeting and said that if any member of staff had concerns about this or any other matter, he or she should raise same.

GMIT told The Irish Timesthat both the registrar and human resources manager were reviewing a file, relating to the issue of use of an instructor’s manual, but there were “no investigations at this point”.

The Higher Education and Training Awards Council (Hetac) has confirmed that it has been in contact with GMIT authorities, but believes at this stage it does not need to get involved, as quality assurance is primarily a function of the college in the first instance.

However, The Irish Timeshas confirmed that Hetac also received a complaint last October about another case, where four science students who failed a repeat paper in August, were awarded passes on appeal.

Dr Gay Keaveney, chemistry lecturer in GMIT’s school of science for the past 32 years, said that the decision to pass the students called into question the examination standards operated by GMIT management.

GMIT told The Irish Timesthat the case was heard by an examination appeals committee and was considered by the academic council’s standing committee. This latter committee recommended that the pass marks be allowed to stand. However, a review of the internal exam board and how it functions has also been initiated.

“GMIT is constantly striving to maintain academic standards, while being fair on the occasions when student performance might be impaired for reasons which are not within the students’ control,” the college said.

There is a belief that Fennell, the acting president, is taking the issue very seriously, in advance of the appointment of Dr Coy’s successor, Dr Michael Carmody, currently president of the Institute of Technology, Tralee (ITT) in Kerry. Ironically, both Tralee and the IT in Cork have been hit with similar controversies in the past year.

Some staff members are weary of the various controversies, arguing they detract from the major issues facing all ITs – such as cuts in lecturing posts, the rise in student numbers and the impact of recommendations in the recently published Hunt Report on third-level education.

But others say the various allegations are eroding public confidence and must be addressed. One said: “Marion Coy was a great public face of GMIT, she was articulate and did much to transform the institution since her appointment in 2002. But her successor will want to put all of these controversies to bed – and move on.’’

Hetac is due to publish its regular five-year review of GMIT in March. For many staff this will be crucial in reaffirming public confidence in the institution. GMIT students union president Colin Canny says that students have full confidence, and a “strong working relationship” with college management.

Dr Brendan Guilfoyle of IT Tralee, who is one of the authors of a study published last year on grade inflation in Irish universities, is working with colleagues on analysing the same issue in institutes of technology and secondary schools. While stressing that he is not familiar with the situation in GMIT, he points to a systemic problem across the sector.

“We’ve seen an unholy alliance between institutions, administrators and students, where the student is seen as a customer to be satisfied, and where there is often a student representative on an appeals committee. The attitude already prevalent in the US – where students feel that they’ve paid for a first in their final year results, and then demand it – is creeping in here, and re-introduction of fees will increase this problem,” he says.

“Long term, if not tackled, the student will graduate with a qualification that is worth nothing in the end,” he says. “Unfortunately, this will affect all students, those who worked, and those who worked the system.”

GMIT

WHERE IS IT

GMIT is based at five locations in the west – on its main campus in Galway, at nearby Cluain Mhuire, Letterfrack and Mountbellew, in Co Galway and at Castlebar in Mayo. It has schools in business, engineering, hotel and catering management, humanities and science and computing.

THE NUMBERS

It employs 924 full and part-time staff across the campuses, and has 8,500 registered students, some 5,515 of whom are full-time. It is involved in a number of partnership initiatives, and has an agreement with six other ITs to boost research and innovation in the Border, Midlands and Western (BMW) region.

INNOVATION

It was one of the first third-level institutions to respond to the recession, offering two free courses in spring 2009 for people who had lost their jobs or had their working hours curtailed.

NEW PRESIDENT

Dr Michael Carmody will take up the position of president in May, 2011