'Grade inflation' report due this week


The preliminary findings of two separate investigations into “grade inflation” in university and Leaving Cert results in Ireland are expected this week, Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe indicated today.

Mr O’Keeffe confirmed yesterday that he had instructed several Department of Education officials to conduct a “profile analysis” of grades after some of Ireland’s leading industrialists expressed disquiet about a possible decline in academic standards.

The officials reviewed the number of first-class honours degrees awarded by the universities and the institutes of technology since 1991 and examine Leaving Cert higher level grades between 1992 and 2009.

The move is the first response by the Government to growing concerns about a possible “dumbing down” of standards in Irish education.

“It’s not so much an inquiry, it’s a profile,” Mr O’Keeffe told The Irish Times at St Fanahan’s College in Mitchelstown, Co Cork today. “I’ve asked the State examinations commission and the HEA and my own senior officials to look at the state exams profile over the last ten years since 1992 and for the third level, I’ve asked the HEA and senior officials to give me a profile of first class honours.

“The first thing I wanted to do was to get the profile to see what the pattern of the marks were, was there inflation of grades, how serious was the inflation of grades and then why would this happen.”

Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One programme later, Mr O'Keeffe confirmed he had had a “no holds barred” meeting with several major multi-national employers recently, and that a number of concerns about education standards had been raised.

As a result of the meeting, he had sought a profile of exam results at Leaving Cert level and in the Higher Education sector.

Asked if concerns had been expressed by employers about particular institutions, Mr O’Keeffe acknowledged several industry people were of the view that there was a disparity in standards between some establishments.

“In order to get consistency across the board, we need to have an outside, overseeing quality assurance body, to ensure that all qualifications across our education sector are on par.”

Mr O’Keeffe said he wanted to achieve "an equilibrium" of standards across the various educational institutions.

Mr O’Keeffe insisted the investigations into exam results did not represent a “witch hunt” but a challenge to all institutions to meet the quality standards.

Internet giant Google Ireland, one of largest private sector employers in the State, today welcomed Mr O'Keeffe's decision. The company, which employs 1,500 people at its European headquarters in Dublin, said Ireland's education system has been a critical attraction for US investment in Ireland and the key to delivering the smart economy.

“We believe it is imperative that the integrity of our third level education system is maintained and we are pleased that the Minister is looking into this," said Google Ireland chief executive John Herlihy.

The investigations follow high-profile criticism of the Irish education system by former Intel chief executive Dr Craig Barrett at the Farmleigh economic summit in June and again in Dublin last month.

It is widely expected that the reviews now under way will find clear evidence of grade inflation. Previous studies show the percentage of first class honours degrees awarded in Irish universities has almost trebled since the mid-1990s. The number of students securing the perfect Leaving Cert is up 500 per cent.