Key role for business in academic standards body


BUSINESS AND industry leaders are to be a given a key role in a new body that will regulate academic standards in higher education.

A spokesman for Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe stressed last night that the new qualifications and quality assurance agency will be no “inside job”.

This follows concerns that grade inflation has been fuelled by a lack of adequate regulation by the quality assurance bodies.

In the Dáil yesterday, the Minister said his department’s inquiry has found evidence of significant grade inflation in Leaving Cert results and in higher education.

The review was prompted by concerns raised by US multi-nationals about a decline in the quality of some graduates.

The main findings include:

An analysis of the overall Leaving Certificate results between 1992 and 2009 shows there has been a significant increase in the proportions getting honours at higher level.

The proportion scoring grade A or B has increased from 27 per cent in 1992 to 43 per cent this year, while the proportion scoring A, B or C has risen from 64 per cent to 76 per cent.

The percentage of university graduates getting first-class awards in honours degrees (level eight programmes) has almost doubled from 8.3 per cent in 1997 to 16.2 per cent in 2008.

The percentage of Higher Education and Training Awards Council (Hetac) graduates getting first-class honours awards in level eight higher degrees increased from 11.2 per cent to 16.6 per cent between 1998 and 2008 in the institute of technology sector.

In relation to awards standards in higher education, the Minister said the key to addressing possible grade inflation is through better internal quality assurance and external quality review.

At present, these tasks are undertaken by colleges themselves, Hetac, the Further Education and Training Awards Council, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Irish Universities Quality Board.

Legislation is now being drafted to set up a new qualifications and quality assurance agency that will merge these bodies.

The Minister said a number of influential voices in the employer community have voiced their concerns about graduate quality and it was important to listen.

“In other words, our approach to developing education policy must be strategic and more aligned with industry needs.”

Fundamental questions about the quality of graduates, the quality of teaching and learning, resourcing the system and responding to the needs of enterprise are also at the heart of the national strategy for higher education, which will be published later this year, he said.

On the Leaving Cert, the department said a range of factors could explain the improved results, including curriculum reform, more exam-orientated teaching and better information for teachers and students in the form of published marking schemes and past exam papers.

The Union of Students in Ireland has welcomed the report.

USI deputy president Dan O’Neill said: “It is vital that we refocus our quality assurance systems on the student experience and the outcomes that students obtain from receiving a third-level education in Ireland.”

John Power, director general of Engineers Ireland, called for Irish industry to take greater responsibility to ensure the highest standards of education are safeguarded across the various professions.

Mr Power said: “While these findings are concerning, I welcome the Minister for Education and Science’s commitment to address this issue and to ensure the highest education standards are maintained. However, this commitment should be supported across Irish industry also.”