Grade inflation: lowering standards in higher education

It is denied as a serious problem but could cause reputational damage

Grade inflation – an improvement in examination grades over time without an accompanying improvement in learning or academic achievement – has been a worrying feature of third-level education for over 30 years. President Michael D Higgins recently described grade inflation as "an ongoing slip in examination standards, emanating from pressure to report the achievement of continually higher 'outputs'".

Ireland is obsessed with university degrees. In the 1960s only about 5 per cent of 18-year-olds went on to third level. Today, over 70 per cent of second-level school-leavers progress to third level, including many who find third-level academic coursework challenging. To assess these students by standards that applied prior to mass third-level education would entail politically unacceptable levels of low grades. And, so, the system is under pressure to inflate grades. (See description of grading system towards end of article).

I last addressed grade inflation in 2007, describing the work of Martin O'Grady and Brendan Guilfoyle of the Institute of Technology (IT), Tralee, who analysed university/IT grades over the period 1994 to 2005. They showed that, for example, the percentage of first-class honours degrees jumped from 7 per cent in 1994 to 17 per cent in 2005 – a 140 per cent increase. They conclusively ruled out improved student learning as an explanation for these higher grades. The "improvement" was purely down to grade inflation.

Grade inflation continues today. Areport in recorded that first-class and 2.1 honours degrees increased significantly in most Irish universities and colleges over the last 10 years. First-class honours degrees rose by as much as 12.6 per cent in 22 of 30 higher education institutes surveyed; 2.1 degrees rose by up to 11.5 per cent in 24 of these institutes.



Grade inflation is officially denied as a serious problem. Tom Boland, former head of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), described grade inflation as a "sideshow" and "at best a second-order concern" in an article by Peter McGuire and Carl O'Brien in The Irish Times.

Apologists for our current grading system claim that improvement in grades reflects harder-working students in a new highly structured environment of modular coursework and continuous assessment. But Brendan Guilfoyle, quoted in, saw no evidence linking these factors to higher grades.

Examination grades inform teachers on how well students master their course work and guide employers when assessing the suitability of students for employment. But grade inflation misleads everybody. Many employers in the past offered jobs to 2.1-degree students, but this criterion means little when up to 60 per cent of graduates have 2.1 degrees. Many employers now attempt graduate assessment based on work experience, involvement with clubs, final-year project etc. One danger when all students get good results is higher grades from some institutions will be valued more than equivalent grades from other institutions.

Now to the examination grading system. Students who achieve 70-100 per cent are awarded first-class honours (excellent); 60-69 per cent merits 2.1 honours (very good, few errors); 50-59 per cent merits 2.2 honours (good with more errors); 45-49 per cent merits third-class honours (satisfactory with many errors); 40-44 per cent a pass grade (sufficient). This scheme is lopsided – the percentage span accommodating first-class honours is as great as the span accommodating all lower grades.

Drag upwards

In times past, when very few students went to university, lecturers were loath to award marks over 70 per cent, which offset the inordinately wide span of first-class honours. Now lecturers must mark using the entire zero-100 per cent span. This inevitably drags marks upwards, inflating grades. I would revise the grading system, damping down grade inflation by constricting the first-class honours range to 80-100 per cent and lengthening the 2.1 range to 65-79 per cent and the 2.2 range to 50-64 per cent.

Another important grading revision would grant students’ percentile class ranking equal importance/visibility with graduating honours grade. Percentile ranking takes average class mark and standard deviation into account, allowing degrees from different institutions to be compared, other factors being equal – class size, CAO points etc.

Say student A gets a first-class honours physics degree from University A with a final mark of 92 per cent and a percentile ranking of 45 (scoring better than 45 per cent of class members). Student B gets a first-class physics degree from University B also with a final mark of 92 per cent and a percentile ranking of 97. Student B's first-class degree is clearly better than student A's first-class degree, the difference ascribable to more grade inflation in university A. Such transparency should considerably lessen pressures to inflate grades because no university wants a reputation for lower standards.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC

William Reville

William Reville

William Reville, a contributor to The Irish Times, is emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork