One of the most notable features of the release of the Leaving Certificate results this year was the extent to which students expressed surprise at how well they had done. They had worked hard in challenging circumstances, and the exam papers were adjusted to take account of those challenges, but still they were surprised and said so openly on television and to newspaper journalists. If ever there was a sign that grade inflation was out of control, this was it.
This morning, tens of thousands of this year’s Leaving Cert students, and tens of thousands more with qualifications from other years or other systems, will receive offers of third-level places, and undoubtedly many will be pleased. Many others will be disappointed, for various reasons. And some will be embarking on courses that may prove to be a greater challenge than they are ready for. Such are the consequences of Leaving Cert grade inflation.
That inevitably means at least as much random selection as last year in some of the very high points courses
It has a distorting effect at the higher and lower ends of the range of grades, but the effect in between is minimal, except that, as night follows day, inflated Leaving Cert grades lead to inflated course entry points. Last year, the number of students achieving the very top grades was six times as high as in 2019, and this year, months before any exams had been sat, Minister for Education Norma Foley guaranteed that the results would be at least as high as last year’s results.
That inevitably means at least as much random selection as last year in some of the very high points courses. In medicine, we in the Irish Universities Association engaged with both the Department of Further and Higher Education and the Department of Health to increase the number of places, and there will be 60 extra places nationally from this year, and another 60 on top again from next year. But with the marks inflated and as a consequence bunched, all that will do is move the dial on random selection.
At the other end of the scale, students who in the past may have struggled to get 300, 320 or 350 points may now have these points and be offered an opportunity to progress to third level, because thousands of extra places have been created on the back of the Leaving Cert grade inflation. The students have achieved the points in adversity, and that adversity may well stand to them as they move into a more normal learning environment post-Covid, but some will struggle. The universities have developed very strong support systems for students, but those supports cannot cover everything, and learning at third level requires much more independent drive than may have been the case at second level. Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has rightly emphasised in recent years that there are many pathways after the Leaving Cert, and those who choose third level should be sure that they are doing so because they want and are committed to it.
Two other problems arise from the increase in the number of places as a response to Covid. First, there is an infrastructural need, not least around student accommodation, that cannot be met at the same pace. Here in Galway we opened 430 new beds last year and are building another 670 to open in 2023. Both projects were in train before Covid. Other colleges around the country are also building. Yet building takes time, much more time than the recruitment of additional students.
The second issue is that there has been no serious discussion or planning around the desired participation rate in third-level education nationally. We have the fifth highest rate in the world. Is that where we want to be? That discussion needs to start in earnest sooner rather than later, for the sake of our society and economy, and especially for the sake of our young people themselves. More than anything, we need to be honest with them.
There is an old Irish saying, mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí, roughly translated as youth responds to praise. Young people also, however, recognise the difference between genuine and exaggerated praise, as the reactions to this year’s Leaving Cert results have shown. We all wish them only the best in the next stage of their journey through life, and many of us will be there beside them for the next part of that journey. But in the interests of all of them it is time for the Leaving Cert results to go back to reflecting genuine praise, and for serious planning to begin around the future of our young people. Surely that is better than a system which forces some into random ballots for their dream place in university while others gain a sense of achievement which puts them at risk of a fall.
Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh is deputy president and registrar at University of Galway