The Irish Times view on third level grade inflation: Keeping an eye on standards

It is vital that our graduates emerge from higher education with all the skills they need to flourish in a world of rapid change

Are students becoming smarter? Or are universities “dumbing down” their qualifications?

Are students becoming smarter? Or are universities “dumbing down” their qualifications?

 

Irish universities are awarding more top degrees to students than ever before. About two out of three students secured first or upper second-class degrees last year, up significantly on a decade ago. Are students becoming smarter? Or are universities “dumbing down” their qualifications? And do these trends really matter ? They are questions that go to the heart of the debate over grade inflation in higher education.

This is a complex area. It can be difficult to disentangle real grade improvement from artificial grade inflation. There are several possible reasons for grade improvement, including changes in assessment methods, improved clarity of learning outcomes, greater competition and better student supports. However, international research in the UK and US indicates that many universities feel under pressure to produce higher-qualified graduates, attract more international fee-paying students and keep paying students satisfied. Ireland is not immune from any of these factors. Superficially, better grades are a win-win situation for almost everyone: students are more content, while universities appreciate the lack of complaints and the conveyed impression that its students are performing well.

Every student in the class received a fail grade from the lecturer - until IT Tralee intervened to raise their grades
Lecturers at Institute of Technology Tralee have refused to attend exam and course meetings after an exam board at the college overturned a lecturer’s marks for every student in his class.
Our universities need to redouble efforts to ensure the systems they use to monitor quality and grade inflation are rigorous and robust

However, a rising tide of grade improvement raises troubling questions about how we measure educational achievement and the quality of students’ learning outcomes . This is especially true at a time when funding pressures mean the quality of tuition at third level is under threat from large class sizes, reduced access to tutorials and outdated technology. While the latest figures do not appear to show evidence of a decline in the quality of graduates or their employment rates, these are not reasons to be complacent.

Our universities need to redouble efforts to ensure the systems they use to monitor quality and grade inflation are rigorous and robust. It is vital that our graduates emerge from higher education with all the skills they need to flourish in a world of rapid change. Our national ambitions depend on this. If our systems fall short, we will end up doing our students , and wider society, a disservice.