The proportion of first-class honours awarded by the institutes of technology to level 8 degree students rose from just over 8% in 1994 to more than 17% in 2008. A similar percentage were given top grades for ordinary degrees (up from 12.8% in 1994) and almost one-in-four higher certificate graduates received first-class honours compared with less than one-in-seven 14 years earlier.
Martin O’Grady, author of the research, said the increases come despite a lower academic standard of students starting IoT courses in recent years, as evidenced by falling Leaving Certificate points needed for courses at many of the 14 colleges.
His report also shows major variations in grades awarded between IoTs, and even between disciplines at individual colleges. For example, much higher proportions of science and engineering graduates get top grades than business and humanities.
Cork Institute of Technology awarded first-class honours to one-in-five level 8 degree graduates in 2008, compared with just 8% of those graduating at Dundalk IT.
However, further analysis in the report for the Network for Irish Educational Standards shows that the average CAO points needed for entry to Dundalk IT were just half those for Cork. Mr O’Grady said smaller IoTs tend to award a disproportionately high level of top grades when differences in minimum entry points were taken into account.
“Everything suggests there’s no such thing as national standard, what gets you a first-class honour in one college won’t get you it somewhere else, or would not have given you a first a number of years ago,” he said.
A founder member of the network set up in 2007 at Institute of Technology Tralee, he said it is in no college’s interest to lose students who will fail and drop out if standards are rigorous, so only ministerial intervention can halt grade inflation.
Jim Murray, director of academic affairs for Institutes of Technology Ireland, said the trends have been highlighted previously but the factors behind them require debate and further research.
He said other contributors to improved outcomes may include renewed focus on teaching methods, new more flexible assessment systems with less reliance on final exams, and greater guidance for students on what they need to learn from courses.
He acknowledged there is no system to allow absolutely uniform standards of assessment between colleges but said that external examiners from other colleges who monitor all grades also consider trends over time.
Mr Murray said plans for a new quality assurance system should help establish more system-wide standards.
But Mr O’Grady said lecturers and examiners are regularly reminded by managers of the need to retain students, but never about the need to maintain standards.
“Only when these priorities are reversed, which no institute alone can achieve, will standards be protected,” he said.
* Full report available at www.stopgradeinflation.ie