A new university grades watchdog is being set up after US multinationals complained about the standard of Irish graduates, it was revealed today.
The Government is scrapping a raft of agencies charged with policing third level institution degrees in the wake of an official inquiry into so-called “grade inflation”.
The investigation by Department of Education officials found the number of first-class honours degrees awarded had soared in the 10 years up to 2008.
More than 16% of university graduates got the top grade two years ago compared with just over 8% in 1997.
Similarly, the rate of first-class honours degrees handed out by institutes of technology jumped from around 11% of graduates in 1998 to nearly 17% a decade on.
The investigation also found evidence of grade inflation at secondary level with a “significant increase” in top-scoring higher level Leaving Certificates being awarded.
Some 27% of Leaving Certificate students attained A and B grades in 1992 compared with 43% this year, while the proportion who scored A, B and C grades rose from 62% to 76%.
But Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe claims most of secondary level grade increases happened in the early 1990s and insisted he was happy there was no longer a problem with Leaving Certificate grades since the State Examinations Commission was set up in 2003.
“There are very good controls in place,” he said.
But the controversy over the standards of Irish graduates has forced the minister to scrap the present third-level grades watchdogs.
These include the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC), the Further Education and Training Awards Council, the National Qualifications Authority and the Irish Universities Quality Board.
They will be merged into a new “qualifications and quality assurance agency”, expected to be established early next year after legislation is pushed through the Dáil this summer.
Mr O’Keeffe said there were a number of conflicting arguments as to why top university and third-level grades had increased over the past 10 years in Ireland, and internationally.
These included a deliberate decision to align Irish standards with the UK and elsewhere, that students were better prepared and motivated or simply that grade increases were a result of a drop in standards.
The minister refused to say what reasons he believed were behind the trend and would only insist it was a complex issue.
Fine Gael’s education spokesman Brian Hayes described the official revelations as very worrying, adding they confirmed fears by some in the Irish education system for years.
The senior Opposition TD also berated the Department of Education for rubbishing a report by campaign group Network for Irish Education Standards two years ago which highlighted grade inflation, particularly in the Leaving Certificate.
“You’ve only decided to take action because US multinationals have brought it to your attention,” he said.
“The entire regulatory system here is not working, it’s not working in terms of quality assurance for our graduates and it’s not working in terms of the reputation of our education system abroad.”
The Department of Education inquiry was sparked by concerns from US multinationals, including Intel and Google, about declining standards in Irish third level education.
Minister O’Keeffe suggested some of the computer giants were reluctant to take graduates from some colleges.