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QQI: the Tralee Challenge

October 14, 2013

QQI Logo

As  Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) prepares to launch into its first ever statutory investigation of postgraduate awards at a third level institution, the stakes are high on all sides. Not only does the Institute of Technology Tralee now lie under threat of the removal of its right to confer postgraduate awards after the Flan Garvey plagiarism scandal, but the Institute of Technology sector as a whole has a lot to lose in its pursuit of the much-hyped ‘technological university’ status.

The credibility of QQI, newly responsible for standards in Irish Universities, is also on the line. Having messed it up at the first outing (by allowing an internal appeal of an external panel judgement), the University sector will be watching closely to see if they can make a better fist of it this time.

In this post, we ask the question: how on earth did this come about and what is the likely outcome? In this follow-up post we will look in detail at the cause of all of the chaos: Flan Garvey’s Masters dissertation.

The Flan Garvey Plagiarism Case

Flan Garvey

Flan Garvey

In December 2012 the national press reported that the chairman of the governing body of IT Tralee had been accused by 26 academic staff of plagiarism in his dissertation, for which he was awarded a masters degree in 2008. The irrefutable substance of the allegation was dozens and dozens of near-verbatim pages of uncited or improperly cited works from a variety of sources.

To make matters worse, Garvey as chairman of the governing body would in theory sit on his own plagiarism investigation committee. The request of the academic staff was that QQI, as accrediting body for the award, be given the evidence and be left to deal with the issue.  While the media made hay about the hefty expenses Garvey ran up as chairman and the fact that he had claimed his own student fees as expenses from Clare County Council (he was a Fianna Fail councillor at the time), IT Tralee and QQI grappled with how to deal with the exploding crisis.

The Goldsmith Committee

Brendan Goldsmith

Dr. Brendan Goldsmith

The result was a bizarre set-up whereby QQI chose the members of an external investigative panel, yet left the option open for a subsequent internal appeal of the findings of the external panel. The external panel of experts, in a considered 24 page report, found that numerous tracts of Garveys’s thesis were near-verbatim copies of insufficiently acknowledged or misleadingly cited primary or secondary sources. They concluded  that his degree was obtained in a manner that  was “unjustified” – code word for QQI to revoke the award.

This decision was then overturned by the internally appointed committee, which argued that the plagiarism was “unintentional” and that the student handbook didn’t specifically prohibit this “type” of plagiarism. The internally appointed committee, chaired by former DIT President Dr Brendan Goldsmith, came up with the equally bizarre solution that Garvey be allowed to amend his dissertation to fix the plagiarised sections – now termed “deficiencies“.

The implication of this, was that Flan Garvey, who for a decade had sat at the head of the Governing Body of a third level Institute, had overseen its policies with regard to academic standards and had sat on disciplinary committees dealing with such issues, was now to be exonerated because he actually didn’t know what plagiarism was.

The Crisis Broadens

Following these disgraceful shenanigans two national enquiries were quickly announced – the HEA to investigate the exorbitant expenses to members of governing bodies in the IoT sector and QQI to investigate the provision of postgraduate awards at IT Tralee. While the latter is in train, Tralee has been prohibited from adding new postgraduate students to its books – a severe limitation to its functioning.

flan-garvey

“And now for my next trick” by cartoondejour

Despite the adverse publicity and the two inquiries, Flan Garvey publicly announced himself vindicated and broadcast his intention to return to the helm of the Institute. Moreover, he announced that he planned to pursue a PhD in his own Institute.

In an extraordinary radio interview Garvey questioned the right of scholars to study dissertations four years after their award, as well as making public for the first time the names of the thesis supervisor and the external examiners. At the same time, academic staff were subjected to threats of disciplinary proceedings over information that was appearing in the media.

However, official support for Garvey waned within IT Tralee. The branch of the Teachers’ Union at the Institute called on him to resign and the Minister for Education grumbled about people looking to their positions. Finally, on May 29th, Garvey succumbed to the public pressure and announced his retirement.

Quality Systems Failure

QQI CEO Dr Padraig Walsh

The questions remain: how did a dissertation of such obviously poor quality make its way through the IT Tralee system? Were the procedures adequate? Were the procedures followed?

Tralee has typical IoT procedures for such awards – procedures that are signed off by QQI as adequate after its periodic Institutional Review. The last such review in 2009 gave the Institute a clean bill of health.

Did a postgraduate committee discuss the dissertation before it was sent to the external examiners? Was the plagiarism and poor quality flagged? If not, why not? Who chose the external examiners? Were they appropriate? These are the questions that the QQI panel needs to focus on.

The Governance Question

One aspect of this affair which the panel will have to consider is the extraordinary web of potential conflict of interest that Garvey introduced by being both student and Governing Body Chair. While no statute prohibits it, common-sense and prudence should have prevailed.

Once admitted, the potential for conflicts abounded. The student could be chairing interview committees for potential promotion of the supervisor, of the Heads of Department, of the Heads of School – indeed for the President himself. What possible procedures could safeguard academic standards in such a scenario?

The Challenge

How the QQI panel is likely to view all of this is as yet unknown.  The terms of reference clearly state that the the “events and outcomes” of the Garvey case have triggered the review and it would be remiss of the panel if they ignore the circumstances of the debacle. Moreover, this review of the “operation and management” of the quality assurance procedures cannot be carried out rigorously without careful consideration of what went wrong. Anything less will simply be a whitewash.

The current situation where Garvey’s thesis is an acceptable level of scholarship sets a new low for QQI and the  IoT sector. In a follow-up post we discuss this.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 16, 2013 4:13 pm

    Since this article is somewhat critical of the QQI, you really need to check the relevant Act to see what precisely are its powers. I would suspect that QQI’s ability to revoke individual theses or exam results or whatever are limited. Indeed, it is probable (I don’t know) that the QQI is charged with ensuring that adequate systems are in place. Furthermore, natural justice would require that there be some means to appeal any decision of the QQI – hence the referral back to Tralee.

    Indeed, there are probably all sorts of legal issues here that while unpalatable are real. It is quite common (it would appear) for students to wriggle out of plagiarism allegations on the basis of legal technicalities, often on the basis that they were not given a proper definition of plagiarism.

    The Tralee case is obviously a particularly ‘political’ one but the whole issue of the examination of theses is a can of worms, one of the main problems being that the examination of theses can often be as much an examination of the supervisor as it is of the student.

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