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Grade Inflation Continues in IOT Sector

February 29, 2012

Is there no limit to how much grades can inflate in the Institutes of Technology? The trend runs right back to 1994 and perhaps earlier. Data from the research of Martin O’Grady and Brendan Guilfoyle show a constant upward trend at all undergraduate levels between 1994 and 2004. Recently, O’Grady has updated the picture to cover the subsequent four years up to 2008. The findings: inflation has been continuing apace. Let’s think about what inflation is. It is not just an improvement in average grades. It is a trend of such improvement without any evidence that genuinely enhanced learning is the causal agent.

When O’Grady and Guilfoyle did their original research on grades in the IOT sector, they found that between 1994 and 2004 the rate for the top grade had gone up at Certificate level by 38%, at Diploma level by 42% and at Honours Degree level by 52%. While this was happening, the CAO entry points for courses across the IOT sector were in steep decline. To make matters worse, throughout the same period, average grades in the Leaving Certificate, and hence CAO points, increased considerably. There were many more CAO points about; students coming in to the IOT sector were not able to get them but they were able to get much better grades when they graduated. Therein lies the sure signal of grade inflation.

Meanwhile, something else began to happen. IOTs started to creep (or even gallop) upmarket educationally. When O’Grady revisited the IOT figures and collated those for 2005-2008, it was apparent that the colleges were now concentrating much more on Honours Degrees and cutting back on Certificates and Ordinary Degrees (Diplomas as they were known before). By 2007-08, Honours Degrees accounted for almost 39% of graduates across the 13 IOTs as compared with 28.6% in 2003-04. At the opposite end of the scale, the proportion of awards at Certificate level declined from 32.5% to 20.1%. Many more students in the IOT sector were doing more academically demanding qualifications. If their ability on average didn’t improve, then their grades should have gone down all around.

Higher Grades But No Improvement in Ability?

Did ability improve? Were the IOTs attracting stronger students by offering higher level courses? That should have been apparent in the CAO points’ figures. O’Grady compiled the data and found that points’ profiles for entry to courses had remained virtually unchanged when the two cohorts were compared. At entry level there was nothing to suggest improved ability to match the increased concentration in higher level courses. Despite this, between the two periods, the percentage of the combined top two grades increased at all three levels: by 13.5%, 6.7% and 16.9% at Certificate, Ordinary Degree and Honours Degree respectively. The top grade alone increased by 15.7% at Honours Degree level, by 7.1% at Certificate level but declined by 11.1% among Ordinary Degrees. This latter is the only anomalous finding. Otherwise, it is grade inflation all the way. Students, no stronger than before, facing more demanding higher level courses, got even better grades.

Is there any end to grade inflation, in the Institutes of Technology?  Certainly not yet, it seems. Another four year follow-up will soon be possible.  The race is now on for University status. That means ever more top grade Honours Degrees, to feed Masters and Phd programmes, are in dire need. Nothing is going to improve real student ability, so don’t expect a halt to grade inflation any time soon. The hungry machine needs feeding and the system will deliver.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. cormac permalink
    March 8, 2012 7:28 pm

    It’s a great study, and worrying findings. However, I’m not sure it’s just the hapless IoTs – be nice if some expert could do an equally good study of the irish universities!

    • Martin O'Grady permalink
      March 9, 2012 3:33 pm

      Such studies have indeed been done on the Universities with the same kind of findings of grade inflation. One was conducted by the Network for Irish Educational Standards for the years 1994-2004 and the report can be found on its website at Evidence of very significant grade inflation was found.

      Subsequently, a report was prepared at Trinity College Dublin in 2009 for the University Council entitled Grade Inflation in the Irish Universities, from which I quote: “In conclusion, there is no doubt that the Irish higher education sector has experienced significant grade inflation over the period 1994-2008, however, the upward trend has, it would appear, slowed down and remained relatively stable in the past four to five years.”

      I have some misgivings about how stable, exactly, the pattern has in fact been in more recent years but will need to do more research to be able to say anything definitive.

  2. 1=1 permalink
    June 4, 2014 8:39 am

    This is nonsense for the most part. Of course there has been an increase in the number of students getting higher grades. I’m sure the same is equally true for the number of students failing and getting what you would call lower grades when the student population has increased. It would be of more value if you researched the inequalities of the Irish education system which exists from primary to third level, particularly at third level this reality becomes glaringly obvious.
    Putting huge emphasis on the difference between a 68 and a 71 within the degree classification is a total misunderstanding of the degree classification. The prime time debate last night seemed to suggest that the private sector and our society in general are using degree classifications to label individuals as if they were BORD BIA stamped or not. People who get 2.1’s in many cases are more intelligent/innovative in their thinking when they go on to research level and just as capable/more capable than people who get firsts. And the same can be said for 2.2’s and so on. The person who gets the first may have literally just ticked every box in a mechanical process and understand the marking system perfectly. However, the may have little or no independent thought or passion about their theory or work and may have very little passion for going onto a research role. Some people are just in it for the exams and the results, this is the problem with our classification system and how employers view applicants.

    If there is any inflation it is more than likely amongst academics own relatives and friends and is being done due to the demands and importance companies and people like yourself are putting on certain grades when you speak in public or publish works. The cut off points and the incorrect way that degree classifications are used to value individuals is what causes such activity. The private sector is certainly guilty of this in their recruitment process and requirements.

    The real issue is how unequal our education system is and how income manipulates and influences the outcomes in leaving cert generally which results in a concentrated class of people in university. This unsurprisingly creates an environment for the most part which by and large has a single way of thinking. In the end, education suffers and indirectly the workforce and society as a whole becomes dumbed down because only one class of person with one political perspective and one intellectual perspective end up in the positions to influence how society operates. All we have to do is look at the economic crashes and the state of our laws are and our banks are etc… It is the so called elite in our society who are at the helm of these business environments and political environments.


  1. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Grade Inflation Continues in IOT Sector

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