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University President: Courses No Longer Challenge Top Students

March 12, 2012

Michael Murphy: brightest students are no longer challenged in Irish universities

The President of University College Cork has claimed that high achieving students are no longer challenged by courses in Irish universities.

Dr Michael Murphy recently told a chamber business group that the brightest students are shunning the Irish universities and are opting to pursue third level studies overseas.

Evidence of a stark decline in university standards was explained by the UCC President:

“For a start, surveys are now telling us that about 15 to 25 per cent of students in our universities are not challenged or motivated by their courses. The best students are telling us in public statements that this is the case.

The newspapers are telling us every August that the top point scorers in the leaving certificate are finding destinations overseas. I can tell you that academic colleagues tell me that they are sending their children to overseas universities and I can tell you that business is making it very clear to me that they are finding it increasingly difficult to fill posts that require academic talent in Ireland”.  (Interview on RTE News At One, 21 December 2011)

Murphy said that he wanted to bring this onto the agenda as “it has been deemed politically incorrect by many to so do up to now and it’s time to face up to the reality“. He points to the fact that the expansion of higher education over the last 15 years brought “significant numbers of academically weaker students” into the universities,  with a consequent requirement for “more learning support from fewer available staff for less able students”. He warns that the “price of this mass expansion” is increasingly evident as “our ability to maximise the talents of the intellectually gifted has diminished”.

The Inescapable Evidence

Talented but under-challenged?

This is is a revealing admission by a university president about the consequences of grade inflation for the best students, something we at the Network for Irish Educational Standards have been arguing since 2005. It is an integral part of the impoverishment of the Irish undergraduate experience, as identified in  a recent Royal Irish Academy report.

The more inflated grades are, the less motivated the students are to exert themselves to achieve high standards, and the less lecturers are motivated to teach to high standards. Being more assured of higher grades for poorer performance, there is no reward for further effort. As standards decline, the frustration is highest for the most talented students.

Strong evidence has been found for this in one of our recent papers, New Metrics for Detecting Changes in Educational Standards (for a short summary click here). From the undergraduate award data of all seven Irish universities not only have marks levels rocketed, but grades are becoming more compressed at the top. This reflects the inability of the grades to distinguish between students – precisely “the failure to challenge” that President Murphy highlights.

Grasping the Nettle

University Presidents: what grade inflation?

Certainly, Murphy should be congratulated for his candor. It’s not often that an Irish university president agrees with our uncomfortable conclusions about the state of Irish third level education. During the O’Keefe crisis, DCU’s President von-Prondzynski poo-pooed grade inflation, NUIG’s President Browne claimed that it was “explainable in terms of the system correcting itself” and UCD’s President Brady dismissed it as “irrelevant” .

Directly grasping the nettle of grade inflation is as great a taboo for Michael Murphy. He raises the grade inflation hare but then fails to address the causes of falling standards or suggest how to reverse the decline. Instead he seizes upon the problem to make an all too predictable beg for higher funding and more autonomy. His solution includes a predictable plea for the universities to keep squaring an ever-expanding circle – the weakest students “must continue to be fully supported” with learning assistance while “it is also essential that we take steps to support our most able students“.

Grappling with the issue of grade inflation and the educational decline it masks can be tackled without recourse to increases in exchequer spending. It requires a concerted effort to remove the multiplicity of perverse incentives to degrade awards that exists and are now well documented. The sooner a university President, or indeed anyone in the upper echelons of Irish education, comes out and states this, the better. Michael Murphy has moved a step in that direction. A further leap is required – an honest debate about how to reverse declining standards.

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