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Grade inflation: the fire that will not be quenched

June 13, 2016



Grade inflation is a fire that simply will not be quenched, at least in so far as the Institutes of Technology are concerned, according to the latest data collected and analyzed in Paper 11 published by the Network for Irish Educational Standards.

Normally when you choke off the fuel supply, the fire dies down. Not so with grade inflation. Despite funding for the sector as a whole being reduced by 35% between 2008 and 2015, the percentage of Firsts and Distinctions has just kept on growing.

The latest round of number crunching shows a 13.5% growth in Firsts in Honours Degrees when the average of 2012 and 2013 is compared with the average of 2007 and 2008.

By the same yardstick, the rate of Distinctions has increased by 18.7% in Ordinary Degrees and  20.8% in Higher Certificates. A remarkable development is that the rate of First Class honours degrees across the 13 Institutes of Technology (DIT not included) at 18.5% averaged over 2012-2013 exceeds that of the universities’ rate of 15%. The rate at DIT was 17% for the same years.

The fires of learning in the Institutes of Technology would seem to need no oxygen.

Dream or Nightmare?

Does anyone anywhere find all that just a tad suspicious?  Much less funding, much better results. A dream come true for the penny pinching bureaucrats at the Higher Education Authority. The fires of learning in the Institutes of Technology would seem to need no oxygen.

Surely a nightmare, however, for the Teachers Union of Ireland which has been loudly protesting about the financial squeeze and even going on strike to draw attention to the parlous state of the cash strapped sector. But what’s the fuss about? Why should any government in its right mind plough extra cash into such a hyper performing system that can do so much more with so much less?

It’s difficult to quite grasp the scale of the achievement wrought in the Institutes of Technology. Think about this for a moment. The typical CAO points which accompanied the average student going through the doors of any of the 13 Institutes in 2014 was 341. The typical entrant to the university sector had 462 points.

This is not something which varies much year on year so what was true of 2014 is true for any other year you like to pick. Students who gain access to the universities are academically much stronger than those who enter the Institutes of Technology. Even if we limit our scope to only those students entering Honours Degree courses at the IOTs, we find that in 2014 the typical CAO points tally of such a student was 357, a very long way down from 462.  Yet, the Institutes of Technology managed to produce more First Class degree performances.




This alchemy is not restricted to Honours Degrees. It is equally evident in the growth of Distinctions in Ordinary Degrees and Higher Certificates which showed increases over the same period of 19% and 21% respectively. Nor is it only the top grade in each case which keeps growing more and more common. The same is true in each qualification level for the next grade down. Merit 1 awards have grown by 22% in Higher Certificates and 7% in Ordinary Degrees when the averages of the 2012 and 2013 figures are compared with those of 2007 and 2008. Upper seconds or 2.1 awards at Honours Degree level have increased by 5%.

All this would be remarkable enough if the 2007-2008 baseline figures were not already elevated over what they used to be. Look at the three graphs showing the top grades at each of the main undergraduate qualifications awarded by the Institutes of Technology since 1994. There has been some choppiness along the way but the trend has been inexorably upwards.

O’Grady and Guilfoyle (2016) investigated if the rate of increase in the top grades has been speeding up, slowing down or remaining constant. They concluded that comparing the last five years of the series with the first fifteen, the rate of increase has accelerated for Higher Certificates and Ordinary Degrees but slowed down in Honours Degrees.

This slowing down, however, may be an artefact of how they calculated the rates of increase and chose the baseline years for comparison. For unknown reasons the linear climb was interrupted by a choppy period between 2005 and 2010 but thereafter, as evident in the graph, the clearly linear slope resumed even more steeply than before.

Distinctions Certificates

The latest report by O’Grady and Guilfoyle draws attention to another development in the sector, a considerable upward shift in the level of educational qualification at which students typically graduate. Between 1994 and 2013, there has been a sharp decline from 53.5% to only 13% in the proportion of all Institute of Technology graduates at NQA Level 6 (Higher Certificate).

This has been paralleled by a major increase from 13% to 47.2% over the same period in the proportion of the total accounted for by NQA Level 8 (Honours Degree) graduates. The modal qualification has shifted from Level 6 to Level 8. This is a major transformation.

The Miraculous Transformation

There is (or at least there should be) a great deal of difference between the academic standard required by a 4 year Honours Degree and that required by a two year Certificate which renders the graphs for First Classes and Distinctions shown here all the more incomprehensible.

Surely if the better students who formerly graduated with a Certificate have increasingly been setting their sights on an Honours Degree, the effect on top grades ought to have been the reverse of what has happened. The relatively stronger students, who previously would have obtained Distinctions at Level 6, will more likely have opted to enter ab initio level 8 courses instead thereby reducing the proportion able to win Distinctions at Level 6 but are unlikely to be so strong as to be able to swell the ranks of Firsts in the academically much more demanding Honours Degree courses. The effect should have been to draw down the top grades at both levels.

Of course, if there had been a dramatic and ongoing improvement across the Institute of Technology sector in the quality of students attracted, then the numbers getting the top grades would be expected to increase. The improvement in the quality of students would have to be at all three qualification levels. It would also have to have been continuous right across the two decades involved and right across the country.

There is nothing at all to suggest that the Institutes of Technology have been managing to attract more academically capable students as the years passed.

That means the average student arriving in the IOTs would need to have become academically more capable with each passing year and the improvement overall would have to be very considerable to account for a rate of 8.2% Firsts becoming a rate of 19%.  Since the majority of students each year are admitted through the CAO system and this is true of both school leavers and more mature students, any such improvement should be immediately evident in CAO points.


A quick glance at the graph above makes it abundantly clear that there is nothing at all to suggest that the Institutes of Technology have been managing to attract more academically capable students as the years passed. If they had been, then the minimum points for access to courses would have climbed quite a lot since the early 1990s. Each point on the graph shows the result for that year of adding together the minimum points at which students entered each Level 6, 7 and 8 course across the sector and dividing by the number of courses involved.

Throughout the 90s when grades at graduation were improving rapidly the Institutes were reducing their points’ requirements from a mean of 284 in 1991 to 206 in 2000. They were admitting weaker students. After 2000 there was a very gradual improvement from 206 in 2001 to 228 in 2008. Then there was a sharp upturn with the mean minimum points finally surpassing the 1991 high in 2011 when the mean reached 300 points.

The Universities, however, were creaming off the pick of the available students, hence the score of 462 points for the typical entrant to the Universities in 2014 as compared with 341 for the Institutes.

The Unquenchable Fire

What the graph fails to show is that all through that period average points were constantly rising due to more and more high grades being awarded in the Leaving Certificate. Crunching the numbers on the CAO website, O’Grady and Guilfoyle estimated that the average CAO applicant in 1995 had around 250 points. By 2005 the average applicant had approximately 350 points. How is it then that the minimum points for entry to the Institutes of Technology were not carried up by this rising tide?

The answer is that while the Institutes were taking in more and more students, at the same time the Universities were doing likewise. The Universities, however, were creaming off the pick of the available students, hence the score of 462 points for the typical entrant to the Universities in 2014 as compared with 341 for the Institutes.

Instead of getting more and more of the stronger students, the Institutes were all the time losing ground to the Universities and having to make do with progressively weaker students. This renders the grade graphs shown here all the more amazing. The unremitting rise in top grades has overwhelmed the countervailing forces of both a talent and a resources drain. It really is an unquenchable fire.

It has been a characteristic of the Network for Irish Educational Standards research to search high and low for anything which might explain the upward march of grades other than the erosion of academic standards. In the latest round of analysis, O’Grady and Guilfoyle explored the possibility that at least some of the rise might be down to more adults coming into the sector and to a change in the mix of part-time and full-time students. They drew a blank on both counts. While there has been a considerable increase in mature students across the Institutes, up to about 20% of entrants, most of them are admitted through the CAO system. Detailed analysis of progression rates from first to second year by the Higher Education Authority has shown that for both mature entrants and school leavers the key predictor is the points’ score on which they enter.

The only remaining argument … is that right across the Institutes of Technology, the academic staff has become privy to some arcane wisdom whereby weaker students can with each passing year be enabled to learn more and better than their predecessors.

This means that adult success in third level is just as much a function of prior educational attainment. That is factored into the CAO points analysis featured above. Furthermore, while there does not appear to be any such comparison for the Institutes of Technology, evidence from the University sector in Ireland and from higher education sectors in the US and the UK does not support the hypothesis that mature students as a group perform better than their school leaver counterparts.

As for the mix of part-time and full-time students, O’Grady and Guilfoyle concluded from the data available that the balance of the two has not changed significantly over time. Any impact on grades will then have remained constant.

Arcane Knowledge

The only remaining argument to counter the grade inflation explanation is that right across the Institutes of Technology, the academic staff has become privy to some arcane wisdom whereby weaker students can with each passing year be enabled to learn more and better than their predecessors.

Whatever this alchemy involves, it is seemingly independent of finance or resources since turning off that tap has had no impact at all. Fewer lecturers dealing with more students on more courses in larger classes with diminished back-up services exert no restraint.

Either you believe in this alchemy or you believe that academic standards have been sliding sharply for a long time in the Institutes of Technology and that the pace of slippage has been increasing not slowing down. For anyone with a modicum of sense it’s not difficult to figure which is true. But what’s the harm? Why should it be a problem that ever more students get better grades?

The unremitting rise in top grades has overwhelmed the countervailing forces of both a talent and a resources drain.

There actually is quite a deal of harm because increasingly there is no way of differentiating the stars from the also rans and no special grade to motivate the stars, but to focus on the number getting the better grades is to miss the point. It is the process whereby better grades are being obtained that is the real problem. It can only be achieved by reducing learning demands across the board. The real reason for grade inflation is not to give more students at the top end better grades.  It is to mask the inability of students at the bottom end to achieve any reasonable standard of learning.

The HEA’s Perverse Incentives

As the Institutes dredge ever deeper into the ultimately limited pool of available talent and at the same time stream students ever more into what should be much more demanding degree courses, they face two choices. Keep dumbing down or live with growing failure rates. The Institutes are paid on a headage basis by the Higher Education Authority so it is obvious which option they are likely to choose.


To make matters worse, in recent years the HEA has been requiring as a condition of funding that the Institutes enter into “compacts” which specify targets to be met in a given time frame. If they fail to reach them they may face heavy financial penalties. Among the targets agreed are increases in student progression rates from first to second year. In a sector where grade inflation has run rampant for years, this is a direct and powerful incentive to dumb down.

Thus the HEA directly creates perverse incentives by pitting the maintenance of academic standards against financial well-being. When there is no chance of getting better students and improving real learning is altogether outside the control of the Institutes, what other option is there?

Students will learn more if they are able and willing. If they are not, it is impossible  for anyone to make any difference. Faced with the large-scale reductions in their budgets and with lecturers carrying weekly class loads beyond any higher educational sector in the developed world, the systemic drive is inevitably towards dumbing down.

Why attempt the impossible when the same outcome can be achieved by a long tried and well-tested method? Dumb down. If all over Ireland for two decades, the patterns described in the graphs shown here have been allowed to go unquestioned and unchecked, why stop now? Of course that is the 64 thousand dollar question. Why stop? There are very compelling reasons why grade inflation should be stopped and we will deal with those in our next blog.



8 Comments leave one →
  1. colough permalink
    June 14, 2016 7:38 am

    While I agree with much of what is written,, you need to look a little deeper.
    When the IOT’s only had Level 6 programmes, where did those students go to progress their education further? University; those that do progress do very well in the main.

    There was a massive investment in the IOT infrastructure in 1990’s which opened the floodgate. Have a good look at the buildings as evidence. It’s also true that there has been a huge shift in the academic staff from vocational to Level 8.

    It’s also a question of looking at the CAO as quota system, not a quality system. It’s not correct to say that matures come through the CAO system. Those that come through the CAO as matures do so in Round 0..This is before the Points are applied. Most come to the system through advanced entry into Years 2 and 3. Mature students generally do very well.

    It would be interesting if you were to compare the % of those graduating with quality awards with those entering the system 4 years earlier as opposed to measuring against % graduating in a cohort. You might see a different set of graphs. Attrition rates in first year are still quite high.

    • June 16, 2016 3:06 pm

      Agreed, those numbers re meaningless.
      The attrition rate on some course is very high (software development to name one) and not just in first year (many stop with a level 6 or 7 and get jobs), so the students who make it to year 4 exam in the IoT sectors are maybe 30% of those that started four in October four years earlier. To have 20% of those getting a first is not outrageous (6% of those who started…).

  2. June 14, 2016 8:08 am

    Just 2 points:

    The steadiness of the minimum entry points can be explained by the mission of the IoTs to educate all that can benefit from it and does not necessarily mean that average entry points have no risen. So I’m not sure why you used that piece of data to suggest that there is no evidence of an increase ability in the IoTs.

    As an older IoT lecturer I get the impression that the younger ones are more capable than my retired colleagues. But that might just be an impression. Research shows that class size has very little impact on the quality of learning compared to teacher competence. It may well be possible that with increasing class sizes, teaching is actually getting better. Here – hot off the press –

    The general rule is: just because you can’t think of another explanation does not mean the explanation you can think of is true.

  3. June 14, 2016 8:29 am

    While I broadly agree with much of this post I do think we have to accept that third level education has changed considerably in the last 20 years. And it is still changing.

    These days, the student learning experience is much more ‘managed’, ‘better’ packaged , monitored and divided up into less challenging bite-size chunks. We now are expected to ‘teach’ whereas in the past we were expected to ‘lecture’ and let the students drive their own learning.

    As a result, average marks in the high seventies or even eighties are unremarkable whereas a mark of 75 was very rare ten or fifteen years ago. At the other end of the class, continuous assessment means that it is now harder to fail.

    You could call all of these things ‘dumbing down’ but they also reflect a fundamental shift in the nature of third level education itself.

  4. Throatwobbler Mangrove permalink
    June 14, 2016 9:02 am

    Another factor may be the mode of external examining in ITs. I have acted as one in an IT where there were only modular externs (in a pretty crazy system, which after doing my 3 year stint I was none the wiser as to what my role was supposed to be). There were no programmatic external examiners who would have oversight on trends in grade distributions etcs. – perhaps this is institutional strategy.

  5. Mary Gallagher permalink
    June 14, 2016 11:18 am

    The ring of truth can be heard in this article loud and clear; it certainly speaks to my experience in the university system. The most able students in any academic cohort still take my breath away with what they are able to do, while overall the struggle to maintain standards, particularly below the top tier of talent, is becoming very problematic (at least in unforgiving disciplines like languages, which is presumably why schools of languages are shedding and being shed so dramatically at present). So, while at one extreme, levels of student achievement seem to be as high as ever, if not higher, they are not, perhaps, as fully recognised as they should be. And at the other end, there seems to be no lower limit beyond which levels of achievement will not be allowed to fall. It is indeed very worrying to witness first hand the pressures on academics to lower standards. Broadly speaking, these are business pressures and they are never as difficult to resist as when they have been internalised to such an extent that it becomes impossible for those driven by them to recognise what is going on, let alone to call it.


  1. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Grade inflation: the fire that will not be quenched
  2. Grade inflation: doesn’t bother me | educationandstuff

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