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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. Read more…

The Crime and Politics of Plagiarism

August 13, 2013

Plagiarism is a uniquely academic crime.  The act of passing off the work of others as one’s own, no matter how deliberate, is not a criminal offence per se, but rather a moral crime. And yet, since the evidence of the crime, consisting simply of written documents to be compared, is itself the crime, plagiarism is an offence that is also uniquely prosecutable.

The subject has found its way into the news lately for a variety of  reasons. German politicians, including most recently the Education Minister, have lost their positions because of plagiarism.  A high profile American journalist has quit because of self-plagiarism (amongst other things). Even TV commentators are blaming their researchers for similar activities.

Meanwhile, the massive free online course provider Coursera has been forced to respond to dozens of cases. And, of course, there is the peculiarly Irish scandal of Flan Garvey the Chairman of the Governing Body of IT Tralee plagiarising at his own institution.

This last case has roiled the Institute of Technology sector, triggering the first ever statutory review under section 46 of the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Educational and Training) Act 2012 and bringing the issue of educational standards into focus.  With IoT’s falling over themselves trying to gain Technological University status and Quality & Qualifications Ireland set to take over quality assurance functions at Irish universities, the outcome of this review has consequences far beyond Tralee.

Given the serious implications for Irish education, this is the first of a series of posts on plagiarism in which a full account of what has recently transpired will be given. In this post we look at the issue of plagiarism more generally and how technology is making it easier both to plagiarise and to get caught. In a follow-up post we will look in detail at the Tralee scandal and the crucial juncture at which it now stands.

Stop kindnapping the children of his mind

Stop kidnapping the children of his mind

The Kidnappers

The term “plagiarism” was coined by the first century Greek poet Martialius, who in anger over another poet, Fidentinus, publishing his poems under his own name, accused him of plagiarium, the kidnapping of children. The poems were the children of his mind and they had been kidnapped by Fidentinus.

In retaliation, Martialis exposed the deceit in a series of “quips” including the following, what must be one of the earliest copyright assertions:

Fame has it that you, Fidentinus, recite my books to the crowd as if none other than your own.
If you’re willing that they be called mine, I’ll send you the poems for free.
If you want them to be called yours, buy this one, so that they won’t be mine.

Nowadays, plagiarism in academia can be defined as the failure of authors to distinguish between their voices and that of others. The threat that plagiarism poses to scholarship is multi-faceted. Aside from injustice, it generates a reluctance of scholars to publish and ultimately undermines a crucial collective aspect of academia. Read more…

In Irish universities, males get more firsts, females get more seconds and everyone gets more of both

January 21, 2013

New Report on University Grades
A new report by Martin O’Grady of the Network for Irish Educational Standards shows that while grade inflation is showing clear signs of slowing down, it has, nevertheless, continued in the university sector up to 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. In searching for possible explanations for differences in the percentages of firsts and upper seconds across the seven universities, interesting findings have been unearthed in relation to gender differences, the relevance or non-relevance of mature students and differences between universities in size and emphasis on postgraduate study.

Firsts Hit a Plateau but Upper Seconds Continue to Climb


FIGURE 1: The 7 Universities Combined – Rate of Firsts and Upper Seconds 1994-2009

The report updates the previous analysis, by O’Grady and Guilfoyle (2007), of the 1994-2004 figures, adding in those for 2005-2009. A glance at Figure 1  taken from the report shows that something interesting did seem to happen after 2005. Having peaked at 17.5% in that year, following many years of growth, the percentage of firsts in the combined universities showed a dip the following year and stayed level thereafter, at least up to 2009, the latest year for which figures are available.

Interestingly, this pattern was replicated to some extent in each one of the seven universities. In NUIM and DCU there was a marked and continuing decline in firsts after 2005. In UCD there was a sharp decline in 2006 but followed by an equally sharp recovery in 2007 and then a levelling off up to 2009. TCD’s rate levelled off after 2005 but showed signs of a pick up again in 2008 and 2009. At UCC, NUIG and UL, the rates of firsts largely levelled off after 2005 up to 2009.

Are there signs that the universities may finally be getting grade inflation under control? An examination of the upper second figures, however, suggests that this would be a premature conclusion.

As evident in Figure 1, the pattern in upper seconds is different to that of firsts. While there was a clear levelling off in 2006 and 2007, the two highest rates ever for upper seconds occurred in 2008 and 2009. The percentage of upper seconds across the seven universities, which stood at 28.8% in 1994, reached 47.6% in 2009, a figure exceeded only in 2008 at 48.4%. In 1994, 7.2% of university graduates obtained a first class award. The comparable figure in 2009 was 16.4%, down from a peak of 17.5% in 2005.

An analysis of Institute of Technology grades in 2011 compared the average of grades awarded in the final two years of the previous 1994-2004 analysis with the average of the most recent two years for which figures were available, 2008 and 2009 and a similar comparsion using the aggregate university grades. Averaging figures from successive years in this way mitigates the impact of random year to year fluctuations in the figures. Because the HEA had never published the university figures for 2003, the figures for 2002 were used instead, including those for 2005 to balance off the downward pull on the average induced by the 2002 figures. Remember that the percentages of firsts and upper seconds had been increasing year on year.

Across the universities, the average rate of firsts for 2008 and 2009 was 11.4% higher than the average for 2002, 2004 and 2005. A similar comparison for upper seconds found a 13.9% increase. Not quite as much growth as in the Institutes of Technology, where firsts and upper seconds increased in a similar period by 15.7% and 17.5% respectively, but substantial, nonetheless. Definitely too soon to herald the end of grade inflation in the universities.

Better Students?

Of course, better grades might be expected if better students were getting into the universities. The opposite however is the case. On the basis that the most common duration of an undergraduate degree is four years, O’Grady compared CAO points four years in advance for the two graduate groups described above. Comparing all CAO applicants in 1998, 2000 and 2001 with those in 1994 and 1995, 28.8% of the latter had points of 400 or more as compared with 26.4% of the former. The proportion with 500 or more points had also increased from 6.7% to 8%.

This follows a pattern of inflation in Leaving Certificate grades dating back at least to the early nineties. It may be taken therefore that better grades became easier to get over the period under examination. Despite that, there was a general decline over the same period in the minimum points necessary to gain entry to undergraduate courses in the universities.The biggest change between the 1998/2000/2001 and the 2004/2005 figures was the increase from 39% to 49%  of university courses which could be entered with points below 400. An additional 3% of courses requiring over 500 points did not come near to counter-balancing the decline in points’ requirements overall.

On average, university courses became easier to access. Nevertheless, entrants with weaker points’ profiles graduated with superior grades. When the rate of firsts and upper seconds should have been in decline, they were instead in the ascendant. This is the typical grade inflationary pattern.Overall then, it would seem fair to say that while the universities have shown some definite signs of grappling with the grade inflation issue, their report cards should state: ‘Signs of going in the right direction but a great deal of ground to be made up; must work harder to reassert standards.

Read more…

Death By Grade Inflation

September 27, 2012

Any examination process infected with the grade inflation virus is counting down its days if the requisite prophylaxis is not administered in time. Grades cannot rise indefinitely without eventually undermining the credibility and utility of the whole endeavour.

However, it takes time and, as with other self-sustaining dynamics such as witnessed here in the property boom, everyone can blithely continue on as if tomorrow will never come.

Come it will, and come it has for the GCSE examination in England and Wales.  It is the first fatality of the grade inflation epidemic which has for years been raging through these isles and beyond.

Read more…

Science Foundation Ireland, the Director General and the Renovo Debacle

May 22, 2012

In the previous post, Stifling Discovery: Science Foundation Ireland’s New Mission and the Jobs Myth, we examined the recent policy shift at Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) that has led to the prioritisation of research commercialisation. From now on, research will only be funded where it can be claimed from the outset that it will make a profit and create jobs.  Basic scientific research and discovery will be marginalised and the previous post discussed the perils of this policy. The international evidence also suggests that even the purported economic gains from commercialisation are dubious and that wild claims about job creation are a fantasy of hapless government ministers.

This post examines Renovo, the spin-off company that was founded by SFI’s newly appointed Director General, Mark Ferguson. He was appointed on the back of his commercialisation experience at Renovo.  One would expect that Renovo is a model for successful commercialisation but in fact it is a remarkable case study about a resounding failure to commercialise academic research.

Renovo attempted to commercialise the scientific research that Ferguson had carried out at the University of Manchester. It grew rapidly from a small private company in 2000 to a publicly traded company with over 200 staff, claiming possession of “the most advanced regenerative medicine in the world”. It received large sums of money, including £63 million of investors’ money, £58 million of investment from the pharmaceutical company Shire, along with £16.5 million of British tax-payers money in the form of grants and research tax credits.

However, all of the drug products ultimately failed their clinical tests and none were commercialised.  In 2011, the scientific research was terminated and all of the employees were laid off.  The investors were wiped and the company was delisted from the main stock market.

Renovo Share Price

Despite this, the company directors received very substantial rewards over the five years that it operated as a listed company. Mark Ferguson received £3.6 million including a golden handshake of £700,000 from the derelict company. His wife Sharon O’Kane, the Chief Scientific Officer up to 2010, received over £1.6 million. In addition, between them they netted £9.4 million by exercising a director’s option when the shares were at their peak in 2007.

The Renovo case provides a unique insight into the nexus between financial markets and research science, the concomitant pressure for short term results and the disastrous consequences. It raises serious questions for Science Foundation Ireland, both in terms of its massive drive to pour money into commercialising research and its selection of a Director General to implement this policy.

Read more…

Stifling Discovery: Science Foundation Ireland’s New Mission and the Jobs Myth

May 22, 2012

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is making hugely significant changes to the system by which scientific research in Ireland is funded. From now on, SFI, which awards around €150 million annually for scientific research, will only fund research where it can be claimed from the outset that it will turn a profit and create jobs. Basic scientific research and discovery are to be marginalised into a tiny category that SFI has classified as “research for knowledge”.

The changes were announced by the recently recruited Director General of SFI, Mark Ferguson, who was appointed on the back of his own commercialisation experience. The new broom follows a glossy report by the Research Prioritisation Steering Group, a huge quango made up of more than seventy state bureaucrats, privateers-du-jour and academic hacks. Government ministers have also jumped on the bandwagon and are enthusiastically hailing commercialisation as a major employment initiative that is now a key part of the Action Plan for Jobs.

Welcome to the new order of ‘commercialisation‘ in a research factory to be run by grey suited bureaucrats and quick fix ministers. Forget methodological analysis or a wider consideration of the public interest; this is a grab for short term profit for the few. SFI, the principal state agency for research funding, has altered it’s mandate in order to bet the budget on research commercialisation gambles.

In this first of a two-part post we discuss the broader implications of the rush to commercialisation in Ireland and draw on some of the research experience in other countries. We find that there is compelling evidence that SFI’s strategy is wrong for Ireland.

In part two of this post we examine the failure of Renovo, the spin-off company that was founded by SFI’s newly appointed Director General, Mark Ferguson. The Renovo debacle raises further questions about SFI and it’s new research mandate.

Along the way in this post we also get an insight into the new ‘academic entrepreneur’ snake-oil that is seeping through the upper echelons of the Irish education system, inflating salaries at the top and misdirecting scarce resources.

Read more…

Book Review: Degrees of Nonsense, The Demise of The University in Ireland

May 13, 2012

Degrees of Nonsense: The Demise of The University in Ireland, Edited by Brendan Walsh

A Review by Martin O’Grady 

The first thing to be said about Degrees  of Nonsense is that this is an important book. It should be read by everyone who cares about our universities and everyone should care about them. That said, it is to be read much more because it begs rather than answers deeply important questions about what has, for some time now, been transpiring in higher education and in the Ireland which gives it its form. Answers will come after the right questions are asked and adequately debated.

I confess to having been somewhat misled by the title. Degrees of Nonsense is not to be taken literally. The book, though making some occasional references thereto, does not explore what degrees awarded by our universities tell us about the bearers. Grade inflation, for example, doesn’t get a mention.  That is a pity. Grade inflation and its concomitant secular erosion of standards is not just a symptom of a wider malaise in higher education. It is an enabling vehicle, which if it had been resisted determinedly by academics collectively, would have forestalled much of what is now being decried in this book. More of that anon.

Edited by Brendan Walsh, appropriately enough a lecturer in the History of Education at DCU, the book consists of ten contributions (including the foreword) from university academics unified around the theme that all is not well in Ireland’s halls of academe.

Read more…