The Grade Inflation Whirlwind

Update: Gerard Cunningham says it better. As usual. Also, excellent comment from Aoife Citizen below. In yesterday’s paper Sean Flynn placed a date on the meeting.

Over the last few days I’ve only had one eye on the news, but what I’ve seen and heard about the grade inflation story has been awful confusing, altogether.

On Monday it was reported that the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe had launched two “major inquiries” into the “dumbing down” of the Irish education system. The inquiries, according to Séan Flynn of The Irish Times, came following concerns being raised by “leading industrialists” at a “recent“, “no holds barred“, meeting with the minister.

“Recent”, I’d need not tell most readers of this blog, is vague word. Furthermore, saying “Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe has launched…” provides little certainty as to the date on which whatever was launched, was launched. From reading media reports (subsequent to Mondays’, and not alone the Times’), I’ve little idea of when the meeting between multi-nationals and the department of education took place. Nor am I positive of a date on which the grade inflation inquiries began.

However, considering that Craig Barrett was in Dublin on February 9, and the aforementioned use of “recent”, I think it’s fair to assume the meeting took place some time around then. It’s not as easy to make a guess a date on which the inquiries began. Thus, another assumption; within a week of the meeting.

On Tuesday Batt O’Keeffe said the “preliminary results [of the inquiries]… would be available within the week”. Why he didn’t say that 24 hours beforehand is unclear. Perhaps he didn’t know it when the news emerged (from him?) the day prior. Google et al welcomed his actions.

Also Tuesday came news that a separate study on grade inflation had been done by Trinity College academic staff for the TCD University Council. This (as now unpublished) study builds upon another one by the National Irish Educational Standards. It covers only the Irish universities and focuses on the period between 2005 and 2008, unlike the “major inquiries” which Minister O’Keeffe had ordered. The dept of education inquiries were set to look at the whole third level sector as well as the Leaving Cert program, both for the period of 1991 to date – a much, much larger study.

Despite having a far smaller number of institutes and far shorter time period to cover, according to minutes of the University Council meetings, it was two months before preliminary findings could be presented. At the September 30 meeting [PDF link] the Council directed the study to be undertaken, it was 25 November [also PDF] before any findings were offered. It’s also worth noting the findings which were offered were fairly basic, detailing the results of prior reports on the topic, in the main.

While the findings of the TCD group were supplied to the department for use in compiling their report, they remain unpublished (presumably they’re still being reviewed) five months on.

Nothing much relevant, really, on Wednesday.

The following day the department published the details of their inquiries. ‘Significant inflation’ was discovered, unsurprisingly. In the third level sector grade inflation was particularly evident before the establishment of the State Examination Committee in 2003, the department said. That is – apparently, from reading the University Council minutes – exactly as the TCD group had noted in their November ’09 statement. It would make you wonder if the department bothered to look at the non-Uni area of the third level sector at all. Actually, a number of the TCD group’s details noted in the Council minutes seem to have been ‘adopted’.

Regards second level, the department said the kids are okay, nothing to see here, grand.

Whatever about findings being adopted, the claim that two “major inquiries” could be undertaken within (seemingly, a maximum of…) four weeks, perhaps even less, is a hard to believe. Especially when you consider a far smaller study, covering a far shorter period, looking at just one sector, took twice as long to present preliminary findings.

Maybe I’ve missed something (hit me with a comment) but it all seems to have happened a little too quickly.

Grade inflation is a worth examining, I’m sure. But if you’re going to start an new quango, and base policy on a report, you best be sure the report is rock solid. Given how quickly it appears these were compiled, I have my doubts.

7 thoughts on “The Grade Inflation Whirlwind”

  1. I did some googling on this topic this evening, looking for the report (or is it reports by now?) published by Battt O’Keeffe this week. no sign of the reports themselves, but I did come across several other papers on the same topic. There’s even a website: There are papers there going back five years.

    I’ve still to put my thoughts together in an article, but I suspect there’s quite an amount of work done on this topic, and not all of it that recent. I suppose it’s possible a quick meta-survey of the research to date was completed using data already collected.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Look forward to your thoughts.

      I’m sure it is possible to put together a meta-survey of some sorts but that wouldn’t constitute a pair of major inquiries. Nor, as far as I know, has there been a report done on this subject at leaving cert level. My understanding was the LC was based on a correction curve, meaning every year X% got A1 X% got B2 and so on. And that the exam papers were tested and correction booklets designed to continue that process over years…

      I may, of course, be incorrect.


    It was in Barrow Street last December that the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, was alerted to the full extent of the grade inflation crisis. The meeting was convened by Google vice-president John Herlihy and others present included Jim O’Hara of Intel and Martin Murphy of Hewlett Packard.

    although its seems the minister is doing what he’s been told rather the being at the forefront

  3. What is irritating about this fandango is the underlying idea that the problems with Irish education can be solved with some simple new measure, a measure which the sector itself has been too foolish to adopt. There is no such simple answer: the problem, in so far as there is one, is with the quality of students and with their education, grade inflation has little to do with that. However, improving education is a long and complex process involving, for third level, better resources and more independence to institutions and for secondary and primary schools, measures that would be opposed by teaching unions.

    How much simpler to whip up a crisis and solve it all in four weeks and solve it in a way that further confuses and undermines the meaning of the Universities Act, the real target of the ministers abrupt and confusing actions.

  4. Much of the talk has been about second level and primary degrees but I’ve seen little mention of the post graduate area. I taught for a few years at post graduate level in the Arts/Humanities and the standard of MA candidates was incredibly poor, despite most of them having achieved 2.2 or better in their primary degree. The writing/composition ability of 75% of the students wouldn’t have earned them honours in English in the Leaving Cert. pre 1980.
    The attitude of the university seemed to be ‘they’ve paid their fees so they’re getting their MA.’ As a result the good students were getting a debased qualification.

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