Third-level: exploitation and grade inflation

How do you decide who gets a first class honours degree?, I once asked a uni lecturer at one of our esteemed NUI colleges. Well, she said, one lecturer throws all his exam sheets down the stairs and whichever ones land at the bottom get a first class degree. Quite a fair system, I think. This compares well to a less equitable system at colleges in Dublin as reported recently in the Irish Times.

Students attending Dublin City University (DCU) or University College Cork (UCC) have a much higher chance of graduating with a first class honours degree than other college-goers, new figures show in a fresh indicator of “grade inflation”.

Over the past 10 years, 17.7 per cent of graduates at DCU and UCC each received a 1st, compared to 12.8 per cent at Maynooth University and just 11.9 per cent at University College Dublin (UCD)…

… At Trinity College Dublin, only eight out of 301 students who sat psychology between 2004 and 2013 failed to achieve a 2.1 or a first.

The university said this was due to the fact that it attracted “exceptionally bright cohorts of students”. Many companies, especially in finance and law, demand a first or 2.1 for entry-level jobs or internships.

 – Which doesn’t say much for the medical students,

As for the toughest course in which to get top marks, medicine stands out. Over the last 10 years, just 38 of 1,263 TCD graduates got a first and only 56 out of 1,731 UCD graduates did so. In both cases, this translates as a 3 per cent success rate.

Registrar at the NUI, Dr Patricia Halpin, said “greater transparency” in assessment might be contributing to the higher grades of recent years. Students have more knowledge of how papers are marked, and breaking up the year into more semesters – as is the trend now – reduces the underperformance associated with a single, final exam. So it’s nothing to do with Trinity’s “exceptionally bright cohort of students,” it comes down to exam techniques and having plenty of time off to study – rather than being taught.

The opposite end of the spectrum should be a worry – failure rates. While there is an increase in final year failures, the GMIT at Castlebar (the new FAS?) seems to fail no-one, even people who haven’t seen a classroom for 30 years and can graduate with seeming ease in psychiatric and general nursing. The Irish Times informs us (here),

In 2004 and 2005, for example, UCC recorded failure rates of 0.9 per cent and 1.9 per cent. In 2012 and 2013, these stood at 4.5 per cent and 3.9 per cent respectively.

In a similar pattern, Maynooth University’s failure rate rose from 3.5 per cent in 2004 and 4.2 per cent in 2005 to 5.8 per cent in 2012 and 6.5 per cent in 2013.

The figures were even starker at faculty level, with NUI Galway recording an increase in the failure rate in arts, social sciences and Celtic studies from 4.4 per cent in 2004 and 4.7 per cent in 2005 to 10.9 per cent in 2012 and 9.9 per cent in 2013.

But I’m baffled as to why the failure rate in Arts in Galway aren’t far higher – though with such a short year (ending in April) or even don’t bother to attend – study from bed – there’s so little to be tested on that it’s difficult to fail.

Attending a function at GMIT Castlebar, I asked a lecturer, “So you give a level 7 degree just like Trinity?” “Oh yes,” he adroitly quipped, “Just like Trinity.” “Well,” I replied, “I know whose degree I and most employers would opt for.”

League tables pressure – or incentivise – colleges to inflate grades. And since we are on this subject, let’s see what poor academic has to say in his letter to the Irish Times.

Sir, – Well done to Dr Edward Horgan for his illuminating and insightful letter regarding university league tables (October 7th).

I can easily relate to what he says as I too feel that younger academics are being exploited within the university sector.

This is particularly evident within the field of postgraduate doctoral research. Instead of fostering independent thought, the majority of senior academics advise students to specialise in areas that conveniently overlap with their own research interests.

As a result, many students suffer in silence and are forced to pay lip service to their supervisors so that they can increase their chances of employment and achieve some degree of permanency.

In my opinion, this approach reinforces the powerful position of the university elite and worsens the “employee apartheid” that is becoming increasingly common in third-level institutions.

If there is a willingness to address this problem, then there should be no reason why these seats of learning could not improve their status within the university league tables. – Yours, etc,
Co Cork.

But what is an “exceptionally bright cohort of [a] student”? Get 600 points in your Leaving Cert plus whatever from HPAT, go through Trinity’s (or any other) med school and come out unable to make a decision, think for yourself, collaborate with or relate to work colleagues.

And why bother at all with third-level? After 15,000 hours at school already plus 5,000  hours more doing homework, haven’t our BYTs learnt the right things and if not, why not? And furthermore, as prof Willie Reville once pointed out in his weekly science column in the IT: 70% of Irish go to third-level and only 22% of Germans attend third-level, yet who is bailing out whom?…

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