University Heads Defend Quality of Graduates – IUA Statement

The Irish Universities Association expresses its concern at recent statements calling into question the quality of Irish university graduates. The general implication of these statements that the grades awarded to students are unmerited is largely based on the fact that the proportion of students achieving higher grades has increased over time. This detracts from the hard won achievements of students and distracts from the real issues facing higher education institutions as they struggle to maintain the student experience against a backdrop of falling investment.

We do not dispute that there has been an increase in higher awards over time – albeit that some of the data reported in the press exaggerates the level of increase which has taken place. However, there are multiple factors which influence this which we now summarise:

  • Greater clarity in relation to course requirements through the use of learning outcomes and the development of assessment strategies consistent with learning outcomes;
  • More transparent assessment strategies and instruments, more feedback on student performance and, in general, better information for students;
  • Greater ease of access to learning materials, though communications technology, availability of e-learning resources, podcasting and on-line material;
  • The spreading of the assessment load through semesterisation with a stronger link between the learning undertaken and its assessment;
  • A revised approach to marking within the NUI Universities to bring their marking schemes into line with international practice. Most notable in this change was to mark across a full one hundred point scale, as opposed to a scale that in some instances was capped at seventy percent. In a globalised world, it is important that approaches to grading in Ireland do not place Irish graduates at a competitive disadvantage in the labour market, either domestically or internationally;
  • An increasing number of honours degree programmes available to students;
  • A growing cohort of mature students strongly motivated and focused on high achievement;
  • A significantly increased emphasis on graduate education which creates demands for higher achievement at undergraduate level in order to secure entry to Masters and PhD programmes, and a research system founded on global competitive peer review;
  • The increased focus on enhancing teaching performance across the universities and the professional development of staff.

As regards standards overall, it is notable that the World Competitiveness Yearbook ranks Ireland as a leader in the flexibility and adaptability of its workforce and in the capacity of the educational system to meet the needs of a competitive economy. These rankings reflect positively on our system and on the quality assurance mechanisms which are in place. In the context of the universities, these include an external examiner system which has a significant proportion of International examiners and a quality assurance system which is also based on external review with an international component. The procedures for quality assurance and enhancement in all our universities are widely regarded as best practice in Europe. Furthermore, each university is subject to regular in-depth reviews of its quality procedures by teams of international experts. The reports of these reviews are published and submitted to the Minister for Education and Science.

However, the IUA is extremely concerned that the current process of disinvesting in education will significantly impact on the quality of the student experience, and attainment levels over time. Specific issues which should be highlighted are: growing class sizes, the threat to small group teaching and problem based learning, and the under-resourcing of pastoral care and access programmes which are vital to student attainment and overall wellbeing.

We ask the Minister to be cognisant of calls from external commentators, including industry, to continually improve standards and quality. The universities believe this is essential: growing the skills and competencies of our people is something to be valued, and continuous improvement is as important to education as it is to industry. We therefore call on the Minister to focus his attentions on the core issue of the need for investment to underpin that improvement, and to bring forward proposals to ensure that higher education can continue to support employment, competitiveness and social progress.

Ends

For further information contact: Lia O’Sullivan, Communications Manager, Irish Universities Association. Telephone: 01 6764948, 085 7141414. Email: lia.osullivan@iua.ie