NUIM, grade inflation and denominated entry

In the last post I mentioned how NUIM is something of an outlier if one wants to interpret the increase in H1 grades as evidence for grade inflation. In 1994, only 1.5% of NUIM students received a H1 grade while in 2008, 13.3% of students did. This increase is very much out of kilter with the other universities.

But NUIM is unique in one respect (at least). In 1998 (the earliest year for which I could get figures), NUIM offered a mere 5 degree programmes on the CAO system. By 2008, this had risen to 34 (see the figure below for the overall trend in H1 grades and denominated programmes.) Thus, they have grown their programmes by a factor of around 7. In contrast, DCU, has grown its programmes by about 50% in the same time period.


One of the benefits of having denominated entry is that denominated programmes, with their small class sizes, often attract very high calibre students and the demand pushes up the entry points. Indeed, the CAO figures for the 1998-2008 period show that not only did the average CAO points score for NUIM courses increase by about 30 points, but NUIM now has quite a few programmes with points requirements in the high 400s and even the 500s. This was not the case back in the mid-1990s. Furthermore, and contrary to what is usually claimed, school leavers often have a very good idea as to what they want to study at third level and those entering denominated programmes tend to be highly motivated in a way that many who enter via common entry are not. That’s my experience at least.

Thus there is good reason to believe that the increase in H1 grades in Maynooth is partly due to changes in the student population.

What all of this shows me is that it is very easy to jump to conclusions about grade inflation by just looking at exam statistics. Statistics are only significant if one can control for the changing nature of third level itself and, crucially, for the calibre of the students.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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6 Responses to NUIM, grade inflation and denominated entry

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » NUIM, grade inflation and denominated entry

  2. Martin O'Grady says:

    It is undoubtedly the case that assumptions about grade inflation cannot be made on the basis alone that the rates of firsts and upper seconds have increased. Changes in the student body do need to be taken into account. But, do the introduction of a variety of higher points courses at Maynooth explain the increase in firsts and upper seconds?

    A look at the 2002 points requirements on the CAO website proves instructive. For that year for some reason the CAO, not only published the minimum and median points for each course, but also the number of places on each course. A quick tot of the figures for Maynooth yields up the interesting nugget of information that the five courses extant in 1998 together accounted for 1043 of the 1226 places available across all 19 courses listed in 2002. One course alone – Arts – had 767 places. Thus, the additional 14 courses, most of them with relatively high points, accounted for only 15% of the students admitted in 2002. It is important to note also that even those courses did not attract many students of an exceptional caliber. Only 25 places were on courses where the median points were at 500 or above and an additional 119 places were on courses where the median points lay between 400 and 499. That amounts to only 11.7% of the intake of students entering on courses where the median points exceeded 400. The student body at Maynooth hadn’t been changing remotely as much as might be supposed from looking at just the list of course points’ requirements.

    It seems hardly credible that a selection of new courses accounting for only 15% of the student body could have such a dramatic impact on rates of firsts and upper seconds. And, the increase in the higher grades was dramatic. In 2005, the rate of first class honours at Maynooth was 20%, up from 1.5% in 1994. The rate of 2.1 awards was 35.5%, up from 9.4% in 1994. A high proportion of the students admitted in 2002 would have graduated in 2005, including those of the large Arts group who made it to the end. Better students do not seem to be an answer to why grades went up and up at Maynooth. Just like everywhere else, Grade Inflation (lower standards) offers a far more likely explanation.

    • Greg Foley says:

      Nice analysis! Although I take your point which is well made, it seems unlikely to me that NUIM would so blatantly drop standards to extent that might seem apparent from the bare figures. (Or would it?) I would have though that NUIM, more than any university, has undergone a great deal of real change. When I was at school, the idea of going to Maynooth would have been bizarre especially if you lived in South Dublin. But with the expansion of the commmuter belt, one would imagine that many of NUIM’s current crop of students might actually want to be there (and more motivated) – it might be interesting to see what their first preference numbers are like.
      Regardless of the specifics of the NUIM case, I think the idea of grade inflation being a simple marker of a decline in standards is actually not that simple. You perhaps have done the analysis but what, for example, has been the effect of modularisaton and semesterisation – the latter has substantially changed the very essence of third level in my view. What has been the effect of the whole ‘teaching and learning’ culture – spoon-feeding in many cases? Is there a greater willingness in certain disciplines to mark out of 100 rather than 70? What has been the efffect of increased use of CA? And maybe some subjects have actually become easier. I certainly think that the availability of computational tools has made a lot of chemical engineering (my discipline) easier.
      I have absolutely no doubt that we have all dropped our standards to accommodate the massification of third level education. My real question is to what extent modern third level is ‘easier’ as opposed to different than it was back in, say, the 1980s.

  3. Martin O'Grady says:

    Grade inflation simply implies a temporal trend whereby better grades are obtained without an equivalent improvement in the learning achieved by students when compared with their predecessors. The causes of this trend are many, some deliberate and conscious at the level of educational institutions, some gradual and subtle, best understood at the level of the dynamics of collective behaviour. I think that semesterisation and modularisation have contributed somewhat. Learning is dealt with in smaller chunks and over shorter periods. This does facilitate predictability in examination papers and reliance on rote learning which can create the appearance on paper of academic achievement without the cognitive substance. The increased use of CA probably also contributes for similar reasons.

    As for whether a university such as NUIM would blatantly drop standards,the university presidents have admitted publicly that grading in Ireland has been revised to follow international trends (specifically the UK). That means that there was a deliberate policy – how this worked I’m not at all sure – to give out more firsts and upper seconds to match the UK figures. The UK has for a long time and at all levels of education showed all the classic signs of extreme grade inflation.

    The key dynamic, however, in the grade inflation process follows from whether individual examiners perceive the reinforcement schedules that prevail at all levels within the reality in which they operate as rewarding leniency in grading or rewarding vigilance and the maintenance of standards. Reinforcement comes in many forms and from many sources – institutional priorities, managerial feedback, student communication and behaviour, workload, perceived norms, colleague support and approbation etc.

    My personal experience – albeit in the IOT not the university sector – has always been that standards’ maintenance is universally punished while leniency is universally rewarded. Some – a very few – resist that reinforcement schedule; most do as humans always do, whatever avoids pain, controversy, inconvenience or criticism. Think of all those in the banks, the political system, the regulatory bodies, the civil service, the media, the academic commentariat, the real estate agents and, of course, the property developers, who collectively fueled the insane property bubble which bankrupted the nation. Think of how few like Morgan Kelly there were. Virtually everyone went with the flow

    The flow in education is, like the property market, all about growth. More school leavers getting more degrees. That academic ability is limited is not to be spoken of. Anyone who suggests that the number of degrees cannot grow and grow forever is branded an elitist. Show me the academic who wants to be branded an elitist. The price of course is endlessly diminishing standards cloaked in every kind of guise that can be invented. The parallels with the property bubble are disturbing. What we don’t know is whether the inexorable dynamic can be halted and if it can’t what is the bursting of an education bubble like.

    • Greg Foley says:

      I agree with a lot of what you’re saying but I would perhaps see things as being less ‘sinister’ than you might perceive them. I know that without doubt I have adapted what I teach, and the way I teach it (not quite the same as dumbing down I believe), to deal with the much wider range of student abilities with which I’m faced. (There are still lots of excellent students who would be excellent in any era but there are many who shouldn’t be at third level at all.) I suppose I have taken the view that if I don’t adapt the way I do things, many in the current generation of students will learn virtually nothing – so it is better for them to learn in a slightly more ‘spoon-fed’ way that not learn at all. I’m also being selfish here in that it is soul-destroying to teach classes where the majority are failing. (I also have to say that I’ve never had any pressure applied to me to inflate grades in any way – some of my results this year were appalling!)

      The grade inflation thing is not the big problem in my view because as long as we are all aware of what a particular grade ‘means’ at any given time, given the existing educational climate, then we can make a judgment about the calibre of a given graduate – a grade is an artificial thing after all. For example, if someone has a 2.2 nowadays, you probably need to worry about the academic ability of that student because the way the system has evolved means that anyone with a bit of canniness should be able to get a 2.1. Whether a 2.2 meant more in the ‘old days’ is not really important.

      For me, the problems with education are (i) far too many students are going to third level who don’t really want to be there (if you strip these people out, there remains a core of good students), (ii) students simply do not study hard enough and have expectations of themselves that are far too low, (iii) students do not seem to be able to study effectively in the modern highly-distracting environment, (iv) we have perpetuated a culture of pandering that is driven by academics themselves, especially T&L ‘experts’. The result of this is that we have many students who can get through the system but cannot string a sentence together or draw a graph. I agree that we should not be letting this happen and should be far more ‘ruthless’ about basics skills.

      To stay sane, I like to think in percentiles and remind myself that every year I will have a certain percentage of students who are worthy of their grade and then there is a large bunch who have learned little and who will go on to work in jobs that don’t really require third level education at all. I agree though that there is a large element of self-delusion about what politicians and policy-makers say about our third level participation rates.

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