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.