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The QQI View - Do We Need to Talk About Grade Inflation?

In the years since the term was first coined, ‘grade inflation’ has morphed from being an object of academic inquiry to the subject of widespread, and often heated, political and media debate.  

This is understandable. An appreciation for education’s intrinsic worth has always been complemented by an awareness of its practical value as a tool for social and professional advancement. Considered in this light, anything that undermines the first might place the second at risk. But do terms like ‘grade inflation’ help or hinder our understanding of the changes taking place in the fields of education and learning today? 

As the state agency responsible for promoting quality and accountability in education and training in Ireland, QQI maintains significant interaction with both public and private providers of higher education programmes. We are also responsible for the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), which sets broad expectations for each level of degree and which all higher education institutions here follow. 

Our experience in this area has indicated a variety of environmental and other factors that can and do influence both the classification (or ‘grade’) of higher education qualifications and how these classifications are used. 

Degree classification rate profiles certainly change over time. The difficulty lies in determining how this change relates to differences in graduate knowledge, skill or competence, as opposed to changes in expectations, or to approaches in the assessment of learning and algorithms for the classification of degrees.  

Potential influencing factors include everything from the National Framework of Qualifications, the academic discipline in question, and the policies of the awarding higher education institution, right through to the influence of peer institutions (including those abroad especially in the UK), and approaches to teaching, learning and assessment. Recruitment processes, funding models, league tables and the expectations of students and parents all play an important role too. 

For higher education institutions (HEIs), the need for public transparency around degree classification profiles (through the use of degree classification rates to compare institutions as prevalent in the UK, for instance), places pressure on them not to undermine their marketing or reputational position by being out of step with their peers e.g. by awarding too many or too few firsts'. Ironically, this can also make it difficult for an institution to combat ‘grade inflation’ by itself.  

What constitutes a good degree can also depend, at least in part, on the discipline and the institution awarding the degree. These change over time within the community of practice, particularly through the work of external examiners. Irish HEIs often draw their external examiners from the UK and so we may well be importing some of our inflation from the league table pressures there. Interestingly, in disciplines like teaching and medicine where passing is the key to professional registration and hence career progression, the number of firsts tends to be relatively lower. 

In the case of graduates, the classification of their award is often more important than it once was. As degrees become more commonplace, classifications are increasingly being used to shortlist candidates for employment or access to advanced studies. 

In response, students have demanded that higher education institutions make clear what is expected of them in order to obtain a specific qualification with a specific classification. The institutions have obliged; these days, most provide far clearer statements of expected learning outcomes, far greater detail on how these are assessed, and far more feedback on how students can improve their performance in assessments. 

In addition, rather than relying solely on a series of end-of-course “finals”, course assessments are increasingly spread across a wider range of assignments throughout the academic year. All these features can, broadly speaking, be seen as improvements to higher education practice, even when offset by other factors like declining resources per student. 

What does this mean for those who use degree classification as a tool for ranking or shortlisting applicants, for everything from graduate programmes to employment opportunities 

Because all Irish degrees are widely recognised at home and abroad, other factors (e.g. projects, placement reports, essays) will have to be considered if they are to fairly discriminate between candidates. This already happens – for instance, when considering newly graduated candidates for a position, employers will seek references directly from academic supervisors to understand how they performed in comparison to their class or learning cohort, rather than focussing narrowly on the subject grades achieved or the overall classification. 

From QQI’s perspective, a growing focus on transparency and quality assurance, both internal and external, across the tertiary education system has resulted in improvements in teaching models and enabled students to perform better. Alongside this, QQI’s ongoing dialogues and regular monitoring and review processes have resulted in the publication of data and discussion documents which further promote the transparency and credibility of qualifications and awards – our recent Green Paper on Assessment of Learners and Learning and QQI Insights on Grade Classifications are two examples. 

These and other activities and discussions across the sector are all contributing to the growth of a system of checks and balances which moves institutions towards greater self-regulation. It is possible to view changes to the classification profiles of qualifications as part of the outworking of a system in transition, a symptom of its moving to a new equilibrium. 

Regardless, as Ireland’s quality assurance and qualifications infrastructure continues to develop, QQI is committed to ensuring that the credibility of Irish qualifications and awards continue to be underpinned by the highest standards of transparency and quality assurance.