We must be sure students really make the grade
I do not wish to sound either old or clever, although there is no doubt that I qualify on at least one count. But the fact is that when I attended Queen's University, Belfast, it had 5,000 students, and today it has more than 25,000.
These raw numbers might suggest that I would be among the cleverest 20% of today's student population. I very much doubt it. My recollection is that it was relatively easy to get into college back then. I even qualified for medical school, before common sense prevailed on both sides. I do not believe I could get the necessary points now — not even if I were 18 again.
Not as many people tried to go to college then. As former British Labour leader Neil Kinnock famously said, his (and my) generation was the first where ordinary kids could afford to go to university.
Nevertheless, even with all those caveats, one cannot increase the size of the undergraduate population five-fold without some effect on the nature of the qualifications they receive. So we have to be careful when we start talking about ‘grade inflation’.
This simple but complex truth has hardly ever been mentioned in the Republic. But it has emerged in the fuss over the claim by some US companies that Irish graduates are not quite fit for purpose.
Last week, Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe produced data suggesting there had indeed been a problem, at least in the Eighties.
He is right to be concerned. Economic studies always point to significant financial returns to education. This may make educationalists fret. I accept that education is about more than getting as far up the financial ladder of life as possible. But not much more nowadays.
The main effect of that big increase in third-level participation is not grade inflation, but the inevitable transformation of such education into primarily a tool of economic policy and individual advancement.
We are turning students out, if perhaps not in the desired proportions, but it is much harder to tell if they are the right stuff.
The university presidents claimed that it is just a case of that harmless grade inflation which must come with higher numbers entering college.
Still, why should the proportion getting top grades increase? As more students join the college system, arguably the proportion should fall — on the very reasonable assumption that they are not actually smarter than my generation. I am not sure that the managers of US companies would notice numerical grade inflation. But they would notice if employees did not seem to know as much as their qualifications indicated.
I can think of some reasons for thinking they might be right. One is ‘college inflation’, with more institutions moving up the education ladder and seven, soon to be entirely separate, universities and competing in the exam league tables. Is it just inertia or snobbery that makes Google hire principally from Trinity, UCC and UCD?
A related theory is based on the fact that the Irish college system looks suspiciously efficient, turning out graduates at a remarkably low cost per student. Professors complain about lack of resources. Understandably, few have said the cheap graduates might be cheap quality as well.
It could also be that the education system has not kept up with the speed of change in business and industry.
Mr O’Keeffe says questions about the quality of graduates, the quality of teaching, resources and responding to the needs of enterprise will “be at the heart” of his new strategy, to be published soon.
One could be cynical, but last week's pensions strategy shows that this Government can sometimes talk sense after all. Perhaps it will manage it again.