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Grading up or dumbing down? Why it’s all a matter of degree

A cloud of dust is being raised in the education world south of the border by what they are calling the ‘grade inflation crisis'.

Our Minister of Education, Caitriona Ruane, will not have missed it: she actually lives in the Republic.

If ‘dumbing down' and ‘Mickey Mouse degrees' are substituted for ‘grade inflation' my steer will become clear.

But this is not popular talk. Parents see their young people apparently doing well and dislike those who question it. Their teachers bask in reflected glory.

But I suggest that, even if the minister wins the fight to reform the 11-Plus, it will achieve little if the institutions themselves do not perform.

The facts south of the border broadly reflect those in the UK. The proportion of ‘firsts' awarded by universities in the Republic has doubled since the 1980s. (They have doubled in the UK in the last decade.)

But Ms Ruane's opposite number in Dublin, Batt O'Keefe, has been warned that, in spite of this, a number of big employers now avoid taking graduates from certain institutions because they think their standards are too low.

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Some of these firms are multi-nationals, so they apply an international yardstick. They know what they are doing.

It is to the minister's credit that he has taken the bit between his teeth and is listening to those reformers who stress the urgent need to raise standards, particularly in maths, science and languages.

There is now a Network for Irish Educational Standards, launched in 2006 by a small group of concerned academics; but the colleges are using a variety of devices to thwart them.

I do not have figures for Northern Ireland — and I know why. Allegations of ‘dumbing down' of A-levels and degrees are greatly resented by academics.

The fact is that the prosperity of our universities is now directly linked to their exam results, because their Government income is related to their graduate output; and it is that income which pays staff salaries.

Income is also subtly linked to the prestige generated by university league tables; for a high place in the league attracts able students. So the pressure to inflate results is built into the system.

If inquiries are made, the typical response is that the relentless improvement in exam results is the result of better teaching and brighter students. Very flattering — but improbable.

When school A-Levels started UK-wide in 1965, 8% of candidates' papers were given an ‘A'. The current figure is 25%.

But, simultaneously, the number of Nobel prizes won by UK scholars has been on a sharp and unbroken downward curve — since the 1970s.

There is a strong lobby in favour of a university for Londonderry, the argument of one supporter being that the north-west needs world-class graduates and that means boosting the number of university places. In fact, the opposite may be the case.

As things stand, there is a staggering wastage in the system. Not everyone is right for university.

That is not me talking. It is Jamie Oliver.

“There're not enough jobs for graduates,” says the celebrated television chef, “but the Government has shut down all the places where the kids learned a trade or an apprenticeship. I wouldn't have got within sniffing distance of a university, but that was never where I was going.”

Oliver knew where he was going all right. Perhaps the burden of fees, bound to get even heavier after the General Election, will back up his wisdom where misdirected Government policy has not.

In the UK, between one student in every four or five fails to complete his or her course, thereby wasting many millions in public funding. At some of the former polytechnics, the proportion of drop-outs reaches 40% and more.

Many of these victims of the system are simply unsuited to university study. Of the rest, there were estimated to be some 100,000 of last year's graduates still unemployed at the beginning of the winter in the UK; and almost one third of those who were employed were in non-graduate jobs.

It is not their fault: no way. Blair started it. Now he is gone.

His victims deserved better.