The only way is up – one in four graduates earn a “first” due to grade inflation as the pandemic continues to make its mark

About one in four graduates (24 percent) received a first-class degree with honors in 2021 as Covid-era grade inflation continued to make its mark.

The number is even higher among students who have earned honors degrees, where the proportion of those who have earned first degrees has risen to 28 percent in the last year.

Since 2014, there has been a subtle increase in the proportion of students achieving a “first grade,” but the pace accelerated after the pandemic began.

While there may be a number of reasons for the rise, the accelerated inflation is being attributed to a shift in in-person exams forced by Covid-related public health measures.

Graduates will be happy to be recognized as first, but if the increase in performance is not well justified, it will raise questions about standards.

In 2019, 16 percent of all graduates – undergraduate and postgraduate – achieved a first, rising steeply to 21 percent in 2020 – when colleges suddenly closed and assessment went online. In 2021, it rose further to 24 percent.

Grade inflation has been even steeper for undergraduates, with 18 percent of those in honors degrees achieving a “first” result in 2019, climbing to 24 percent in 2020 and 28 percent in 2021

Face-to-face exams were canceled in 2020 and with colleges closed for 2020/21, online exams and assessment by assignment continued to be widely used.

Ireland is not the only country to record both second and third level class inflation since Covid and although details may vary, it is an international phenomenon.

Universities and other higher education providers in the UK have recently stated that by next year their members will reduce the proportion of first and 2:1 grades given to students to 2019 levels.

The latest snapshot of what is happening in tertiary education has emerged in the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Facts and Figures 2021/22.

The data show that the gender gap continues to widen. More than half – 55 per cent – of students in 2021/22 were women, up from 54 per cent the previous year and 51 per cent in 2015/16.

The economic recovery since 2015 – following the banking crisis that began in 2008 – is likely a major factor in the widening gap, with boys more likely than girls to go straight into the workforce after school when there is an opportunity.

The construction industry is one of the sectors that has seen a resurgence since the recession a decade ago, while there are growing opportunities for apprenticeships in both traditional jobs and other sectors that tend to be more male-dominated.

The HEA figures confirm an ongoing shift in undergraduate student aspirations with an increase in admissions to honors degree programs (Level 8). Only 7 percent of students completed a regular degree (Level 7) in 2021/22, compared to 11 percent in 2015/16.

Mature students accounted for less than 7 per cent of new entrants last year, compared with 11 per cent in 2015/16, with greater job availability believed to be the reason for the decline.

In 2021/22, the number of university students rose slightly to 246,299. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) completed a bachelor’s degree with honors, and 11 percent were pursuing a taught master’s degree. The most popular subject group in 2021/2022 was business/administration and law (21 items), followed by health and social affairs (18 items).

The figures show an increase in international students to 12 percent of the student population, up from 10 percent in 2020/21. The US was the most common country of origin, followed by India and China. Regarding the 12 percent figure for international students, HEA CEO Dr. Alan Wall said it was “positive to see that this has returned to pre-pandemic levels”. The only way is up – one in four graduates earn a “first” due to grade inflation as the pandemic continues to make its mark

Fry Electronics Team

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