Senior staff at University of Galway are this week presenting the college authorities with detailed statistics on grades awarded to students over the past three years.

The presentations by the heads of the university's main academic departments, known as colleges, to the university’s deputy president and registrar Pól Ó Dochartaigh, are part of an investigation initiated after data published two months ago found significant grade inflation at universities across the country, including at Galway.

The Higher Education Authority data showed a more than 23% rise in recent years in the number of students graduating from Irish third level institutions with first class honours.

In relation to University of Galway, it found that more than 40% of students across all courses were achieving first class honours, compared to just 24% in 2015, and 32% in 2019.

The level of grade inflation exposed in the HEA data caused great concern throughout the sector, with one senior college source telling RTÉ News there was "consternation".

Read more: Record level of graduates achieving First-Class Honours

University of Galway asked all of its colleges and schools to compile detailed statistics and information relating to grades awarded over the past three academic years.

RTÉ News understands that the main focus of the review is on undergraduate awards. The academic and administrative heads of the colleges are due to report their findings to Prof Ó Dochartaigh this week.

As deputy-president and registrar Prof Ó Dochartaigh has overarching responsibility for academic strategy, academic promotions, and academic quality at the university.

The review focuses on the three-year period affected by the pandemic when third level teaching and learning suffered unprecedented upheaval.

This included the replacement of in-person examinations with continuous assessments and "open book" exams, where students were given questions to answer at home within a short and set period of time.

Research shows that students tend to perform more strongly in such environments.

A spokesperson for University of Galway told RTÉ News: "It is best practice in a university to continually review performance and student outcomes."

Responding to the publication of the HEA data in September, the university said that trends and changes in the overall distribution of grades were monitored routinely by its colleges and programme boards, and were annually reviewed at university level.

"Whilst there has been some annual increase in the number of firsts in the late 2010s, there was a more pronounced increase during the years affected by Covid and extended periods of public health restrictions," it said in September.

"Undoubtedly, a number of factors influence that, including increased time for study during lockdown and an increased use of open-book and continuous assessment when in-person exams were not possible. In general, students tend to perform better with continuous assessment, and this is reflected in the grade profiles for 2021."

It said its first class awards at honours degree level, at about 30%, were in line with a national average.

Sources at the university have expressed some concern to RTÉ News that the authorities may overreact.

"Staff are much more concerned at the rate of drop-out and deferrals and failure and the causes of that which we are dealing with everyday," one academic who did not wish to be identified told RTÉ News.

"These are being driven by the accommodation emergency, and the mental health emergency which is beyond belief."

Another expressed a fear that progressive changes introduced during the pandemic, such as open-book exams, may now be reversed and they warned that any such move would not be beneficial for students.

Forum planned to examine grade inflation issues

The body responsible for assuring quality and standards across further and higher education, Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) said it intends bring together higher education institutions to examine the issue of grade inflation.

The move follows the publication of data two months ago which showed that last year, almost a quarter of students (23.5%) graduating achieved First-Class Honours. That compares to 16% just two years earlier in 2019 - an almost 50% increase.

QQI said it will hold a forum in order to "better understand the trends, consider the causes and effects of grade allocation and distribution, and address any emerging issues".

QQI said it is also considering current approaches to assessment, their impacts on teaching, learning and the quality of the learning experience, and how these can be re-imagined.

It will hold a conference in the new year involving higher education institutions to discuss a range of themes around assessment.

Commenting on the issue of grade inflation the body said: "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.

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

"Potential influencing factors include everything from the academic discipline in question, changes in assessment practices during the Covid pandemic, 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, the requirements of professional and regulatory bodies and the expectations of students and parents may play a role too.

"It is difficult to comment on the recent figures without further study of the existing quantitative and other qualitative data. For this reason, QQI will be establishing a forum to bring together higher education institutions to better understand the trends, consider the causes and effects of grade inflation, and address any emerging issues."