As a graduate student in UCD in the mid-1990s, part of the post-medieval patronage system that persisted was to correct summer undergraduate examination papers. This was a nice little earner leading into a time when regular teaching was unavailable to those of us not on any form of contract or tenure. As grad students we were hired hands in a system straining under increased numbers and we knew it. It was generally three weeks of intense, mind-numbingly boring and exploitative work but we knew it would end and there was a sense of camaraderie that is rare in such an individualising vocation. It also helped that it mattered very much to those whose papers we corrected: it was a cause bigger than many of the other mundane parts of our job.
Once the exam papers had been corrected, tabulated and checked, the grad students and staff sat around a table and examined the range of marks awarded across the entire student body. As the technology became more accessible this was facilitated by spreadsheets and databases and so this particular part of the work became easier. This review process was known at the time as an internal examinations board. (An external board consisting of an external examiner and other faculty staff, a process at which our attendance was not expected.) One particular internal board meeting sticks in my mind: as correctors, we noted that about 30% of the first year class had failed outright, because the addition of their 10 individual question’s marks did not reach the required 400 out of 1000. This was not social closure but about 6 of us had independently marked 30% of the first years below 40%. We brought this data to the internal board but there was a problem.
30% of the first year class could not fail. The failure rate was “too high”. We were told that the average failure rate for first year was about half of this percentage – 12 to 15%. If I recall, an adjustment was to be made to those students’ marks ranging from 370 to 430 so that the ‘average annual failure rate’ for first year would remain consistent with previous rates. Apart from the fact that we had been trusted enough to correct these papers but not enough to bring about the skewing of an ‘average’, this seemed illogical. Any process like this meant that those who made it to second year under this adjustment would be educated to a different standard to those who had just recently completed their degree, including us. With not a little naivete, some of us kicked up a fuss but this was a discussion involving a distinct power gradient – temporary versus tenured. In the bigger scheme of things, it was about the maintenance of a system that worked for those with some power to wield.
If reports are to be believed and the editor of the Irish Times can wake up from her shouty nightmare, grade inflation (now an accepted term after two days of public discourse) is going to be analysed by the Department of Education before the end of this very week. In a bigger context, there’s a public worker go-slow, a cash-starved but press release-laden primary school system, an education authority that has neglected its primary role since 2004 and a chronic problem of access for pupils from working class areas but let’s put all this to one side for a moment. Never mind that science is not art is not geography is not accountancy. Never mind even that Trinity serves a very different role in the system to DCU or NUIG. Batt O’Keeffe has been embarrassed into a corner by Craig Barrett of Intel and others so he has to shine a maths-n-science light in places that his department should have been illuminating for years. It is clear that the blunt imperatives of Google, Intel et al. supersede those of the people of Ireland. The Minister’s colleague Dick Roche was once anonymously dubbed a developer’s bitch. Is Batt going to be Craig’s?