Artificial intelligence could pose ‘major threat’ to college qualifications

University of Galway deputy president says high student-staff ratios in Irish higher education pose challenge in upskilling academics

The cheating threat posed by new artificial intelligence (AI) tools in higher education assignments requires urgent training for college staff in order to protect the integrity of university assessments and qualifications, senior staff have warned.

Prof Pól Ó Dochartaigh, University of Galway’s deputy president and registrar, said the university is examining changes in assessment to help counter these threats.

They include incorporating more oral presentations, setting more detailed and nuanced questions in assignments, as well as requiring evidence of draft work from students for assignments.

However, he said high student-staff ratios in Irish universities posed a significant challenge in increasing skills in the absence of additional Government investment.


The warning comes as University of Galway hosts a major international conference on academic and research integrity this week, in partnership with the National Academic Integrity Network.

The emergence of ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence language model, sparked alarm on college campuses last year over its ability to generate nuanced essays and assessment work within seconds. It has since been updated with the capacity to solve complex maths problems and generate computer code, among other functions, while tech giants such as Google have been pouring billions into rival tools available online.

“Academics need to engage with learning about how to use these tools appropriately and how to mitigate against their inappropriate use by students. That heightens the need for staff development, training and upskilling,” Prof Ó Dochartaigh said.

“We’re on a learning curve. We don’t have all the answers, which is why we have experts from all over the world this week. We’re going to draw on that and try to incorporate this learning into staff development.

“However, our high student-staff ratios, which already mean a higher workload compared to OECD countries, makes it an even greater challenge for staff to create time to engage with the radical changes associated with artificial intelligence,” he said.

This week’s conference will highlight some of the practical steps needed to “sustain the value of integrity at the heart of higher education”.

The conference, which takes place at the Galmont Hotel in Galway, will address themes such as identifying technology-related challenges and opportunities for supporting academic and research integrity such as using tools like ChatGPT, Google Translate and Dall-E. It will also review approaches to academic and research misconduct, and examine the potential to create student partnerships to enhance a “culture of student-led academic integrity”.

The contributors at this week’s event include senior academics and experts from the US, Canada, Australia, Denmark and the UK.

Dr Billy Kelly, chair of the National Academic Integrity Network, said advancements in technology are challenging current teaching, learning and assessment practices.

“These challenges have significant actual and potential consequences for both academic and research integrity,” he said.

“The conference will be an opportunity to learn from international and national leaders in this space, with all participants taking away tangible and actionable insights to discuss within their own organisations and communities of practice,” he said.

Prof Ó Dochartaigh said integrity, in all its forms, must be a leading value for universities.

“Together, we face the task of coming to grips with the challenges to research, teaching, and learning posed by generative artificial intelligence, and this conference provides a perfect venue for members of the university community to gather and to consider what we can do to maintain the highest standards of integrity in our education and qualifications,” he said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent