Are university grades being inflated to suit jobs market?

Employers are increasingly using a 2.1 as a minimum grade for graduate internships

Education may be priceless, but increasingly the marketplace is putting a monetary value on a 2.1. For a long time, people wishing to do postgraduate studies had to obtain this grade, or higher (a “first”), in what was meant to be a marker of academic aptitude.

Now, they are faced with a similar barrier in the jobs market.

Employers wading through a mountain of CVs are weeding out anything below a 2.1. By falling short a few marks, graduates are effectively barred from internship programmes, or entry-level posts.

In the UK, recent studies show that up to three-quarters of graduate recruiters demand at least a 2.1, a pattern recruiters say is mirrored here. The loss of opportunity is reflected in a UK department of business report, which estimated that graduates with a 2.2 grade earned £85,000 (€108,000) less than higher-graded graduates over the course of their working life.


The impact has been felt on university campuses, with some worrying and farcical results. In some courses, getting a first or a 2.1 has become almost inevitable. More than 90 per cent of law graduates in both UCD and TCD, for example, achieve this feat.

While logic would dictate a marking scheme that produced greater differentiation, universities are well aware that giving out fewer 2.1s would result in fewer of their graduates getting coveted internship posts in law firms.

Grade inflation

Figures obtained by The Irish Times from the State's seven universities under the Freedom of Information Act show evidence of grade inflation in particular institutions between 2004 and 2013. However, the picture is complicated by different reporting mechanisms and changes in the grading structure over that decade.

At UCD, for example, the percentage of students receiving a first or a 2.1 rose from 46 per cent in 2004 to 64 per cent in 2013, but the growth wasn’t in a straight line.

The worst year in terms of results (when 42 per cent received a 2.1 or first) was 2007 and the best year (65 per cent) was 2010. According to the university, the main reason for the shift was a reduction in 2008 in the number of alternative grades awarded by faculties.

Under the grading scale for higher education, a first is awarded for marks above 70 per cent, a 2.1 for 60-69 per cent and a 2.2 for50-59 per cent.

Martin O'Grady, a lecturer at IT Tralee who started a "Stop Grade Inflation" campaign a decade ago, said the high rate of firsts and 2.1s at Trinity College Dublin was understandable as "they show all the signs of getting a premium student" through the CAO.

However, he noted that though DCU and UL had "fairly identical profiles", DCU was much more likely to awards firsts than its Limerick counterpart, which was a "clear indicator" of easier marking.

In addition, he said, there was “much more homogeneity than you’d expect. It’s like they are benchmarking against each other”.


UCC showed the lowest level of variation in its results. In eight of the 10 years, the proportion of firsts awarded was between 17 and 18 per cent. In a statement, however, the university stressed “there are no guidelines issued on the maximum number of grades or the composition of grades across a cohort of students”.

It said: “While UCC recruits excellent students, we would not expect the average academic ability of an overall population of students to vary significantly from year to year but instead see a stable distribution.”

Explaining its high allocation of firsts and 2.1s, DCU said “disciplinary mix” was a key factor. “Graduates from science or technology-based subjects tend to attract a higher proportion of first-class honours degrees, and DCU had a larger overall share of graduates within these disciplines.”

Dr Attracta Halpin, registrar of the National University of Ireland (NUI), confirmed, however, that institutions do monitor what their competitors are doing. It carried out a number of studies in the late 1990s and "the feeling at the time was that NUI was too hard on their students compared to universities in the UK. There was inconsistency and the feeling was that graduates were poorly served".

She said “greater transparency” in assessment might be contributing to the higher grades of recent years. Students have more knowledge of how papers are marked, and breaking up the year into more semesters – as is the trend now – reduces the underperformance associated with a single, final exam.

Universities are also being incentivised by annual league tables to record higher grades. The recent Sunday Times rankings, for example, cited an improvement in the rate of students achieving a first or 2.1 as one of the factors it used in its calculations.

However, not all students are finding the going easier, with a number of colleges recording increased failure rates in final examinations across the 10-year period. In 2004 and 2005, for example, UCC recorded failure rates of 0.9 per cent and 1.9 per cent. In 2012 and 2013, these stood at 4.5 per cent and 3.9 per cent respectively.

In a similar pattern, Maynooth University’s failure rate rose from 3.5 per cent in 2004 and 4.2 per cent in 2005 to 5.8 per cent in 2012 and 6.5 per cent in 2013.

The figures were even starker at faculty level, with NUI Galway recording an increase in the failure rate in arts, social sciences and Celtic studies from 4.4 per cent in 2004 and 4.7 per cent in 2005 to 10.9 per cent in 2012 and 9.9 per cent in 2013.

While the figures may include some natural variation, they will be of concern to authorities across higher education. The danger is universities are becoming two-tier operations, graduating as many students as possible in the higher ranks but neglecting those at the lower end who need more support.