The HEA engages in a process of strategic dialogue with the higher education institutions in order to improve system and institutional performance, enhance system accountability, and enable the HEA to manage system risks.
As part of the Strategic Dialogue process, each higher education institution enters into a “performance compact” with the HEA., undertaking how it will contribute to national objectives from the position of its particular mission and strengths. The compacts provide for how performance is to be measured and a proportion of funding is contingent on performance.
The first set of ‘performance compacts’ covered the period 2014 – 2016. Institutions were annually required to engage with the HEA to provide a ‘self-evaluation’ report on how they were performing against the interim targets set down in their compacts. The focus in cycle 1 of the strategic dialogue process is a planning stage with establishing baselines to hold institutions accountable for performance. The HEA annually withholds funding for the institutions, contingent on satisfactory engagement with the dialogue process. The HEA engaged with institutions over three additional rounds of reporting (cycles 2-4) and the following has emerged:
- Irish higher education is competitive internationally and performs well against international benchmarks in tertiary attainment, STEM graduates, and student engagement and employer satisfaction.
- During a background of reduced funding, a resilient system provided significant extra capacity to meet the increased demand for higher education and to address areas of specific skills needs as well as providing capacity for labour market activation programmes. Ireland’s higher education capacity will need to continue to grow both to support demographic growth but also to meet the continued increase demand for graduates. This system will need to be adequately resourced if is to meet the ever-increasing industry demand for skilled graduates.
- Ongoing widening of access to higher education from under-represented groups, such as those from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and students with disabilities but significant disparities and barriers remain.
- Evidence of ongoing improvement in teaching and learning across the system, with innovations such as the Irish Survey of Student Engagement (ISSE) and the National Employer Survey being used by institutions to review and improve the quality of the education being provided to students.
- Ongoing improvement in research performance, as measured by citations of Irish research internationally and greater evidence of research is informing the teaching and learning practices within institutions. However, the current levels of research funding do not meet the full cost required to cover research overheads and this has lead to some institutions having to cross subsidise the funding of their activities to meet these overhead costs which has negatively impacted on the funding levels available for the provision of other activities.
- Ongoing increase in the internationalisation of the system, particularly as measured by the intake of international students.
- Far-reaching restructuring of the higher education landscape, with ongoing institutional merger projects designed to enhance the quality and sustainability of the education provided to students attending those institutions. Successful restructuring can be seen particularly in the process for reforming initial teacher education, and in the process for the development of technological universities. . Conversely, the performance and engagement with regional clusters has been mixed. This will require further engagement with the sector to establish the future policy direction for regional clusters in their current form.Accountability of the system for public investment will continue through the medium of the strategic dialogue process for the next set of agreed performance compacts which will be set against the overarching Higher Education System Performance Framework 2018-2020.
However, there is also evidence of increasing risks around the sustainability of this performance. There is an evident decline in the quality of the capital stock arising from a reduction in investment in capital renewal and refurbishment. This, taken together with the decline in public current funding and the increases in student numbers creates risks for a series of policy objectives:
- Sustaining a high-quality student experience and a high quality of the graduates emerging from the sector
- Broadening access to higher education for those from under-represented groups
- Enhancing research performance and its contribution to social and economic development
- Achieving a stable and sustainable financial basis for the higher education system.
- The leadership capacity of the institutions themselves, empowered by an appropriate toolkit for managing human resources
- The capacity in the HEA, working with the institutions, to develop further the capacity for setting performance metrics and performance evaluation
- The implementation of a comprehensive funding policy.
- Failure to meet national objectives will have a direct, and negative, impact on Ireland’s continued economic recovery and development.
The HEA has sought to mitigate these risks through close financial supervision of the institutions, particularly those in a financially vulnerable position, and by requiring institutions to improve their capacity for strategic management and effective utilisation of their resources. The HEA has also strengthened the oversight process for governance of higher education institutions.