The system performance framework sets out the priorities of government under a number of headings which include economic renewal; social and cultural development and equity; public sector reform; and the restoration of Ireland’s national reputation.

There are key objectives for the higher education to achieve, and these include meeting human capital needs, promoting access, excellent teaching and learning, excellent research, internationalisation, reform and accountability.

The framework of higher education system objectives  set out by the Minister roots them in wider national goals. The objectives articulate the expectations from the system across all areas of activity and from across Government, including commitments made in A Strategy for Growth, Medium Term Economic Strategy 2014-2020, the Action Plan for Jobs (2014), the Report of the Research Prioritisation Steering Group (2011), the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2008 – 2013 and the ICT Skills Action Plan 2014 – 2018.

The following national priorities are taken from the Higher Education System Performance Framework 2014-2016.

  1. Economic renewal and development at national and regional levels
  2. Social cohesion, cultural development and equity at national and regional levels
  3. Public sector reform towards greater effectiveness and efficiency
  4. Restoration of Ireland’s international reputation

The Key system objectives for 2014-16 are set out as follows:

  1. To meet Ireland’s human capital needs across the spectrum of skills by engaged institutions through a diverse mix of provision across the system and through both core funding and specifically targeted initiatives;
  2. To promote access for disadvantaged groups and to put in place coherent pathways from second level education, from further education and other non-traditional entry routes;
  3. To promote excellence in teaching and learning to underpin a high quality student experience;
  4. To maintain an open and excellent public research system focused on the Government’s priority areas and the achievement of other societal objectives and to maximise research collaborations and knowledge exchange between and among public and private sector research actors;
  5. To ensure that Ireland’s higher education institutions will be globally competitive and internationally oriented, and Ireland will be a world-class centre of international education;
  6. To reform practices and restructure the system for quality and diversity;
  7. To increase accountability of autonomous institutions for public funding and against national priorities.

The HEA engages with institutions on their performance against these domains through a process of strategic dialogue and through the use of performance funding.

The first System Performance Report  concluded that:

  • Irish higher education is competitive internationally and performs well against international benchmarks in tertiary attainment, STEM graduates, and student engagement and employer satisfaction.
  • Against a background of economic crisis, a resilient system has provided significant extra capacity to meet increased demand for higher education and to address areas of specific skills needs as well as providing capacity for labour market activation programmes.
  • Ireland needs higher education capacity to grow both to support demographic growth and also to meet increased demand for graduates, as demand for Irish graduates bounces back and economic recovery continues.
  • The Irish higher education system is engaged in and committed to reform. Public service reforms and the restructuring and strategic refocusing of Irish higher education institutions are providing opportunities to improve and monitor quality and performance.
  • Success in implementing the reform programme, in maintaining and enhancing the quality of outcomes and in meeting other national objectives is dependent on a number of enablers:
    • 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 economic recovery and development.

The second System Performance Report , which related to performance in 2014, found that a range of successful outcomes had been delivered by the HE sector:

  • Rising enrolments across the system, which reflects both increased student demand and increased demand from employers for high 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Improved accountability of the system for public investment, through for example, this strategic dialogue process and the improved governance reviews introduced by the HEA.

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.

Furthermore, if the higher education system were to suffer an adverse shock on foot of any of these risks materialising, it would likely have longer-term and broader reputational effects beyond Ireland, and thus damage individual institutions, the sector as a whole, and Ireland’s reputation. This is a matter of acute concern for the HEA.

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.

A third System Performance Report, relating to 2015, will be published by the HEA in 2017.