Policy Context

From a policy perspective, the focus on the higher education sector in Ireland has increased significantly in recent years. A notable example of this is the HEA’s Higher Education System Performance Framework 20142016 (HEA 2014), which outlined seven key objectives for the higher education system in Ireland. These included the typical broad policy objective of increasing the human capital stock to aid economic growth, as well as tackling socioeconomic and other disparities in accessibility, issues that are directly addressed in this book. They also included objectives relating to high-quality teaching and learning, research excellence, global competitiveness, system restructuring and accountability, some of which are also covered here. Indeed, there are a number of specific issues within higher education, many related to the framework, that have become the focus of policy interest. Below we outline the most prominent of these, paying particular attention to the issues that bear direct relevance for what is analysed in subsequent chapters.

Increased participation for those from disadvantaged backgrounds is an on-going concern and was again highlighted in the performance framework. While the aforementioned ‘free fees’ scheme was seen as a key step in addressing this issue, studies conducted both before and after the introduction of free fees have highlighted social inequality in higher education participation in Ireland—see Denny (2014). Both the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2008-2013 (HEA 2008) and the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (Department of Education and Skills 2011), also known as the ‘Hunt Report, highlighted reforms of the student grant scheme as ways to address this issue. While some reforms have occurred (e.g. the administration of the grant system is now handled by a single entity named Student Universal Support Ireland [SUSI]), no significant changes have been made to the financial aspects of the system.

The more recent National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2019 (HEA 2015a) outlines eight principles in relation to higher education access and participation. One such principle is to restructure student financial supports to improve access for underrepresented groups in higher education. While no detail on suggested changes are provided within the plan, it does emphasise the need for accurate data and evidence on access and participation to help inform policy. The plan also acknowledges the potential role that geographic factors may play in higher education accessibility. It highlights the variation in participation across counties and districts of Dublin and specifies an objective of reviewing data to better understand the relationship between location and participation.

The Hunt Report and aforementioned system performance framework (HEA 2014) have both indicated that the successful progression of students in higher education is now seen as a key component of analysing the effectiveness of institutions. The concept of ‘successful participation’ is now also a central component of Ireland’s National Framework of Qualifications, which aims to ensure that learners can successfully participate in a programme, or series of programmes, leading to an award, or series of awards, in pursuit of their learning objectives (Government of Ireland 2012). A HEA report also noted that in the context of growing accountability and efficiency, “minimising students’ non-completion of courses is an important part of ensuring that the resources available to the HE sector are utilised with maximum efficiency” (HEA 2010, p. 10). This, and a more recent report, A Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education 2012/2013 to 2013/2014 (HEA 2016), have both shown that the proportion of new entrants to higher education not present one year later lies between 15% and 16%. They also show significant variation in these proportions across institution type, discipline studied, gender and prior educational attainment. Specifically, both reports emphasise the association between CAO points and non-completion in higher education.

Recent higher education policy has also placed a greater focus on the structure of higher education provision. Specifically, the Irish Government plans to re-organise the higher education sector and to create a number of new technological universities through the consolidation of a number of ITs (HEA 2013a; Department of Education and Skills 2011). It is envisaged that these technological universities will offer undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes from higher certificate to doctoral degree and the programmes offered will have a vocational/professional orientation, with a focus on science and technology. They will also be cognisant of the social and economic needs of the region in which they are located and will engage in problem-orientated research (HEA 2013a). There are also other proposed changes outlined in the policy reforms relating to increased collaboration amongst HEIs and changes in governance (HEA 2013b); however, the most significant is perhaps the proposed consolidation of ITs into technological universities. There has been resistance to these changes and it remains to be seen if, how and when they are fully implemented. Figure 1.1 illustrates these consolidations and also provides a spatial perspective on the current distribution of universities and ITs in Ireland.

Spatial distribution of universities and ITs and proposed consolidations. Source

Fig. 1.1 Spatial distribution of universities and ITs and proposed consolidations. Source: Adapted from Walsh et al. (2016)

There is also increased attention being paid to greater accountability for the still sizeable public funding (in absolute terms) within the sector. This focus has seen the publication of Higher Education System Performance: Institutional and Sectoral Profiles 2012/2013 (HEA 2015d) and also the enhancement of the detail within the regular What do Graduates do? reports produced by the HEA. The former is the third in a series of reports from the HEA developed in partnership with the Department of Education and Skills and the HEIs themselves. These profiles provide a summary of various statistics related to participation numbers, fields of study, research performance, level of internationalisation, as well as the human resource and financial base for each publically funded HEI in Ireland. These reports have been introduced with the aim of developing “a more comprehensive approach to performance evaluation” and to “provide an initial basis for evaluating institutional performance” (HEA 2013b, p. 5).

The What do Graduates do? series has been produced by the HEA for 10 years—see, for example, HEA (2013c) and HEA (2015e). This provides an analysis of the first destination of graduates of the Irish higher education system, be it in work, pursuing further study or looking for employment. These have shown that the employment prospects for graduates during the recent economic crisis remained relatively stable, with unemployment for graduates ranging from 7% to 8% across the period 2009-12 and remaining at 7% for 2014 (HEA 2013c, 2015e). This compares well to the national youth unemployment rate, which peaked at 31.3% in 2012 and was 21.4% by the end of 2014. Evidence from OECD (2015) would seem to support this labour market benefit for graduates in Ireland. It shows that both males and females with an undergraduate degree in Ireland earn considerably more than someone with upper secondary as their highest level of education achieved—see Table 9.1 later in this book for further details.

However, despite these benefits, there is still some debate as to the relevance of higher education to the labour market. For instance, more recent publications in the What do Graduates do? series have included an analysis of the relevance of the qualifications graduates have to their area of employment. This has shown that 63% of bachelor degree-level graduates rated the relevance of their qualification as relevant or most relevant to their area of employment. The corresponding figure for masters/PhD level graduates was 75%. These data also highlighted variation across field of study pursed; those that studied health-related subjects were the most likely to find their studies relevant to their employment, while humanities graduates were the least likely. This may be indicative of a potential imbalance between the supply of university graduates and the number of relevant jobs available. Given the objective of having a higher education system that is serving “areas in demand by employers” (HEA 2014, p. 14), greater scrutiny is now being placed upon the skills and competences graduates learn while in higher education.

The funding structure of higher education has arguably attracted the most attention from a policy viewpoint in recent years. Numerous reports such as OECD (2006) and the Hunt Report have recommended that Ireland consider the implementation of alternative funding structures for undergraduate higher education. Bekhradnia (2015) and the then Department of Education and Science (2009) have detailed the advantages and disadvantages of a wide range of potential funding options. In 2014 an Expert Group on the Future Funding of Higher Education (Expert Group) was established. In their final report Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education (Expert Group 2016) they describe the current funding arrangements for higher education as insufficient and stressed that further efficiencies, use of information technology or a cap on numbers would alone not be enough to address the problems faced. They have estimated that an extra €600 million per year is needed in funding to meet the current demographic and quality challenges, a figure that rises to €1 billion per year by 2030 (Expert Group 2016). They also question whether the current manner in which the state distributes funds to HEIs in Ireland is appropriately structured to support issues such as quality and access and the need to increase the level of funding derived from students and the state is identified as key. Three alternative funding options were outlined for consideration. The first two involve increased state funding combined with either the scrapping of the student contribution fee or maintaining it at current levels, with the third option being the introduction of an income contingent loan (ICL) system. The introduction of a financial contribution from employers was also recommended. They also stress the need to improve maintenance supports and manage individual private contributions to the cost of higher education to ensure that affordability and access are equitable.

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