Universities give monitoring system a cautious welcome
“It was too restrictive and ended up as a box-ticking exercise. This one seems to offer more flexibility,” a university source told University World News.
Others are more cautious, preferring to wait for the details of individual performance agreements which have yet to be finalised between the institutions and the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the state body charged with the strategic development of the higher education system.
A new HEA act last year strengthened the authority which controls public funding for all higher education institutions. The performance agreements will be published on the HEA website to promote the transparency of process and ensure accountability across the system.
“The framework is designed to be flexible and responsive, enabling institutions to demonstrate their unique input to the delivery of national priorities and the strength of the higher education and research system as a whole,” said Dr Alan Wall, CEO of the authority.
“Each institution’s performance objectives will also reference the transversal areas of impact identified by the framework, reflecting national system level priorities such as student success, climate and sustainable development, and digital transformation.
“Together, the pillars and transversals of the framework present institutions with a flexible mechanism to identify performance objectives that are aligned to institutional strategy and to address challenges and opportunities such as the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI),” added Wall.
A lot of information
Although regarded as better, the latest framework still requires the institutions to supply a lot of information. For instance, having selected their objectives for each of the four pillars they have to provide a rationale for each choice.
This should include information on alignment with the institution’s strategy and contribution to institutional strategic objectives as well as alignment with national strategy and contribution to national policy objectives with reference to specific national, supranational, or intergovernmental policies, strategies, or agreements.
Institutions must also outline the evidence base that informed selection of the performance objective. This should outline how analysis of baseline and benchmarking data informed the strategic prioritisation of each performance objective and provide a rationale for the targets selected.
They need to state whether the performance objective represents achievement of minimum or foundational level, maintenance of current performance or continuing development in a priority area, or ambition to be a leader in the sector, system, or internationally. This may include reference to relevant previous achievements or learning.
Institutions will then specify how each of the four objectives will be implemented, monitored, assessed and reported. They should include information on:
• Management and reporting structures relevant to the performance objective, including identification of roles responsible for oversight;
• How the performance objective will be achieved, including identification of specific strategic actions that will support success;
• Resource provision associated with the performance objective and how this will contribute to success;
• Mechanisms for evaluating progress on the performance objective across the lifetime of the performance agreement;
• Opportunities, challenges, and risks identified with the performance objective and how these will be managed. This should include comment on dependencies or internal/external factors that could impede progress; and
• How learnings, adaptation, and improvements garnered through evaluation of the performance objective will be actioned.
The framework was developed after consultation with the institutions involved. It will be in place until 2028. The performance agreements will take effect from September 2024 and span four academic years.
Designated institutions will report annually against their performance agreements in the form of self-evaluation reports, and these will be reviewed and discussed in a process of strategy and performance dialogue between the HEA and institutions.
A new System Performance Dashboard has also gone live. The interactive data visualisation gives users an accessible overview of key system and institution level performance indicators aligned to the framework, providing a snapshot of system-level health.
Newly released figures on the dashboard show that non-progression rates rose from 9% to 12% for the year 2020-21 with COVID clearly a factor.
More than one in five first-year students dropped out of courses at the South East Technological University (SETU) and Dundalk Institute of Technology (21%); followed by Atlantic Technological University (20%); and Munster Technological University, Technological University Dublin and Technological University of the Shannon (all 17%). Non-progression rates were lowest at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (3%) and Dublin City University, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, and St Angela's College (6%).
Professor Veronica Campbell, president of SETU, remarked: “I think the data points to a perfect storm of COVID and limited access to in-person student supports – the latter being of critical importance and value to ensuring student success.”
Dr Billy Bennett, vice-president for academic affairs and registrar at Atlantic Technological University, told The Irish Times that the return of in-person exams during 2020-21 also proved to be a big challenge for first-year students.
Most secured the college places on the back of predicted grades instead of sitting the traditional exam. “They didn’t have the exam experience of managing their study and the discipline you need for a traditional exam,” he added.
The SETU campus in Carlow hosted the launch of the new framework which is the third of its kind. The previous one saw the introduction of Performance Funding to support and recognise positive performance in the system.
At the Carlow event Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris announced performance funding awards totalling €5 million (US$5.3 million) for projects in a number of institutions.
These included a major decarbonisation initiative at Technological University Dublin; an active consent programme initiated by the University of Galway; and a University of Limerick scheme to reduce the influence of crime networks on vulnerable children and families.
The Limerick project aims to significantly improve the evidence base in relation to youth crime policymaking in Ireland.
More details are available on the HEA website.