Higher education in Ireland is competing very well internationally and graduate employment has bounced back to pre-crisis levels, shown in a major review published this week. This is against a difficult economic background and comes at a time of rapidly increasing student numbers.
The first ever Higher Education System Performance Report confirms that the institutions have responded flexibly to demographic, staffing and financial pressures while also adapting to meet government objectives for the system as a whole.
The report, presented by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn T.D., outlines how well Ireland is performing against international benchmarks. It shows that:
· Half of 30-34 year olds now have third level qualifications, the highest level in Europe
· Irish universities are in the top 1% of research institutions in the world across 18 academic disciplines
· Ireland is 1st in the world for the availability of skilled labour
· Ireland has the 4th highest percentage of Maths, Science and Computing graduates in the EU
· 75% of Irish employers are satisfied with graduate skills.
Minister Quinn said, “Higher education is one of the success stories in Ireland in recent years. Despite the strains and stresses it has endured, the system has shown great resilience and has been a major contributory factor to economic and social development. Of course there have been challenges and we are also aware that there will be further issues to grapple with in the years ahead.”
One such pressure is demand for places. Student numbers are expected to rise by a further 20,000 or 10% from 196,397 in 2011 to 216,732 in 2016. But the increase could be even greater as long term projections from the ESRI and SOLAS point to a recovering labour market with most new jobs going to graduates.
The HEA report advises that the combination of increased student numbers and reducing resources per student carries risks to the quality of graduates and outcomes generally. Such risks will need careful management, according to the report. It points out that staff student ratios are out of line with OECD norms – 1.19.5 compared with 1.15 to 1.16 internationally.
The Chief Executive of the HEA, Tom Boland said, “This report demonstrates that in the recent difficult years of economic turmoil, the Higher Education system has risen to the challenges of growing student numbers and reduced resources. A resilient Higher Education system has provided significant extra capacity to meet increased demand, to address areas of specific skills needs, as well as providing capacity for labour market activation programmes.”
“In doing so, it has continued to support economic and social development and improved the life chances of thousands of students. The report does identify a number of stresses on the system and also highlights the need to plan strategically for a sustainable and high quality system to continue to meet the needs of students and Irish society.”
Completion rates for honours degree courses are well above the OECD average but there has been a deterioration in non-progression rates at Level 6 and 7. The report also shows that the numbers and proportions of students from under-represented socio-economic groups are increasing but not fast enough.
The Minister said he was concerned at both the completion rate for Levels 6 and 7 and the access targets but added that both issues are being addressed. Consultations will begin shortly to help prepare a new plan aimed at boosting the percentages of students from non-traditional backgrounds going to higher education. The plan will be published before the end of the year.
Minister Quinn praised the manner in which staff across all higher education institutions have responded to the economies that have had to be implemented in recent years.
“Higher Education, like all other areas in the public service, has had to do more with less resources. It has introduced efficiency measures to meet changing circumstances”.
“Despite this, I am happy to say that there is little evidence of any drop in the quality of our graduates to date. All our universities as well as DIT are still in the top 500 in the world and many of our institutes of technology performed exceptionally well in the recently published U-Multirank published by the EU.”
Irish graduates are also performing well in the jobs market. In fact, employment rates are back to the levels last seen in the boom years. According to the report a third level qualification confers a long term benefit in regard to reducing the likelihood of unemployment.
The Minister said that his reform agenda for the sector is being steadily implemented. The total number of institutions will be reduced from 39 to 25 over the next few years. This restructuring will enhance quality, release capacity and cut back on unnecessary duplication of courses.
The higher education landscape will change in different ways. The concentration of initial teacher education from 19 to 6 centres of education will improve teacher training, The consolidation of Institutes of Technology will allow for the emergence of Technological Universities while the setting up of regional clusters of higher education institutions will lead to significant improvements in the delivery of programmes to students as well as to better links with industry.
To drive the reforms, the HEA has introduced a new process of strategic dialogue with the institutions which have all signed ‘compacts’ setting out their plans and targets for this year.
Early next year the Authority will start reviewing their performance benchmarked against those targets. It will pay particular attention to issues raised in the report such as access for certain socio-economic groups, drop-out rates, the quality of teaching and learning, research and internationalisation.