My colleagues and myself are pleased to assist the committee in its consideration of matters which are of specific interest to it, as indicated in its letter of 4 June. I will provide some general comments on the HEA's role of supporting the Minister in the achievement of national policy priorities and ensuring effective accountability and oversight of governance in HEA-funded higher education institutions, HEIs.
The past year has been a difficult one for students and staff, and the HEA has worked closely with all parties in the higher education sector to help overcome the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout, a quality student experience has remained the core consideration and I look forward to a more holistic higher education experience for students in the coming academic year. Recent years have been a period of significant and ongoing reform of the higher education landscape. We now have a sector that is moving towards a smaller number of institutions but with greater opportunity for development and innovation, and which will continue to play a central role in Ireland’s social and economic development.
The HEA is accountable to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science for the achievement of national outcomes for the higher education sector. These national outcomes are supported by the authority through its policy advisory role and through the allocation of targeted funding supporting national policy priorities for skills. The authority also has responsibility for the effective accountability and oversight of governance in HEA-funded higher education institutions and it takes this responsibility very seriously. The remit of the authority is under review with the development of the new higher education Bill 2021, which is due to go through the Houses of the Oireachtas later this year. The new Act is expected to give the HEA appropriate regulatory legislative powers. The original HEA Act is 50 years old and while it has done the nation some service, it is no longer fit for purpose. The new legislation will provide greater clarity in respect of the extent and operation of the HEA’s responsibilities, including those of the institutions and the Minister. Pending the enactment of the new legislation, the HEA continues to evolve the governance mechanisms for the sector.
Building on existing governance frameworks for higher education, since 2021, the HEA has required each institution to sign an oversight agreement confirming that it is conducting its activities in line with statutory requirements and the requirements of code of governance for State bodies, as reflected in the relevant sectoral code. This agreement specifies that the chief officer of an institution is required to keep the HEA informed, on a timely basis, of any governance issues, concerns or major risks that may arise for the institution. If an institution does not comply with these requirements, it must provide an explanation to the HEA and set out the actions agreed by the governing body to achieve compliance and an agreed timeline. The auhtority also requires an annual governance statement and statement of internal control from each institution. The annual governance statement needs to include confirmation of compliance by each HEI with a comprehensive list of governance requirements. Non-compliance in any matter must be identified in the statement. The template is signed by the chair of the governing body and the president of the institute. Set-piece meetings, such as budget meetings and strategic dialogue meetings, also allow for any material issues relating to governance or financing to be declared to us. In exercising its oversight role, the HEA seeks to be respectful of institutional autonomy within an accountability framework. The role of the authority is distinct from the responsibilities of the governing authority of each institution and from the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.
I refer to the HEA’s financial statements for 2019. I am pleased to note that these were signed by the Comptroller and Auditor General in June 2020 with no issues arising. Regarding recurring deficits in third level institutions, the HEA monitors the financial position of all higher education institutions continually. Over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened the financial challenges facing higher education institutions and in May 2020, the authority prepared a report on the implications of Covid-19 for the sector. Following engagement with the Department, a Covid-19 related support package of €130 million was agreed to for the sector with an additional €52 million in student supports, which were disbursed by the HEA. Three institutions have been operating with accumulated deficits and I refer members to our briefing paper for further information on this. While progress has been made in reducing these deficits, it will be some years before they are fully eliminated. The HEA continues to engage with the institutions that are in deficit to ensure they are financially sustainable and return to a position of growth.
On the impact of funding cuts, a 2018 spending review by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform noted that funding for higher education decreased by approximately 20% between 2008 to 2014, while, from 2015 to 2018, there was an increase of 9%. In parallel to this, student numbers increased by approximately 30% from 2008. Recent initiatives to increase funding to the sector and meet the challenges of increased demographics are set out in detail in our briefing paper and include human capital initiative investment, increased investment in apprenticeships and Springboard+, a transformational fund for technological universities, Project Ireland 2040 funding, Covid-19 funding, and funding to support additional CAO places. The general impact of previous funding reductions continues to present challenges in areas such as increased student-staff ratio, a lag in investment in capital infrastructure and limited industrial relations tools to address inescapable pay costs. The HEA contribution to the annual Estimates process identified areas where additional funding is required for 2022. Work has also been advanced by the Department on an independent economic review on the future funding options for the tertiary education sector.
In reference to occasional and hourly staff, the HEA appreciates the concerns of the committee relating to casualisation of work, precarious employment, employment rights and job security of occasional staff in the higher education sector. Employment contracts are the responsibility for HEIs as employers, while sectoral industrial relations are under the remit of the Department. The HEA notes the intention of the committee to write to the Minister to highlight concerns. In response to queries from the committee, the HEA liaised with the HEIs and provided data on the use of occasional hourly-paid staff. We have also raised these matters with the HEI representative bodies, the Irish Universities Association and Technological Higher Education Association, with the aim of providing further and better information to the committee before the end of 2021.
The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation is responsible for national intellectual property, IP, policy and the funding to support the scaling up and spin-out of companies in higher education institutions. Through the annual governance statement, each institution is asked by the HEA to confirm it has an IP policy that reflects the requirements of national IP policy. This requirement for HEIs has evolved from two reviews of intellectual property policies by Knowledge Transfer Ireland and the HEA. With regard to private company funding of third level training, the HEA has written to all HEIs seeking confirmation that governance requirements are being met in their associations with regard to third parties and receipts of non-exchequer funding specifically as these relate to climate change concerns. We will revert to the committee on its queries in this regard.
In 2017, ring-fenced funding of €750,000 was committed to the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, campus for five years to support the implementation of a plan that had been recommended by the working group. A review of progress of the implementation of the plan has been completed by Mazars on behalf of the HEA. The final report has been provided by the HEA to the Department with the recommendation that consideration should be given to specific policy and funding arrangements for remote campuses such as GMIT, Mayo. A copy of the report and the HEA’s letter to the Department has been provided for the information of the committee.
While significant challenges remain with the evolving higher education landscape and the clarity the new legislation will bring, I believe we are at a point of opportunity for significant reform and modernisation. I am happy to answer any questions the committee may have.