My colleagues and I are pleased to assist the committee in its consideration of topics referred to in its letter of 14 February last. On the matter of the future funding model for higher education, the HEA review of the allocation model for funding higher education institutions carried out in 2017 noted how higher education plays a critical role in the development of our people, providing a skilled workforce to meet economic and societal needs, including the need to support lifelong learning for all.
The importance of investing in higher education has been recognised by successive Governments, leading to higher levels of participation and broadening of access over recent decades. This includes the provision of additional places in recent years to meet increasing demand. The 2017 HEA report recognised that Ireland's higher education needs are met through a diverse range of regionally-dispersed institutions, of different scale and with different specialisations.
Since then, higher education has continued to change nationally and internationally and modes of delivery are being refreshed and renewed to offer greater and more flexible approaches to meet the needs of a broad cohort of learners. As a result, the funding approach will also need to change.
The development of technological universities has seen the emergence of five new institutions of significant scale with regional, national and international relevance. The objectives of technological sector reform are to raise standards, deliver better-quality outcomes for students and other stakeholders and enhance the performance of the sector. The reform of the sector will increase the scale, critical mass and quality of the institutions, allowing them to respond regionally and compete on the world stage with other comparable higher education institutions internationally.
The Technological Universities Act 2018 has set out an ambitious agenda for these new institutions. This is intended to improve research capacity resulting in a deepening of research-led teaching and learning excellence, including at apprenticeship and post-graduate levels. Research fields will be extended and greater capacity will be developed within the technological universities to serve national and regional strategic objectives, including linkages with the European research area and European higher education area.
Apprenticeship provision is an integral component of the activities of the higher education sector, with more than 60% of the off-the-job training in craft apprenticeship and 65% of consortia-led apprenticeship programmes provided by the higher education sector. The technological university legislation specifically references apprenticeship provision as a core element of the future development strategy of technological universities.
Meanwhile, within the traditional university sector, as one might call it, apprenticeship provision is also becoming a mainstream activity as universities such as the University of Limerick lead out as education partners in several consortia-led apprenticeships. Apprenticeship programmes are available in the higher education sector from levels 6 to 10 on the national framework of qualifications, NFQ.
The sector has developed significant progress pathways for apprenticeship graduates within its traditional course offerings. In terms of access initiatives, the national access to apprenticeship initiative developed by Technology University Dublin, which will also be rolled out by Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest, supports the transition of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into an apprenticeship scheme. This programme has been hugely successful with many participants from the initiative progressing to full apprenticeships.
Since 2017, recurrent funding provided for apprenticeship provision in the higher education sector has totalled €216 million and a total of €35.5 million has been provided in capital investment to cater for the expansion of apprenticeship capacity in the higher education sector. The the Higher Education Authority, HEA, is also deeply committed to the national priority to achieve equity of access to higher education.
The establishment of the programme for access to higher education, PATH, is an investment of more than €40 million over six to seven years and funds projects across three PATH strands. The enhancement of equity of access statistics through the collection of deprivation index scores for the student population, now into its third year of data collection, provides a more detailed and accurate insight into the socioeconomic profile of our student population than was ever previously possible.
The strengthening of universal design for learning, UDL, in higher education that supports more inclusive learning environments and practices for all students has been achieved through measures including strategic funding for projects in UDL. A range of Covid-19 interventions designed to support vulnerable and disadvantaged students impacted by the pandemic have been put in place.
Through the lifetime of the national access plan, there has been progress on participation rates of students from cohorts that have experienced low participation rates, most notably students with disabilities. However, for students who are members of the Irish Traveller community, socio-economically disadvantaged or mature students, the data show that a significant challenge remains in increasing participation rates.
I know I am tight on time so I will finish up there. Mental health and well-being supports have been a priority for the HEA and the Department in recent years, particularly as a response to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I look forward to the questions of members and the discussion on these matters.