HEA to penalise three third-level institutions over their “poor performance” standards

Galway-Mayo IT, NCAD and Dundalk IT could face the withholding of hundreds of thousands of euro worth of their state funding due their underperformance in a new assessment initiative

For the first time ever, Irish colleges are facing penalties due to “poor performance”. The Galway-Mayo institute of Technology (GMIT), Dundalk Institute of Technology and the National College of Art and Design (NCAD)  face financial penalties, which will see the withholding of up to hundreds of thousands of euro worth of state funding for the colleges, due to their inability to pass a new assessment process for the higher-level education sector.

This new initiative, spearheaded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA)  and in close connection with the Department of Education, aims to incentivise institutions to strategise finances ahead of the tumultuous years ahead for third-level education. This project, which has been devised over the last two years and intends to be implemented annually, ensures that Irish third-level institutions provide accessible, high-grade, efficient and relevant education and research. The end goal is to attain and maintain world-class standards across the board.

Among the deficiencies highlighted by the HEA, the three institutions were penalised for failing to meet performance targets relating to research, student numbers, income generation and international focus. Some were also found to lack coherent strategy and failed to demonstrate critical analysis and self-reflection. Dr. Fergal Barry, president of GMIT, assured that the penalties are not related to the “standard of academic performance”.

The three institutions face charges that equate to 2% of their state funding yet the HEA is liable to withhold up to 10%. HEA officials claim that this enough to incentivise change without threatening   “financial viability”. However, these penalties have come under scrutiny as these colleges are already financially vulnerable. Fortunately, HEA officials say that these institutions can avoid the fines by submitting plans on how they intend to rectify these shortcomings. Following this, Dr. Barry has stated that he is working closely with the HEA to tackle the problems facing GMIT.

Ireland is among the first jurisdictions to implement this approach and the HEA worked in conjunction with the institutions involved to set out the performance targets. Under this agreement, the government set out expectations for the system as a whole under seven different headings including “meeting skill needs, equity of access and excellence in research”. It also acts as a template for other areas of the public sector; performance across all public institutions could be subject to ongoing scrutiny to ensure high quality service through a similar approach.

Apart from the three institutions penalised, the majority of other institutes and universities performed well over all. Six institutes, namely,  Athlone Institute of Technology, Dublin Institute of Technology, IT Tallaght, IT Tralee, IT Blanchardstown and Letterkenny IT met the performance level required, but still needed to address certain areas of weakness.

HEA officials reassured that these assessment measures are not a judgement on the quality of education and research. Rather, they are assessments of how capable third-level institutes are in dealing with the “volatile” years that lie ahead for the education sector.