There is growing interest in the performance of higher education systems to complement interest in the performance of higher education institutions. However, the concept of a higher education system is relatively recent, arising largely from the institutional and governance structures established by governments to support the transition from elite to mass higher education. Higher education systems vary significantly in character and in the political, social and economic contexts in which they operate. Aggregate national outputs from higher education institutions should not be seen as or confused with system performance. Higher education systems should be seen as complex systems comprising higher education institutions, the key agencies involved in system governance and other agencies and actors that have critical relationships with higher education institutions. Higher education system performance requires an assessment of the effectiveness of the policy settings, agencies and processes underpinning the system. A three-tier conceptual higher education system performance framework is proposed in this chapter. The framework comprises three domains: system characteristics and system context – which vary between systems – and common system performance benchmarks across systems. The primary purpose of the framework is to support improvement in all elements of higher education systems.
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