MORE than 500 of the country's leading academics and senior managers in our universities were gifted lavish pension top-ups worth "tens of millions" of euro, the Sunday Independent can reveal.
They received the lucrative payments -- a special entitlement of academics and other senior figures in Irish third-level colleges to allow them to obtain the maximum possible pension allowed under public service rules -- as they retired since 2010.
In several cases, the top-ups amounted to 10 years -- or one-quarter of the total value of the pension. The payments were requested by the individual colleges and sanctioned by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin.
Both ministers, their departments and the colleges are set to be hauled before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to explain the splurge in pension payouts to those working in one of the country's most sheltered sectors.
The pension top-ups bonanza -- which independent actuaries estimate has cost the taxpayer "tens of millions of euro" -- is revealed in documents released under the Freedom of Information Act obtained by the Sunday Independent.
Fianna Fail's Public Expenditure and Reform spokesman Sean Fleming, who is also a member of the PAC, last night called on Mr Howlin to explain the "lavish" system of payments.
He told the Sunday Independent: "Many of these are among the best-paid people in the public sector, so their added years will be among the most expensive to award. I am calling on Brendan Howlin to make a statement to defend the payment of such generous top-ups."
Labour TD and PAC member Robert Dowds also said he wanted the universities and the departments to appear before the committee to explain the payments.
"Such revelations contained in the Sunday Independent are very worrying and I certainly want to hear a good explanation on this," he said.
The payment of added years to academics began as a recognition that many begin paying pensions later because of their extended studies.
The practice is governed by a 1987 Department of Education rule.
Under the scheme, applicants can receive up to a maximum top-up worth 10 years of pension payments in circumstances where people have not accumulated the "maximum 40 years of service".
Despite drastic cuts of over 15 per cent -- from over €1.85bn to €1.53bn -- in third-level funding since 2010, the figures show that 524 awards of added years were given to senior figures in the universities and some of the country's Institutes of Technology.
Figures for Dublin City University and the University of Limerick were not supplied, despite being requested.
They show that Trinity College Dublin since 2010 has sanctioned more top-ups than any other college.
According to the figures, 147 senior academics and managers were awarded added years on to their pension.
The number of top-ups awarded to retiring Trinity staff spiked in 2013 to 44 from 29 in 2012, the figures show. All of the awards were done with the approval of Mr Quinn and Mr Howlin and their departments.
University College Cork was the college with the next-highest number of awards, with 96 staff members receiving the pension top-up, with 31 of those receiving top-ups in excess of five years of pension payments.
Five of those obtained top-ups in excess of eight years of pension payments. Again, all top-ups gifted were done so with sanction.
Over the past three years, 78 senior staff in University College Dublin were awarded top-ups. According to the figures, 10 retiring staff obtained top-up payments of five years or more, with one candidate being awarded 10 years of pension payments.
A number of the awards were deemed by staff to be insufficient and appeals were lodged with the Higher Education Authority (HEA), and were still pending decision.
In NUI Galway, 58 retiring members of staff received the top-ups, with 16 of those receiving top-ups in excess of five years. Two retiring members received top-ups worth more than nine years of pension payments.
One entry included in the documents reveals that an award of 16.44 added years was awarded by way of a spouse's pension. NUI Galway refused to comment on the awards other than saying: "Department of Education records covered by Freedom of Information legislation would include all information relevant to your request about NUI Galway."
Not surprisingly, given its relatively small size compared to the others, NUI Maynooth was the university in which the fewest awards were made.
Yet, half of those who obtained the top-ups received add-ons of more than five years worth of pension payments, with five staff gifted payments of either eight or nine years on to their pensions.
A spokeswoman for Trinity College Dublin said any award of added years on retirement had been done "strictly in accordance with the provisions of the scheme rules".
She said there were three public service defined benefit pension schemes in operation within the college.
A spokesman for UCD said the college no longer had a role in approving the awarding of added years, saying it was a matter for the Government.
"Since the transfer of the pension funds to the State in 2010, all added years decisions for retiring staff now rest with the relevant government departments and not with the university," he said.
In contrast to the universities, the scale and the number of payouts in the institutes of technology were far more modest.
In total, according to the figures released, 121 staff members in 11 colleges received top-ups. Cork IT and DIT were the two institutions in which most awards were made, with 32 and 26 granted respectively.