Friday 20 October 2017

Universities to be penalised for €8m staff salary top-ups

Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

UNIVERSITIES that topped up the salaries of senior staff to the tune of €8m over a six-year period are being punished.

The "unauthorised" allow-ances were paid between June 2005 and February 2011, without getting the required approval of the minister for education.

The full €8m cost -- detailed in a new report from the public spending Comptroller and Auditor General (C&G) -- is higher than previously thought.

Now, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) is in detailed discussions with the universities about recouping the money.

Colleges are being asked to provide money out of their own resources to cover certain student services, rather than getting it from the HEA.

Discussions are centred on whether the colleges pay the money back to the HEA, which would hold it for certain purposes, or "ring-fence" it themselves and use it as appropriate.

According to the C&AG report, UCD has the biggest bill, having paid €3.5m over the odds. Next was UCC (€1.5m), TCD (€1.4m), NUI Galway (€578,000), University of Limerick (€448,000), NUI Maynooth (€272,000) and DCU (€53,000).

The unauthorised allowances is one of a number of financial and spending issues in the third-level covered in the latest report from the C&G.

Among the other matters dealt with is the case of the former president of Waterford Institute of Technology, Kieran Byrne, who presided over lavish spending by his office, revealed in a 2010 audit.

Travel

Unauthorised travel expenses, widespread use of taxis, spending on flowers of €18,542 and another €3,067 were among the items uncovered.

And there were two instances where the former president's credit card was used for non-institute purposes; this money has since been reimbursed.

The report also found that third-level colleges could be sitting on €700m in cash reserves at any one time. The C&AG says instead of leaving vast sums of money sitting in college bank accounts, it might be better pooled in a state pot.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) told the C&AG said that while there were significant levels of cash across the system, "it does not imply that the sector is over-funded".

The C&AG counted the cash balances in August/September, a particularly healthy time for college finances because of the receipt of fees.

The C&AG has raised questions about whether any college surpluses could be put to more efficient use if they were made available to, for instance, the NTMA, which manages the State's finances.

The C&AG calls for a review "to consider the merits of providing for a sweeping up of surplus funds" not only in third-level institutions, but other state bodies.

It could mean colleges effectively giving a "loan" to the NTMA, which would be used as it sees fit.

For it to make sense for the colleges, they would have to be assured of interest rates that were more favourable than what they already enjoy.

However, the HEA has told the C&AG the rates obtained by the colleges were more favourable than those on offer in the NTMA.

Irish Independent

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