Thursday 20 July 2017

Watchdog highlights third-level payments bonanza

John Walshe and Patricia McDonagh

AN astonishing litany of unauthorised payments of allowances, bonuses and enhanced pensions by Irish universities is revealed in the latest report from the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG).

It discloses that three people were simultaneously paid presidential salaries of almost €230,000 each in the University of Limerick in 2007-2008.

But the main criticism is of UCD, which paid €265,000 in bonuses to 12 staff over a four-year period and where just 11 staff cost the taxpayer almost €3m in 2008.

The Department of Education did not even know about the UCD bonus payments until C&AG John Buckley drew them to its attention.

There are no plans to recoup the unapproved bonuses. The total pay bill for the universities in 2008 was €1bn.

The report also reveals that huge numbers of academic staff retired on enhanced pensions.

In UCD's case, 78pc of staff retiring between October 2007 and September 2008 had up to 10 years added to their service for pension purposes. The 42 staff going that year had an average salary on retirement of €75,828.

But the practice also benefited non-academic staff. In UCC, eight non-academic staff were given enhanced pensions last year, while Trinity gave extra years to 37 non-academic staff between 2007 and 2009.

The Irish Universities Association and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) face a grilling about the report at a meeting of the Oireachtas Committee of Public Accounts next Thursday.

They will point out that most of the payment practices have ceased but that there are legal obligations in some cases to pay enhanced pensions to retiring staff.

This follows advice from the Attorney General's office.

Committee chair Bernard Allen TD said that ultimately the taxpayers would have to meet the bill for this loose arrangement.

He added that the Department of Education and Skills, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the Department of Finance all appeared to have taken their eyes off the ball when it came to proper monitoring of pay and pensions.

Pensions

The report reveals that the Government refused to sanction a 2.5pc national wage agreement that was due to be implemented at Trinity on September 1, 2008 until April 1, 2009 because the college was paying additional allowances at professorial level. The payment was only sanctioned when the college confirmed that the allowances would cease.

Between 2002 and 2006, the Provost was in receipt of salary and allowances in excess of that approved by ministers -- almost €7,000 more than approved. But since then, his salary has been within approved limits.

The report says that added years for pension purposes have become a legitimate 'de facto' entitlement in Trinity since 1972 for the 55pc of staff who were in the master pension scheme.

Last year, 16 academic and 37 non-academic staff retired. Their average actual service was 26.22 years and they received an average of 2.72 added years for pension purposes.

The report also discloses that in the case of NUI Galway unapproved allowances amounting to €396,982 were paid to the president, registrar/deputy president and bursar.

This continued until 2006, when the HEA insisted that the allowances were contrary to the Universities Act 1997 and should be recouped.

The former president agreed to pay them back, but the university was advised that there was no basis to recoup money from the bursar or the former registrar.

The report also shows that unapproved allowances ranging from €2,100 for the bursar to almost €35,000 for the acting head of the College of Business and Law had been paid annually to 13 senior staff at UCC.

Most of the payments ceased in 2007 when the recommendations of a report on higher salaries in the public service were implemented.

The vice-president for planning, communications and development, however, continued to get an allowance of €30,142 up to retirement last year, when the €5,117 allowance for the vice-head of the College of Arts, Celtic Studies and Social Studies also ceased.

In UCC, 44 academic staff appointed prior to 8 July 1986 are eligible by legal statute to retire at 60 with seven added pension years. If they stay on until they are 65, they are entitled to 10 extra years.

In the case of other academic staff appointed since 1986, the granting of added years is at the discretion of a pensions committee.

But the report says the reality is that once individuals fall within the eligible grades and satisfy all the criteria, they will be awarded added years on retirement.

Last year, 30 academic staff and eight non-academic staff were awarded an average of 2.74 professional years.

Irish Independent

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