THE state spending watchdog has begun an investigation into the "unlawful" payment of millions of euro in allowances to senior university staff, the Irish Independent has learned.
The Comptroller and Auditor General's (C&AG) office has agreed to a request from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to assess exactly how much was spent on unauthorised payments between 1999 and 2009.
It is understood the investigation will be completed by May.
There has been an ongoing dispute between the HEA -- the agency responsible for higher education -- and the universities over how much was paid to staff at colleges including UCD, Trinity College, UCC, NUI Galway and the University of Limerick.
The HEA has already told a Public Accounts Committee that it will withhold millions in funding from the universities in a bid to get the money back.
The allowances, including incentives and performance-related bonuses, were originally discovered by the C&AG in 2009. They include €265,000 in bonuses to 12 UCD staff over a four-year period.
At the University of Limerick, three academics were simultaneously paid presidential salaries of almost €230,000 each in the 2007/2008 period. The payments ended the following year.
While the HEA wants the money repaid, UCD president Hugh Brady wrote to the body last year maintaining that imposing a financial sanction on the university could be "illegal, inappropriate and discriminatory".
However, since then UCD has offered to make a payment to support student services at the university in a bid to break the deadlock with the HEA.
The HEA has come under increased pressure to impose sanctions on the universities, and both the Department of Education and the Department of Finance have insisted that all "unlawful" payments must be returned in full.
The HEA and UCD have also clashed over whether the university knew it was not allowed to make extra payments to senior staff.
Late last year Dr Brady insisted that the HEA had been told of the allowances and had raised no objections for years.
However, this stance was challenged by the education body's chief executive, Tom Boland, who quoted correspondence going back to 2005 saying that they were not approved and were against the law.