Monday 18 December 2017

University president admits 'best practice' not used in €1m payout

UL president Dr Des Fitzgerald
UL president Dr Des Fitzgerald
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

The new president of the University of Limerick (UL), Dr Des Fitzgerald, has apologised for "inaccurate" information previously provided to politicians by a senior UL official.

He yesterday gave full details of the total value of the payments made to two staff members between 2012 and 2015 at €1.15m.

These included severance payments, pension lump sums and consultancy agreements, plus annual pensions of €58,000 and €54,600 a year.

Not for the first time this year, yesterday's hearing of the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC) turned an unflattering spotlight on certain activities in the third-level sector.

Contrary to what the committee may have been led to believe in March, Dr Fitzgerald "clarified" that, in fact, UL had not followed best practice in agreeing severance packages, that were "significantly in excess of standard rates" for two former staff members who left UL in 2012.

Dr Fitzgerald further clarified one of those staff members was in receipt of both his pension and a consultancy payment for a period of 11 months, also at odds with what the senior official told the committee.

Revelations about certain financial transitions at UL have been well aired in the PAC, having initially been brought to public attention by whistleblowers some years ago.

No progress was made in bringing various matters to a resolution until Dr Fitzgerald came into office, and immediately agreed an independent review of governance with the Department of Education .

Over a series of hearings in recent months, the PAC also probed questions raised by the State spending watchdog about governance and certain financial matters in a number of other third-level colleges arising from routine audits.

In another case, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has now set up an external review into potential conflicts of interest in the sale of a campus company at Waterford Institute of Technology that sold for €63m.

In another case, Dublin Institute of Technology has been told to tighten up its procurement practices after losing €718,000 when a UK-based library subscription service, which it had prepaid, went into administration.

Not for the first time, the C&AG and the PAC have raised issues about governance in higher education in Ireland. Memorably, some years ago, there was controversy about the payment of unauthorised allowances to senior staff.

Universities argue that because of cuts in State funding, they are increasingly reliant on income from non-Exchequer sources. Notwithstanding that, third-level colleges receive in excess of €1bn a year in taxpayers' money. They have signed up to a code of practice relating to governance, agreed with the HEA, but they are autonomous institutions and events have shown that sometimes more than a code of practice is required.

There have been efforts in recent years to strengthen the powers of the HEA to allow it to take unilateral action when a serious problem emerges, such as with recent events in UL, but, to date, nothing has changed.

Irish Independent

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