Monday 11 December 2017

Hundreds of varsity dons get pension top-ups

Cost of millions to taxpayers adds to shame of minister who failed to achieve promised savings

DANIEL McCONNELL Chief Reporter EXCLUSIVE

Lavish pension top-ups to 260 "out of touch" and highly paid retiring academics in Ireland's universities have been awarded since 2010 despite falling standards, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

The well-paid dons received average top-ups of between two and a half years and four years of their pension, benefits which pension experts estimated were worth millions of euro.

The revelations are a further embarrassment for Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin -- whose department is in charge of awarding the top-ups -- following his failure to deliver €71.5m of €75m of promised savings in allowances last month.

Under the scheme, the universities have to apply for sanction from Mr Howlin's department to award the top-ups, or added years, which are a means of inflating the value of a retiring academic's salary level, and thereby the pension, at the expense of the taxpayer.

Despite consecutive drops in university standards, figures obtained by the Sunday Independent show that University College Cork (UCC) benefited most from the pensions' bonanza with 79 of its senior lecturers receiving munificent retirement top-ups.

Trinity College Dublin was the next highest offender with 67 of its senior lecturers, followed next by University College Dublin with 54 of their retiring lecturers receiving top-ups.

Forty-two academics in NUI Galway received top-ups while 18 in NUI Maynooth also obtained the generous gratuities, while no figures for Dublin City University or the University of Limerick were provided.

Back in 2009, after the university pension scheme ran into "severe deficit", the State took control of the university sector's pension scheme amid criticisms from former Finance Minister Brian Lenihan that "added years were being thrown around like confetti".

Despite such criticisms and the universities falling in world rankings, since the State assumed responsibility of the scheme the number of pension top-ups has actually risen by almost 20 per cent.

The revelations have resulted in sharp criticism of the universities and Mr Howlin for allowing the situation to not only continue, but worsen.

John McGuinness, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, last night criticised the practice of awarding added years to "out of touch" academics, who he said "continue to live on another planet".

"It is incredible to think that practices in this sector have been allowed to continue given the state of the country. I am shocked at the size of the awards and the numbers involved. It seems the good times have continued unabated," Mr McGuinness said.

In response, a spokeswoman for Mr Howlin said: "Added years are granted where it is clear that the added years are fully justified by the requirement to have significant prior periods of education. Added years are only awarded in accordance with the scheme rules to staff both at senior and junior levels."

She added: "To protect the public purse, added years have not been awarded in every case presented where this is not within the rules. At least one of these cases is being litigated before the High Court."

Last Tuesday, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn brought a new bill to cabinet to prevent our universities from paying staff over the odds. This comes after €7.5m in unauthorised allowances were paid to 223 senior academics.

In one instance, an astonishing top-up of €430,000 was given to an unidentified academic medical consultant in Trinity College, who was already on a salary of at least €200,000 a year.

The top-ups covered the period from 2005 to 2011.

The former president of NUI Galway, Dr Iggy O Muircheartaigh, received unauthorised payments of €202,978.

The former acting president of the University of Limerick, John O'Connor, received unauthorised payments of €247,905 after continuing to receive an allowance despite stepping down from the post.

The head of the School of Medicine and Medical Science in UCD, Professor Bill Powderly, received an unauthorised annual allowance of €18,000, on top of a salary of €241,000.

Also in UCD, 12 senior staff were paid a total of €266,000 in unauthorised performance related bonuses between 2005 and 2008. UCD was responsible for most of the unapproved payments, involving 77 staff and accounting for almost €3.3m of the total.

Sunday Independent

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