An amendment has been made to the Technological Universities Bill 2015 which makes universities liable to the same investigative procedures as Technical Universities. The 2015 bill made institutes of technology subject to investigations by a government appointed inspector. The new amendment now makes universities liable to the same law.
Minister for Education Richard Bruton made a proposal for this amendment after an assortment of allegations arose about misconduct in University of Limerick.
In the past, as a last resort, universities could expect a ‘visitor’ to be sent in by the Minister for Education, who would take over the running of the college. This route has never been taken.
The amendment will allow universities to be inspected by an independent body, chosen by the Minister for Education, who would have the power to enter the university and inspect private documents. They could be brought in for a variety of issues. The changes aim to provide checks for all forms of higher education in the case of suspected misconduct. Mr Bruton has said that “this strengthened power will facilitate greater oversight and improved corporate governance.”
Universities have expressed concerns about the amendment, saying that it would encroach on their autonomy, reducing academic freedom, and restricting criticism of the government. In response, Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, has gone on record to say that such scenarios have not been the case in institutes of technology and so there is no evidence that it would happen in relation to universities.
Minister O’Connor stressed that it is important to ensure universities are held accountable. Speaking to the Irish Times, Minister Mitchell O’Connor said that “these institutions receive public money. I am answerable, as is the Government, to the taxpayer. We expect proper oversight and governance. What has happened in the past, in some cases, is not acceptable.”
University of Limerick (UL) has seen an independent inquiry take place as various staff members at UL have come forward over the years alleging misuse of expenses. Leona O’Callaghan, a former employee at the university at the finance department, was the first to call public attention to potential wrongdoing. In an interview with the Irish Times, O’Callaghan stated that she felt pushed out of her job after she began expressing her concerns about the university’s spending.
Other staff members in the finance department came forward with similar issues, two of the whom have been suspended with pay for the last two years. This treatment of whistle-blowers led to calls for an inquiry.
In the past, UL has rejected recommendations to have an independent inquiry to investigate the allegations. However, on May 1st of this year, UL saw the arrival of a new president, Dr. Des Fitzgerald, who pushed for the establishment of an independent inquiry by contacting the Secretary General of the Department of Education. The report of the inquiry was published this month.
The report criticises the university’s human resources department, particularly with regards to their treatment of whistleblowers. Pointing out financial discrepancies, the report notes that there were “issues over severance payments for up to eight former staff or contractors totalling €1.7 million, or an average of €212,000 per case.”
“In some cases, members of staff who received these payments were subsequently re-employed on lucrative contracts,” and that “the number of severance agreements entered into by UL over the period was “several orders of magnitude greater” than any other third-level institution.” In addition, the Department of Education were not told about the severance packages.
Fitzgerald has promised to deal with the issues outlined and follow the recommendations given, with reforms already in place. However, the amendment has been predicted to expand to allow investigation of governance and not just concerns that have already been vocalised.