News Analysis: More money, more problems

The significant expenditure by the IUA in recent years raises serious questions about the validity of the organisation, writes Amy BrackenThree years ago the word ‘recession’ was something we associated with the 1980s. Undoubtedly in 1997, when the Irish Universities Association (IUA) was set up, it was never expected that there would be such a drastic economic downturn in Ireland.Yet the effects of it had already been felt in 2009 when IUA income received rose from just under €3 million to almost €5 million, a large proportion of which was donated by the seven universities. What exactly does the IUA do?A representative from the UCD Academic Staff Association described the IUA as a type of subscription club for university presidents; in some respects it is like a trade union. The universities among other sources fund it, and UCD is the largest financial contributor among the universities based on its size.Company Secretary of the IUA, Ned Costello, provided figures to The University Observer stating the total accumulated by the IUA in each of 2008, 2009 and 2010 from the universities was €1,555,510, which means that UCD contributed in excess of €300,000 to the IUA in each of those years.There are seven members on the Board of Directors: the seven university presidents, and as already noted, the IUA has been described as a type of trade union for university presidents. They are, after all, the only owners of the company, but the money they contribute is hardly coming out of their own pockets. €329,223 over three years amounts to almost €1 million which has been spent by UCD on the IUA – and that is not taking into account what was paid to it from its establishment in 1997.General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), Mike Jennings noted when speaking to The University Observer that university activities are supposed to incorporate all aspects of the university – so why are the university presidents the only actual members of the IUA?The company claims to be open to public scrutiny, which is fitting in terms of its apparent role in collectivising policies for the benefit of every member of the universities. Yet what doesn’t fit in with this is the fact that it is a private company. How can a private company be deemed representative of every staff member and student of the university?There are only seven people who have a say in the running of the company, and they are the seven university presidents. In this context, the argument of the UCD Academic Staff Association that the IUA is a type of private members club or even could be described as a trade union for presidents rings true.Turning to the question in all of this, exactly what kind of activities does the IUA engage in, and why did it need to spend almost €5 million to do that in 2009?I am by no means undermining the stellar work of the IUA thus far. Just recently it was involved in the renegotiation of the Employment Control Framework to allow for greater flexibility in the case of universities, in case, for example, all the senior lecturers of a Department decide to retire at the one time. It was also involved in the establishment of a national policy for the disadvantaged wishing to go to higher education.Yet the activities of the organisation are not common knowledge. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that this will be the first time many readers will have heard of the IUA. Our university presidents are paying hundreds of thousands of euro each year to be on the Board of Directors of an association that supposedly represents all aspects of the university. Yet in reality, only a small percentage of students and staff will feel the benefits of these collective policies.Ned Costello vehemently denied the suggestion that the individual universities could perhaps more cost-effectively formulate policies to cover the work of the IUA, arguing that it is more cost-effective to formulate collective policies. This is a fair argument. However, it still does not cover the question of why the presidents effectively own the IUA, where their subscription money comes from, and why the IUA rents at premises on Merrion Square in Dublin for its administrative staff, whose numbers stood at just fifteen in 2009.The IUA is not a commonly known body and it’s contradictory that the very people that it’s supposed to represent are apparently paying the subscription fees for their respective university presidents. However effective the policies it has generated since 1997 are perceived to be, given the current economic situation, it seems unnecessary for the €2 million rise in income and expenditure at the onset of the recession. And for such a small and supposedly private company, figures running into millions appear extremely inappropriate.