Universities “reaching for the cheque books” in HR cases

In recent years, Irish universities have been increasing the money spent on human resources (HR) disputes between staff and management. Some of the largest universities in the countries, such as UCD and Maynooth, among others, have made headlines in recent years with high profile HR cases involving bullying and hiring. Irish universities paid out around €3.3 million in legal fees in disputes between staff during 2010 and 2015, a significant portion of this on cases of age or gender discrimination, as well as cases of bullying.UCD made headlines this year after it was forced to pay out €30,000 to a professor who had taken a case against them in the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). Dr Anne Cleary, a sociology professor in UCD, argued that she had been passed over for promotion due to her age - she was 61 at the time. UCD denied that this was the case, but statistical data provided by Dr. Cleary illustrated the drop off rate in promotions as applicants reached 60 years old. The General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), Joan Donegan, welcomed the result, and criticised UCD, saying “UCD refused all attempts via FOI and by order of the WRC to provide relevant data”, and went on to say that the data they had received was “so extensively redacted as to be useless.”The case comes only two years after UCD increased the amount of money spent on HR-related consultancy and legal fees by over 300%, from €77,176 in the 2013/14 academic year, to €236,859 in 2015/16. Mike Jennings, the the General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers at the time, told reporters that UCD was being “deliberately harsh”, and that the increase in spending was due to UCD “reaching for the chequebook” and hiring expensive lawyers to fight the cases. This led to criticism of UCD, with many decrying that the money was desperately needed in other areas of the college. In UCD’s annual financial report for the year ending 2017, President Deeks wrote in the president’s report that they have “after extensive consultation, developed a new UCD HR Strategy”. No specifics as to what this new strategy entailed were given.A relatively recent case which made headlines was in June 2018, the University of Limerick (UL), which had to make a financial settlement in the region of €150,000 after a report was published that detailed a misallocation of funds by the University. The report made further allegations regarding human resources and the University’s governance policies. In an article published by the Irish Times, it came to light that the education authorities were not made aware of the severance payments, as they may have been in breach of UL’s pay policy. In NUI Galway, four female lecturers received settlements amounting to hundreds of thousands in July of 2018, after it was determined that they had been “discriminated against on gender grounds.” Dr Sheehy Skeffington alone, was awarded a settlement of €70,000 as compensation, for being passed up for promotion.An article published by the University Observer, found that there was significantly low representation of women in senior positions in academia of third-level institutions. It is by no means only the larger universities who are exhibiting this trend. The University Observer has learned through a Freedom of Information request that Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, (IADT) spent €285,850, on legal and consultancy fees for 6 HR cases since 2014, averaging over €47,000 per case. At the time of print, IADT have not responded to questions relating to the nature of these cases.