Colleges to lose €7m for unlawful payments to staff

MORE than €7 million in state funding is to be withheld from universities due to “unlawful” payments to senior academics.

A meeting of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard yesterday that the Department of Education considered the unauthorised allowances paid by universities governing bodies for several years to be “unlawful”. Two universities were still disputing what they could legally pay their presidents.

Higher Education Authority chief executive Tom Boland said that the “most effective way” that the issue could be addressed was through reductions in the 2011 annual grant allowances to universities.

The disputed allowances were paid over several years without the approval of the authority, despite legislation that stipulates approval must be sought. 

Mr Boland said he believed the largest amount, of approximately €1.2m per annum, had been paid out by UCD, with similar, unauthorised payments paid in other institutions. 

In total, he said the authority intended to withhold approximately €7m from the 2011 grant to the various universities.

Questioned by Fianna Fáil TD Micheal McGrath why the money paid out could not be recouped directly from those who had benefited, Mr Boland said “legal advice indicates considerable difficulties” in pursing individuals for the funds.

He added that a new Code of Governance for university governing bodies had been drawn up since the controversy over the unauthorised allowances had “blown up” last September, and this now placed the onus on the bodies to ensure staff payments were in line with public sector criteria. 

It was also accepted that “technical issues” meant payments to UCD president Hugh Brady were still not in accordance with Department of Education criteria. 

There was also continuing dispute with the University of Limerick over its decision to continue paying former president John O’Connor his full salary after he had been replaced.

PAC chairman Bernard Allen said he expected the relevant bodies to be written to in an attempt to bring the situation to a conclusion, adding “there would seem to have been a fair amount of pussy-footing going on”.

The issue of rogue private training company Empower, whose directors fled the country late last year leaving students owed money and without certification, was brought up by Mr Allen with representatives of state certification body FETAC. 

Its chief executive Stan McHugh admitted that there had been a failure to inform the public that Empower had been removed from its register of approved trainers on September 13 last year until October 7. 

However, Mr McHugh said he did not accept Mr Allen’s assertion that as a result of this failure to act then and when FETAC was first informed of problems with the trainer in February 2010, “students lost substantial amounts of finances”. 

Mr McHugh said of the 1,164 learners affected, 528 had now be certified, 161 were still awaiting certification, 444 had been placed on programmes with other trainers and 31 cases were still outstanding.

By Scott Millar

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Friday, January 21, 2011

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