The University of Limerick (UL) has made financial settlements in the region of €150,000 with three whistleblowers, who alleged numerous incidents of misspending of taxpayers’ money, according to a report published in the Irish Times.
This move follows mediation talks, as well as the publication of an independent report that vindicated several allegations that involved UL’s finance, human resources, and government policies.
The findings reported that over €1.7 million was spent on severance packages for eight people previously employed at UL between 2008 and 2015.
UL president Dr Des Fitzgerald has confirmed that the settlements have been made to three women who were previously employed in the finance section of the university. A spokesman for the university declined to reveal how much they were compensated saying that the financial element was “similar in each case and is not excessive”.
The overall settlement is said to be in the region of €150,000 based on a confirmed sum of between €50,000 and €60,000 given to one of the whistleblowers.
Dr Fitzgerald, whose tenure as president began last year, said investigations into these allegations, as well as putting checks in place to ensure mistakes are not repeated, has been a top priority. He acknowledged and accepted that the university had made serious transgressions in the past and apologised for the grievance caused to all those involved.
Leona O’Callaghan, one of the whistleblowers, welcomed the decision and believes that the university is taking the correct steps to address the issues. However she is disappointed there had been no “individual accountability”.
Two other whistleblowers, known only as “B” and “C” in an investigation, were found to be suspended on full pay for two and a half years. As part of the settlement, their suspensions were lifted.
The Irish Times has reported that the Comptroller and Auditor General is also finalising an investigation into severance payments by UL to former staff.
If UL is found to have formally breached guidelines, the university may be financially penalised by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). This is under the jurisdiction of a new funding model adopted by the HEA, which came into effect recently.
The move to introduce penalties relating to issues of governance has come in the wake of several controversies involving higher education institutions in recent years. This penalty-based system may be used for “clear and unambiguous breaches of governance”.
It is understood that the authority recognises that any penalty could end up depriving universities of funds necessary to support vulnerable students when discussing the possibility of enforcing penalties.
In a recent interview with The Irish Times, Dr Fitzgerald voiced his concerns on the strain placed on both teaching and learning across higher education institutes caused by a lack of funding in the higher education sector. He also believes that it has contributed to one in five students dropping out from UL, saying: “It affects our ability to deliver new programmes and impacts on our ability to provide problem-based learning and experiential learning.” Fitzgerald has also called for a publicly funded system in higher education, deeming a proposed loan system a “barrier to students”.