The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has decided to abstain from publishing a follow-up report on the inquiry into the University of Limerick (UL).
The decision has been made on account of several persons referenced in the report being currently involved in High Court proceedings. Matters relating to these persons are prohibited from public discussion. The court case concerns proceedings against UL.
The follow-up report focuses on the rehire and consultancy arrangements for particular members of staff who received severance packages from UL. The review was conducted by Dr. Richard Thorn, president emeritus of the Institute of Technology, Sligo. On the basis of Thorn’s findings, the HEA is satisfied that no further action is required. UL must continue to implement the recommendations in Thorn’s first report, along with other UL internal audit reports. These compel the university to account for all severance packages.
Concerns over the university’s irregular financial practices were first raised by whistle-blowers within the university in 2012. The suspension of two unnamed whistle-blowers was lifted in November 2017 following the initial Thorn report.
In compiling the follow-up report, Thorn was provided with the Deloitte report, an internal audit completed in September 2017. Details from the confidential audit have recently been published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, revealing that it found 42 matters of significant concern relating to termination payments, further study, procurement and correspondence exchanged between UL and key stakeholders.
The Deloitte report states that incomplete information was provided to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Department of Education in relation to two severance payments made by UL. The payments were made to former director of lifelong learning and outreach Dermot Coughlan and former financial controller John Fox.
In a statement issued by UL, it notes that “the university is now implementing the recommendations of its Deloitte report and is reporting back to both the HEA and Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on the progress of that implementation. The report recommends a course of action and the university is adhering to that”.
UL declined to release the Deloitte report late in 2017 following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by former Limerick Leader editor Alan English. UL explained this decision on December 4 by stating that “premature release of the record would negatively impact on the university’s strategic, financial and competitive positions”.
Leona O’ Callaghan, one of the whistle-blowers who raised concerns about the university’s financial practices, said that she has witnessed little change as a result of the reports. “There’s no one who’s been held to account,” noted O’ Callaghan, who first observed discrepancies in UL’s finance department when she was placed in charge of verifying expense claims. “There are no disciplinary actions that we’ve been made aware of. We’re all left in the same place we were in before the report.”
The initial 122-page review criticised several practices in UL, particularly in relation to mismanagement of severance payments and the handling of staff disputes. The review also found UL’s legal action against the Limerick Leader following the paper’s report on allegations made against the university to have been “ill-conceived”. UL has since apologised to the paper and its editor.
The review found UL’s severance packages to be in breach of public pay guidelines. The Department of Education was not informed of them and they were not approved by UL’s governing authority. The severance packages were revealed to be worth over €1.7 million.