Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton, has announced that the Minister’s powers will expand to allow him to appoint investigators to look into issues of concern in higher education institutions.
This announcement follows revelations of financial mismanagement and issues of poor governance in a number of universities. Both the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have called for more power and resources to be granted to the Minister to examine these issues.
In order to examine the affairs of a university, the Department of Education and Skills must currently gain the permission of the university in question to examine their affairs. If permission is not granted, the Minister has the power to appoint an investigator to look into the affairs of the university, but this requires permission from the High Court. This path can only be undertaken if there was evidence of egregious breaches of governance.
Following the expansion of the Minister’s powers, the Minister for Education and Skills can now appoint an independent investigator to examine the affairs of universities and Institutes of technology.
The Minister made the announcement of RTÉ’s Morning Ireland. On the RTÉ radio programme he stated that he felt this change would grant the government “all the powers we need” to ensure that universities were handling their funds appropriately, and would ensure that government structures and the powers of the HEA would be “fit for purpose”.
He said: “We value the autonomy of Institutes of Technology and universities and in the past the Dáil has fought very strongly to protect that autonomy”. He stated that he wished to maintain this autonomy, but said that a balance must be struck between maintaining university’s autonomy and having some government oversight.
A report published by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which criticised issues of financial mismanagement in universities, called for more power and resources to be granted to the Minister to look into these issues.
Concerns over University of Limerick’s financial practises were first raised in 2012 by three staff members of the university. Since then, a number of issues surrounding the management of the university’s funds have emerged, including inappropriate expenses paid to staff members. For example, the university issued authorised and inappropriate severance packages to senior staff members totaling €600,000, paid €15,000 to a staff member and his wife while they were away in Sydney, and spent €42,000 on customised silver medallions for senior staff.
A recent audit of universities found that a number of universities failed to declare tens of millions of euro in private trusts and failed to comply with with procedural rules. A range of governance issues were also found across Irish universities, including inappropriate payments made to staff in the national University of Galway (NUIG). No issues with the governance of Trinity were found.