A second investigation is to take place into the manner in which University of Limerick paid generous severances to senior staff and then re-hired them, writes Niall Murray.
It is one of the recommendations in the report of Richard Thorn into a range of issues at UL that he was asked by Education Minister Richard Bruton to investigate last May.
Mr Thorn received 28 submissions and met 34 people as part of his review, but a number of people who he wished or planned to speak to did not attend meetings.
Some parts of his report published by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) this afternoon have been redacted as matters are ‘sub-judice’. One case is believed to be in reference to severance payments and issues arising from them.
Mr Thorn, ex-president of Institute of Technology Sligo, has made 36 findings and 10 recommendations in his report.
The university has been asked by the HEA to act on the recommendations without delay and to provide a full formal response by Friday, November 24, just over a fortnight away.
Arising from one of the recommendations, Mr Thorn is to be engaged to conduct a further investigation for the HEA on severance and rehire arrangements. It is expected to begin shortly and to be concluded within a matter of weeks, the HEA said.
It emerged at the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee in March, and in an RTÉ Investigates programme, that two senior UL officials who were paid severance packages of over €320,000 each in 2012 were re-hired shortly after.
This was despite UL having previously told the Department of Education and Comptroller & Auditor General that the severances were necessary due to performance issues, something both figures are known to dispute.
Both men continued to work on a consultancy basis at UL until 2015.
The Thorn inquiry’s terms of reference asked for the governance arrangements and practices around the use of severance payments to be included in his examination of how human resources policies and process were applied by UL.
UL president Dr Des Fitzgerald stated today: “It is an extensive report and we must now study it in detail and respond to the HEA as quickly and comprehensively as possible and certainly by November 24.
“Nevertheless, I do wish to immediately acknowledge the seriousness of the matters addressed within it.
“Personally, despite the complex management and governance issues this report clearly highlights, what concerns me most of all is what it is says about how UL has treated some of its people in the past.
“Since I arrived at UL in May, I have emphasised our duty of care as an employer. This report casts light on occasions in the past where UL fell short of this standard.
“I hope that the concerns individuals have raised with the Minister, the Department of Education and Skills and the Higher Education Authority over many years have now been given a full hearing and we can resolve outstanding issues.
“I would add that I am heartened to see the report draw a line under a number of other issues that have been raised by both local and national media and subsequently scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee.
“UL will act swiftly in response to this report. It puts forward a series of recommendations, many of which are currently being addressed following a review of governance initiated by the UL Governing Authority in June 2017 and the recent change in management structures.
“I am encouraged that issues that had remained unresolved for far too long have now been thoroughly examined by the Higher Education Authority and Department of Education and Skills. I hope the publication of this report further helps to bring a positive resolution to these matters.”
UL said that it will now respond in detail to the HEA.
Mr Fitzgerald told students and staff last week that it has already implemented or begun implementing recommendations of two reports it commissioned into matters arising at the PAC and elsewhere, and into the university governing authority’s size and membership.
Two of the three female whistleblowers from UL’s finance department, whose claims about expenses issues and the university’s handling of them, formed a central part of the investigation, have been suspended with pay since mid-2015.
This happened after they made protected disclosures to the HEA about concerns over the handling of expense claims, and about their treatment by the university since raising those concerns internally.
Disciplinary proceedings were initiated against them regarding their complaint that a colleague threatened them at a Christmas party in 2014. An external investigation found that the complaint was made maliciously, and their appeal of that finding was unsuccessful.
The disciplinary proceedings are on hold until finalisation of their case against UL taken to the Workplace Relations Commission, in which they allege their health and safety was endangered, and suspension, in relation to a protected disclosure made in 2014.
The review noted that the decisions in the matters are now the subject of an appeal to the Labour Court.