Colleges spend €750k on taxis in two years

EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn has been urged to take action if universities are found to be wasting public money after it emerged they spent more than €750,000 on taxis in the last two years.

Almost €263,000 — or 35% — of the €753,446 in taxi charges paid by the seven colleges in 2010 and 2011 was racked up at University College Cork (UCC). The university also paid over €533,000 in expenses associated with visiting lecturers in 2009 and 2010, but the number of people involved is not revealed.

Just over €17,000 was paid by NUI Galway (NUIG) for around 300 visiting lecturers in the same two years, while Dublin City University (DCU) paid €50,000 for 97 visiting lecturers in 2009 and 73 in 2010. The only other university to provide visiting lecturer costs was University of Limerick, which said it paid an hourly rate only for 1,029 people across both years.

After UCC, the highest taxi bill for 2010 and 2011 was incurred by NUI Maynooth in Co Kildare (€128,038), followed by DCU’s €95,000. NUIG paid less than €50,000.

Mr Quinn supplied the information to Cork South West Labour TD Michael McCarthy, based on data collected by the Higher Education Authority. The figures do not make clear the differentiation between universities in policies for staff travel and other expenses.

UCC did not make any comment in response to questions about the figures from the Irish Examiner.

A spokesperson for Mr Quinn said the universities have their own governing authorities and accountability structures to determine how their funding is spent.

But Mr McCarthy said that, at a time when third-level colleges are critical of the level of public funding they receive, it is vital that taxpayers be assured they are getting proper value for money.

“One has to question if that is the case in respect of all the universities, but particularly in UCC, given its proximity to the train station and the airport,” he said.

“It has to be asked who authorised this kind of spending [on taxis], what travel was involved, and what level of accountability there is for it, particularly given the whole issue of funding for third level,” he said.

Mr McCarthy said that Mr Quinn should look at the issue of colleges’ spending seriously, given that around 80% of the€8 billion-plus education budget is spent on pay and pensions.

“There have to be consequences and the minister must take action to prevent wastage of money if there is found to be unjustified spending,” he said. “The minister would have to move, he can’t just say it’s up to the universities themselves.”

The spending figures also show almost €5.3m was spent by universities on agency staff in 2009 and 2010, mostly to replace administration and support staff who retired because of restrictions on public service recruitment. Mr McCarthy said it does not make sense that any arm of the state is unable to recruit but relies instead on agency staff.

“I raised this at the Public Accounts Committee with Minister Brendan Howlin last month and he has given a commitment to relax that where it doesn’t make sense or save money,” he said.

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