Education minister to have power to probe colleges

Legal powers to investigate misuse of funding and governance failures in third-level colleges are to be introduced by Education Minister Richard Bruton.

His plans to remove the need for High Court approvals before appointing an investigator come after damning criticism of a number of colleges from the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The minister has powers, under the 1997 Universities Act, to appoint an investigator — known as a visitor — to examine governance, including management of public funds, and other issues at the seven universities.

The appointment of a visitor has never been invoked, largely due to the complex legal steps which a minister must pursue before doing so.

These include a requirement to consult with the president of the High Court, and with the governing body of the university where concerns have been raised, and leave open the possibility of matters being decided in the courts. Despite these complexities, such a move was close to being taken by Mr Bruton, regarding the handling and investigation of claims of expenses abuse made by whistleblowers at University of Limerick.

It was only avoided when the university’s new president, Des Fitzgerald, asked for an independent investigation to be established by the Department of Education, as he wished to have the college’s reputation restored.

The new power would give Mr Bruton, and his successors, the right to appoint an investigator to any publicly-funded higher education institution, to investigate and report on issues related to the college’s governance and management.

A similarly straightforward process exists for the 14 institutes of technology, but a spokesperson for Mr Bruton said these would be further strengthened and become standard for all colleges.

“This will be a new, standalone power, which will be consistent right across the sector. The detailed language to give effect to the new power has yet to be drafted,” he said.

The powers are to be introduced through amendments to the Technological Universities Bill, at committee stage, in the autumn, when Mr Bruton will also make changes to the process for establishing a technological university (TU).

Under a recent agreement by his department with unions and management in the IoT sector, two or more IoTs jointly applying for TU status will now only be required to merge after they have completed and passed the application process.

The existing power to appoint an investigator was used in 1993 at Letterkenny Institute of Technology, and in 2000 at Institute of Technology Tralee.

In 2013, former Revenue Commissioners chairman Dermot Quigley found deficiencies in relation to governance and accountability, when he probed relationships between Waterford Institute of Technology and a group of companies which provided different services to the college.

Last week, the PAC made a number of recommendations so that third-level colleges would be more accountable for how they spend over €1bn a year of taxpayers’ money. This followed heated exchanges during hearings with managers from UL, University College Cork, and the Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, and Waterford institutes of technology.

TDs also proposed more resources and powers for the Higher Education Authority to regulate the sector.

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