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.


© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

Email Updates

Receive our lunchtime briefing straight to your inbox

Related Articles

Department rejects schools’ bids to rectify fire safety fears

Top grades for Eimear as 61,000 students receive their exam results

Irish ‘most likely to be depressed if uneducated’

Decision time - Funding third level

More in this Section

Cabinet warned demands for extra funds will be viewed 'extremely negatively'

HSE and gardaí ordered to release key reports

Former Cork tax office to be knocked after two fires

Farming survey: One third of farmers don’t think farming hits climate


Breaking Stories

Natural gas customers in two counties told to switch off supply

Taoiseach announces centre-piece of his national pension plan

Gardaí find more than 300 drivers breaking speed limit during #ProjectEDWARD

Gardaí complete search but find nothing to further Trevor Deely investigation

Lifestyle

Getting clean and lean: James Duigan on the simplicity of changing your food habits

Ask Audrey: You’re 9 on the Crazy Scale, where 1 is sane and 10 is flying with Ryanair

Get out and enjoy: What's on offer for Culture Night?

Upper crusts: Eight sourdough breads tested

More From The Irish Examiner