Colleges’ sabbatical pay under Higher Education Authority spotlight

The committee heard that University of Limerick had made a €185,000 tax settlement with the Revenue Commissioners in 2013

By Niall Murray, Education Correspondent

A review of policies on pay and other benefits for third-level college staff is about to begin, almost a year after it was due to commence.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) review is to focus on examining policies in respect of pay, pensions, travel, and leave, and how those policies are applied. Sabbatical leave is one issue to be covered by the review, which the HEA said is part of a working plan for rolling annual reviews of governance in the sector.

The HEA allocates most of the €1bn a year provided by the Department of Education for the operation of the seven universities, 14 institutes of technology, and a small number of other publicly-funded third-level colleges.

It also has oversight of governance in the sector, a role which has taken up a growing proportion of time and staffing resources in the HEA in recent years. The problems associated with this extra work, and the increasing reliance on the HEA by the Department of Education for such exercises, were linked to the announcement last month by the authority’s chief executive Graham Love that he is to resign after just 18 months in the job.

The review will include an examination of how sabbatical leave is treated for pay purposes by colleges, an issue raised last year at Dáil Public Accounts Committee hearings with the HEA and third-level colleges.

The committee heard that University of Limerick had made a €185,000 tax settlement with the Revenue Commissioners in 2013 after a voluntary disclosure about how income tax and other deductions were not applied to some payments of expenses to university staff on sabbatical.

As reported by the Irish Examiner last week, a note by Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy in NUI Galway’s latest financial accounts said that a staff member was paid over €90,000 while absent on grounds that did not meet the university’s own rules around payments for sabbatical leave. The leave was taken immediately before the person received a severance payment from the university, but the circumstances were not in accordance with some key conditions of the university’s sabbatical leave payments scheme.

The PAC recommended in its July 2017 report on governance and financial matters in the third-level sector that the HEA oversee a review on sabbatical leave practices, with particular reference to tax compliance.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe told the PAC last December the Department of Education had informed him that the national review of staff compensation and benefits in the sector, to include sabbatical leave practices, was beginning in the final quarter of last year.

However, the HEA has told this paper it and the department are currently finalising the terms of reference and scope of the review, which it now hopes will begin in October. A spokesperson said it had been hoped the review would begin before the end of 2017.

There was a delay in relation to the completion of other reviews, which pushed the start date out,” said the HEA. “As there is significant fieldwork required with this review, we also decided not to commence too near the summer months and that is why it was deferred until October.

Among the reviews whose completion was delayed was an examination by the HEA of how third-level colleges manage intellectual property and conflicts of interest.

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