Nothing to show ‘anything illegal’ at UL

The president of the University of Limerick has said there is “no evidence of anything illegal” in any of the allegations against the university.

The allegations are being examined by a State- appointed reviewer Dr Richard Thorn. The former president of Sligo Institute of Technology is probing up to two dozen complaints made against UL by current and former staff, in areas of finance, human resources, and governance.

A report is due in the autumn, with any corrective measures against UL to be taken by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the Department of Education.

Following the series of allegations of misconduct at UL, and in other institutions, Education Minister Richard Bruton is finalising provisions to grant more authority to the HEA. This includes new powers allowing the authority to impose an investigator on higher education institutions.

Under Section 20 of the Universities Act (1997), any external intervention can only be with the agreement of the university.

“This is a serious erosion of the autonomy of the university, often stated to be a pillar of the Government’s policy on higher education, and a central tenet of the Universities Act,” said UL president Dr Des Fitzgerald in an email to staff.

UL had resisted attempts by the HEA to appoint an investigator, but when he took up office in May, Dr Fitzgerald reversed UL’s position and wrote to the secretary general of the Department of Education indicating their full support for a thorough examination.

Speaking on Limerick’s Live95FM, Dr Fitzgerald said issues regarding the university’s finances are not “cultural”, nor had any evidence of any illegal affairs been brought to his attention.

Instead, he said, issues have arisen around “the scale of the university and how rapidly it has built up suitable management programmes”.

“The management [structure] was too lean for the scale of the organisation that’s there,” he said.

Two employees from UL’s finance department remain suspended at a cost in excess of €120,000 to the State. They refused to sign confidential severance agreements of nearly €60,000 each to end their dispute with UL, which they claim arose as a result of questioning expenses to some senior staff.

“It’s not appropriate that people should be on paid leave for a period of two years. It started out as a fairly simple issue for members of staff. That escalated and shouldn’t have been allowed to escalate,” said Dr Fitzgerald.

On legal action taken against the Limerick Leader and its then editor Alan English regarding the first report on financial allegations, he said: “I wouldn’t have done that. It was a mistake.”

Dr Thorn said he has heard the testimonies of “very traumatic incidents for individuals, in the finance department in particular”, with more than 25 people interviewed.

“Very high-level matters concerning questions of governance have been raised, and, on the other hand, matters of deep concern to individual employees,” he said. “The legal advice sought in respect of severance packages and whether or not it was appropriate, or overly used is something that we’ll be looking at very carefully.”

The review is examining severance payments made to staff, totalling over €800,000, some of which had not received written prior approval from the department.

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