State pays €5m college fees for department staff

Taxpayers have forked out €5m for college fees for hundreds of staff across government departments under the Coalition.

Department staff have received refunds of up to €8,000 in some cases for courses they attended.

Student representatives queried why the money was going to staff for courses while there were also calls for “clawbacks” if up-skilled staff left posts.

Figures obtained by the Irish Examiner show amounts going on college fees for staff since 2011, the year the Coalition came to power.

Justice spent the largest amount of €665,000 on college fees for staff since 2011 with Justice Minister Alan Shatter saying he supported learning for staff.

The relevance of a course to a staff member’s role, the number of applications received and previous spending on an employee’s education were among criteria used to decide on cases, he said.

The same amount for fees was refunded to staff in the Department of Transport.

The next largest amount where taxpayers picked up the tab for college fees was in Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney’s department, which defended the €571,000 in refunds to staff for fees, and revealed that some employees were even asked to attend courses where “a critical knowledge gap has been identified”.

Money is paid to staff under the refund of academic of fees scheme, overseen by the Department of Public Expenditure. Other departments where staff got fees refunded included:

- Education: €460,000;

- Jobs and Enterprise: €440,000;

- Environment: €450,000;

- Social Protection: €403,000.

Social Protection Minister Joan Burton said areas of study which are funded reflected the department’s “current and future business needs”.

Elsewhere, staff working for Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore received refunds of €280,000. Staff did the courses in their own time, he said.

Other spends by the departments on college fees included: Public Expenditure (€262,000); Arts (€236,000); Health (€190,000); Energy and Communications (€132,000).

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said his staff were refunded €102,000 and got no bonuses for doing courses.

Finance spent €44,000 on fees. Finance Minister Michael Noonan confirmed his department paid almost €8,000 for some qualifications, including a masters in economic science.

Union of Students in Ireland president Joe O’Connor questioned why department staff were getting refunds and why money was not going directly into education.

“In many cases, people are taking courses on for their own benefit, not just the department’s, and in most cases staff are in a better position to foot costs rather than students.”

Mr O’Connor said funds instead could go on alleviating new charges affecting thousands of apprentices in colleges. Charges would cost students €540 to save €1.6m for the exchequer, he said. “If you give me that money [for fees], I would find more equitable ways to spend it.”

The college fees data was released to Independent TD Terence Flanagan, through parliamentary answers. He called for a central training unit for departmental staff. He also added: “There should be a clawback if staff are up-skilled but leave within a year or two. It’s all about value for money.”

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