Deputy Niall Collins raised the ongoing situation in UL the Dail again this week
THE Higher Education Authority has admitted that it has “exhausted its efforts and statutory powers” in relation to ongoing matters at the University of Limerick, particularly concerning the case of two whistleblowers who have been suspended 16 months with pay.
After the HEA commissioned independent consultants Mazars to examine a range of issues in UL, which were brought to their attention by a number of current and former staff, it then appointed a facilitator “to explore the options and see if a basis could be found for a resolution to the dispute.”
It is understood that the facilitator has concluded her report and found that a facilitated intervention through the normal channels between all parties is highly unlikely to be successful.
The protracted UL situation has now led the HEA to ask the Department of Education and Skills whether new statutory powers are required to deal with universities who are unable and/or unwilling to resolve such matters.
In response to the confidential report, the HEA has noted that the escalation of matters at UL “has been at a professional and personal cost to the individuals involved”.
The stand-off has also incurred a cost to the State – in the form of fees for external consultants, as well as the time of HEA staff and staff of the department. “Costs, beyond reputational, have no doubt also been incurred by UL,” the HEA has stated.
Fianna Fail deputy Willie O'Dea told the Limerick Leader that this latest development in the case is “worrying”, and said it might now be time “for the Minister of Education to push the nuclear button” in appointing a State visitor to resolve issues.
“For the sake of the University of Limerick, its reputation, and that of the Mid-West, when we have seen a string of jobs announcements recently, this situation cannot be allowed to continue. The whistleblowers also have been in a state of purgatory since their suspension. It’s in everyone's interest that this is resolved as quickly as possible,” said deputy O'Dea.
The claims by two female whistleblowers in UL’s finance department regarding expenses and other financial matters – first aired in the Limerick Leader last September – gave rise to the HEA commissioning a report into processes and procedures in UL, which found a number of shortcomings.
The two suspended employees were presented with severance agreements by Arthur Cox solicitors, on behalf of UL, offering them nearly €60,000 each if they signed a confidentiality clause. They refused to sign these contracts, and a copy of the agreement has been printed in this newspaper.
UL president Don Barry denied that they were offered this sum on the basis of highlighting questionable expense claims and other financial concerns, and said they have been subject to a number of disciplinary hearings, including making a ‘malicious’ complaint against a colleague, which the whistleblowers strongly reject.
Fianna Fail deputy Niall Collins raised the matter in the Dail this week, and was told by Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton that “the Department and the HEA continue to work towards seeking a solution to this highly complex dispute.”
The Department of Education has now been asked by the HEA “to engage directly with the university through a request to consider solutions beyond those already pursued and to move to speedy resolution, mindful of the public interest, the sectoral reputation, and concern for the individuals involved.”
The HEA requested UL agree to the appointment of an independent external person - a State visitor, typically a retired judge - to undertake a full review of the allegations and complaints, but the HEA noted that this was rejected by UL. Under Section 20 of the Universities Act (1997), any external intervention can only be with the agreement of the university.
In response to Deputy Collins' query, Minister Bruton said that “following the publication of the Mazars review of the process employed by UL to inquire into allegations made by a number of individuals, the HEA met with the university to request a full response and an action plan to address the recommendations in the review.
“The response from UL was received by the HEA in March 2016 and set out a range of actions to be progressed in response to the recommendations. I understand that UL has indicated to the HEA that action has already been taken to progress the recommendations and the HEA are working closely with the university to ensure that the remaining actions are progressed,” he said.
In a statement to the Leader, a UL spokesperson said: “The university notes that there are currently two claims before the Workplace Relations Commission and the university is cooperating fully with this process. In the interim, the university is exploring any other options available to resolve this matter”.
Following the claims by the two whistleblowers, a third woman Leona O'Callaghan, who has since left the university and was directly replaced by one of the women in the finance department, revealed that she brought similar concerns regarding expenses to the Public Accounts Committee in 2012.
All three women highlighted concerns in relation to inappropriate expense claims they were asked to process by certain members of staff. The HEA also expressed concern that a culture of making inappropriate claims may still exist at UL.