Minister for Education Richard Bruton with the new UL president Des Fitzgerald
MINISTER for Education Richard Bruton has outlined the terms of reference of a new independent inquiry into affairs at the University of Limerick.
A third, former UL employee, Leona O'Callaghan, also made public her concerns regarding inappropriate claims she was asked to process in the same department.
The new inquiry follows an earlier review by independent consultant Mazars, which were appointed by the Higher Education Authority (HEA).
It found that three women in the finance department raised legitimate concerns in relation to inappropriate expenses they were asked to process, and that ultimately they were not paid as a result of the women flagging them as inappropriate.
These included expense claims for a spa treatment while in South Africa, the delivery of a fitted kitchen under the university's relocation policy, and sabbatical expenses in Australia.
Minister Bruton said that the inquiry, at the request of UL and his department, following consultation with the Higher Education Authority (HEA), will review governance, HR and financial practices and procedures at UL.
He said that this decision arises from a number of protected disclosures and other complaints received from employees and former employees of the university.
Mr Bruton has also met individually with the whistleblowers to receive their cases, describing them as "very genuine".
Dr Richard Thorn, President Emeritus of Sligo Institute of Technology, will oversee the independent review.
On the basis of information received, a report will make recommendations in relation to governance, HR, financial and administrative processes, as well as overall organisational culture.
It will also examine the application of wider HR policies and processes in the university.
This will cover the governance arrangements and practices around the use of severance payments.
The review will include "details of the allegations from the disclosers and any other persons who feel that there are matters of concern or of public interest relating to the University of Limerick that need to be addressed."
It is expected that the review will be completed by September 30, and if not, an interim report will be provided.
It is estimated that the review will take 20 to 25 working days to complete.
The department has outlined that Dr Thorn will "determine whether the allegations require further examination and whether, on the balance of probabilities, the allegations are well-founded."
He will consult with the Department and HEA as required and provide regular updates to them, and present his final report, including any findings or recommendations, to all parties.
“All parties will collaborate fully with the review and respond promptly and in full to requests from the reviewer for information, documents and other records,” outlined the department.
Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald has urged that other whistleblowers within UL should feel “absolutely safe” in being allowed to come forward to inform a new inquiry.
However, she said they must receive “an absolute assurance that their careers won’t be damaged” as a result.
Ms McDonald, a Masters graduate of UL in European integration in law, economics and politics, said it could be argued that some €70,000 spent to date on other facilitation processes, including two reports by the HEA, “might be money down the drain.”
“Money will have to be spent by the State because we can’t tolerate a situation where bad practices are left undetected,” she said.
She said the inquiry needs to be “thoroughly and expeditiously investigated”.
“There is no doubt that it [the inquiry] is absolutely necessary; that became very apparent at the hearing at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).”
Ms McDonald said it’s “indefensible that this matter has been allowed to fester for two years.”
“Of course this isn't just a story or a set of headlines. There are real people caught up in the middle of all of this. Things can drift, that’s a fact of life, but when things drift for two years, perhaps it represents an unwillingess or an inability to deal with the issues in question.
“It certainly demonstrates that the appetite to get to the facts was not very sharp by those who were trusted with investigation.
“There are no doubts there are flaws [within UL] and in some cases malpractice, and employees at the university have gone through a very hard time and been personally and professionally damaged, and we certainly can’t have that.
“Public confidence is at the heart of all of this and I look forward to the day when we can meet at committee and say hand on heart that all is well in Limerick. That’s not the case at the moment and we have to face up to that reality.
“We're not going to be fobbed off with another process that's narrow or deficient. The terms of reference need to be robust, they need to be fully encompassing and they need to reach into all of the concerns and the malpractice in the university. Narrow terms of reference or half measures won't cut it. We need a full and proper investigation.”
Ms McDonald said this is not a “a witch-hunt” against UL, “nor about punishing, or even a blame game. This is about getting things right and facing the facts.”
Meanwhile, the new president of UL has informed staff to prepare for further revelations regarding the institution, which are due to be disclosed in an upcoming broadcast of Prime Time in the coming weeks.
Dr Desmond Fitzgerald has held a series of “town hall” meetings with the campus community this week, following which he said he felt “encouraged by the UL spirit.”
Terms of Reference
The terms of reference of the review are as follows:
The reviewer will receive details of the allegations from the disclosers and any other persons who feel that there are matters of concern or of public interest relating to the University of Limerick that need to be addressed.
Where appropriate, the reviewer will interview or consult with the disclosers, other persons and relevant members of staff in the University in relation to the matters identified.
The reviewer may revert to any party if further clarification or information is required.
On the basis of the information received, the reviewer will:
· Determine whether the allegations require further examination and whether, on the balance of probabilities, the allegations are well-founded;
· Where allegations have been determined as well-founded, prepare a report that shall make findings or recommendations on the steps to be taken by the University including governance, HR, financial and administrative processes as well as overall organisational culture;
· Examine the application of wider HR policies and processes in the University. This will cover the governance arrangements and practices around the use of severance payments.
· Consider specifically and report on the recommendations in the Mazars report which have yet to be implemented.
The reviewer will consult with the Department and HEA as required and provide regular updates to them.
The reviewer will present his/her final report, including any findings or recommendations, to all parties (the disclosers and other persons, the University, the Department and the HEA).
Approach to the Review
The HEA will oversee the review and will commission an appropriate independent external reviewer to conduct the exercise. It is estimated that the review will take 20-25 working days to complete.
The HEA Executive will support the reviewer in general administration, analysis of material and gathering of relevant data as required.
All parties will collaborate fully with the review and respond promptly and in full to requests from the reviewer for information, documents and other records.
It is expected that the review will be completed by 30th September 2017. In the event that it is not practicable to make a final report within this timeframe, an interim report will be provided.