Government ‘drops’ plans for powers to investigate universities

Department insists intention is to press ahead with controversial move at later date

A spokesman for the Department of Education confirmed that a planned amendment to the Technological University Bill will not now go ahead due to a number of “important technical issues”.

A spokesman for the Department of Education confirmed that a planned amendment to the Technological University Bill will not now go ahead due to a number of “important technical issues”.

 

The Government has dropped controversial plans to amend legislation before Christmas to allow for investigators to be appointed to examine wrongdoing by universities, according to well-placed sources.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton announced plans earlier this year to allow for Government-appointed inspectors to investigate issues of concern in legislation due be passed before Christmas.

This followed allegations of serious corporate governance issues at University of Limerick (UL), while senior staff in other institutions were accused of taking a “wild west” approach to the use of taxpayers’ money.

A spokesman for the Department of Education confirmed that a planned amendment to the Technological University Bill will not now go ahead due to a number of “important technical issues”.

While sources said the plans had been dropped, the spokesman insisted Mr Bruton still proposed that powers for the appointment of inspectors will be dealt with “through a separate legislative vehicle”.

It is not clear, however, what legislation this could relate to or whether it could be enacted in the lifetime of the Government.

The spokesman said the technical issues related to “university governance, autonomy and the impact of such a provision on the classification of universities in terms of wider national fiscal policy”.

Balance sheet

This is understood to relate to a highly sensitive decision due by European authorities shortly on whether Irish universities’ accounts should be included on the State’s balance sheet.

At present, universities are regarded as off-balance sheet. This has been crucial in allowing them to borrow hundreds of millions of euro to fund new buildings at a time when State investment has been falling and student numbers are rising.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton: announced plans earlier this year to allow for Government-appointed inspectors to investigate issues of concern. Photograph: Alan Betson
Minister for Education Richard Bruton: announced plans earlier this year to allow for Government-appointed inspectors to investigate issues of concern. Photograph: Alan Betson

However, senior officials are worried they could be reclassified as being on the State’s balance sheet, in the same way that Irish Water was in 2015.

While universities are autonomous under legislation, Government control of institutions has increased as a result of austerity-era restrictions on university salaries and staff numbers.

Any move to allow for the appointment of inspectors could be seen as a further attempt to increase control over the sector, say sources.

Critical decision

This will be a critical decision for the State and Irish universities, which have borrowed at least €675 million from the European Investment Bank (EIB) and other sources.

The move to drop immediate plans to appoint investigators reflects the depth of concern over this issue.

The UL controversy, in particular – which involved allegations of misspending and poor human resources practices – had highlighted the limited powers available to the Government in investigating universities. UL had initially rejected calls for an independent inquiry, though it reversed this position when it appointed a new president earlier this year.

The only power available to the Minister was to appoint a “visitor” to take over the running of a college, which would be seen as a disproportionate measure in most cases.

A spokesman for the department said the Higher Education Authority and both Mr Bruton and Minister of State for higher education Mary Mitchell O’Connor have placed a “huge emphasis on building strong governance arrangements in the higher education sector”.

This includes new reporting requirements for colleges and a new programme of rolling reviews has been established to cover specific elements of governance.