UL makes settlements of up to €150,000 with whistleblowers

Move follows allegations of misspending taxpayers’ money at University of Limerick

The University of Limerick (UL) has made financial settlements in the region of €150,000 with three key whistleblowers who highlighted a series of allegations over the misspending of taxpayers' money.

The move followed mediation talks and the publication of an independent report which vindicated some of their allegations regarding the university’s finance, human resources and governance policies.

Among its findings were that more than €1.7 million has been spent on severance packages for eight former employees between 2008 and 2015.

UL president Dr Des Fitzgerald has confirmed that settlements have been made in the cases of the three women who formerly worked in the college's finance section.

A spokesman for the university declined to say how much they were paid beyond saying the financial element was “similar in each case and is not excessive”.

One of the settlements is understood to be the region of €50,000-€60,000, so an overall package is likely to be in the region of €150,000.

Dr Fitzgerald, who took over as president a year ago, said it has been his priority to get to the bottom of the allegations and put in place checks to ensure mistakes are not repeated.

Serious mistakes

He has accepted the university made serious mistakes in the past and apologised for hurt caused to all those affected.

Leona O’Callaghan, one of the whistle-blowers whose allegations were vindicated, said she felt satisfied the university had now taken steps to tackle the issues, although she felt disappointed there had been no “individual accountability”.

Two other whistleblowers, known as ‘B’ and ‘C’ in an investigation, were suspended on full pay for 2½ years. Their suspensions were lifted as part of the settlement.

Meanwhile, The Irish Times understands that the Comptroller and Auditor General is finalising an investigation into severance payments by UL to former staff.

It is understood that education authorities were kept in the dark over some of the payments, which may have breached pay policy guidelines. Some of these staff were later rehired on lucrative contracts.

If the university is found to have formally breached pay guidelines, UL may face financial penalties from the Higher Education Authority.

New model

This is under new a new funding model adopted by the authority which came into force recently.

The move to introduce penalties for governance issues follows a number of controversies involving higher education institutions over recent years.

This penalty-based system may be used for “clear and unambiguous breaches of governance”.

The authority is understood to have discussed the possibility recently, though officials are mindful that any penalty could end up depriving funds to support vulnerable students.

In an interview, Dr Fitzgerald said underfunding of the higher education sector was putting strain on teaching and learning across the sector. It was also contributing to one in five students dropping out of college at UL.

“It . . . affects our ability to deliver new programmes and impacts on our ability to provide problem-based learning and experiential learning . . . there’s one class with over 700 students.” He said he did not support the introduction of a loan scheme for students.

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