UL students may have got wrong exam results, PAC hears

Unpublished report highlighted concerns over university’s student records system

University of Limerick president  Prof Desmond Fitzgerald:  “I want to assure families and students that the information is accurate – and we will continue to improve the system.” Photograph: Alan Place

University of Limerick president Prof Desmond Fitzgerald: “I want to assure families and students that the information is accurate – and we will continue to improve the system.” Photograph: Alan Place

 

The president of University of Limerick (UL) has played down concerns that hundreds of students may have received incorrect exam results over a period of many years.

The Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Thursday heard of serious concerns over the reliability of UL’s student records system.

The system determines the class of a degree a student receives by calculating average grades received between second year and the final year of a student’s course.

The Public Accounts Committee heard that an unpublished report which the university commissioned from Deloitte in 2015 outlined concerns over potentially serious weaknesses in a system in place for almost two decades.

A whistleblower at the university raised concerns over the system in a private session of the committee earlier this week.

He is said to have made efforts to raise concerns about the stability of the student records system and the potential for a large number of students being given incorrect degree results.

Audit halted

The whistleblower also claimed that an audit of student records was halted and never resumed.

Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane said: “Potentially, people have been given results that weren’t the results they achieved. It’s a very serious allegation.”

UL president Prof Desmond Fitzgerald confirmed that concerns had been raised in a report by Deloitte.

However, he said an independent firm has been commissioned to conduct a trawl of records to identify any anomalies in students’ results as far back as the 1980s.

“We found one student who was given a 2:2, and should have got a 2;1, and that student was informed,” he said.

When asked if there was a need for a more detailed independent audit of students’ records, Prof Fitzgerald said he did not think so given that students’ grades are subject to external validation.

“I want to assure families and students that the information is accurate – and we will continue to improve the system,” he said.

“We’re facing a huge growth in the number of students over the coming years. We have to make changes to our systems to accommodate that. It is a priority for me and the institute to make sure those systems are accurate and robust.”

The university was also questioned over a series of controversies including the provision of misleading information to the committee over severance packages for two staff members who were rehired as highly paid consultants.

Top-up pensions

In addition, UL was criticised for inappropriate top-up pensions totalling €1.2 million to two senior staff members.

Mr Cullinane said it was clear the university in its previous dealings with the committee – prior to Prof Fitzgerald taking over as president – had “lied” to the committee.

The Comptroller and Auditor General Séamus McCarthy agreed that in his dealings with the university there had been a deliberate attempt to mislead him with false documentation.

“If I were managing a private audit practice, we would have walked away from this, but that option wasn’t available to me . . . I do accept Prof Fitzgerald’s representations that this will not happen again.”

In the case of senior staff who provided misleading information, Prof Fitzgerald said two individuals had stepped down from their positions.

He confirmed they were employed elsewhere in the university on the same salary scale.

Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry said he was “gobsmacked” at how these individuals had been rewarded in contrast to the treatment of whistleblowers who had drawn attention to issues of public concern.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly also said whistleblowers have been “heroes” and paid a heavy price in losing out on pensions and career advancement.

Prof Fitzgerald, however, said extensive efforts have been made to engage and agree settlements with whistleblowers and to thank them for their work in ensuring its systems are more robust in future.