University of Limerick seeks to rebuild trust after controversies

President Des Fitzgerald says safeguards will ensure old practices ‘never happen again’

Dr Des Fitzgerald, president of University of Limerick, says his priority has been to deal with damaging revelations involving the college. Photograph: Alan Place

Dr Des Fitzgerald, president of University of Limerick, says his priority has been to deal with damaging revelations involving the college. Photograph: Alan Place

 

The walls of the University of Limerick (UL) president’s office are plastered with Post-It notes, maps, flow charts and lists of faculty members.

Dr Des Fitzgerald has no shortage of plans for the university, but much of his time has been spent mired in a swamp of allegations over misspending and poor human resources practices.

The first year of his presidency has involved trying to get to the bottom of murky practices such as excessive payouts for former staff members, a VIP-style expenses system for senior staff and attempts to silence or “manage out” whistle-blowers.

In total, the university spent more than €1.7 million on severance packages for eight former employees between 2008 and 2015.

Some of these former staff were subsequently rehired on lucrative contracts. Education authorities were kept in the dark over the payments, which breached pay policy guidelines.

The details shook confidence not just in UL, but in the wider third-level system at a time when the sector needed an urgent injection of State funding.

Dr Fitzgerald, previously a senior academic at UCD and one of the country’s top researchers, says his focus has been on dealing with all the issues in an open and transparent way.

“My priority was to try to find out what happened, begin the process of fixing it and making sure we dealt with people who had grievances in a systematic way,” he says.

Audit and risk

There have been sweeping changes to the college’s management and governance structures this year with expertise in audit and risk. There has also been mediation and financial settlements with whistle-blowers, who first drew attention to many of these issues.

“All those changes have been aimed at bringing in oversight to ensure that it never happens again,” he says.

Rebuilding trust for UL, and the wider third-level sector, will be crucial if higher education is to secure extra State funding.

There is little doubt that it is hurting. Core State funding since the financial crisis is down by close to 30 per cent, while students numbers have grown significantly.

While the idea of a student loan scheme has been floated as one way of helping to bridge the funding gap for higher education, Fitzgerald is opposed to such as move.

He feels a publicly-funded system – as is the norm across most of Europe – is the best way forward.

“I think loans could be barrier for students . . . just 27 per cent of school leavers in Limerick city go to university; that’s one of worst statistics in terms of access nationally.”

Instead, he says higher levels of State funding, along with tight spending rules, are required. At the same time, colleges should be given greater autonomy to hire additional staff if they can demonstrate they are performing well.

The consequences of underfunding for higher education, he says, are plain to see in terms of students falling through the cracks.

“We’re not providing the sort of services and student experience that we would like to . . . that can affect the number of people who are progressing and completing their courses. Our non-completion rate is 20 per cent. We could do a lot more on the student experience and engagement,” he says.

“It also 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 – it’s impossible for anyone to learn properly in that environment.”

Projected growth

Student numbers at the university, perched on the edge of Limerick city, are projected to grow by 30 per cent over the next decade, up from 15,000 to 20,000.

Yet State funding for capital projects has been virtually non-existent for the past decade.

Notwithstanding that, there are ambitious plans for the expansion of UL into the heart of the city and in a new “university town” on the Clare/Limerick border.

Dr Fitzgerald says the university is in discussions with Clare County Council about a special development zone.

“The idea is to create a university town: a space where people would move in to work, live go to school and participate in all the things that a university can offer: sports, arts, education and so on.”

It would require a new norther distributor road, off the N7, to open up the land for development.

Despite the challenges, he is defiantly upbeat for the future of the university and its students.

He says they have some of the best employability rates, with 74 per cent of graduates securing work and 20 per cent going on to do post-grads.

In addition, he sees a growing role for the university in providing upskilling and lifelong learning for employees in the workplace.

“We see ourselves as a civic university: we’re producing producing graduates that the region needs, but more than that, we’re one of the biggest social facilities in the areas of sport, performing arts [and] healthcare.”