Quinn and the colleges


THE MINISTER for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn, has a very welcome penchant for straight talking – as the heads of the seven universities discovered at a meeting in the Department of Education earlier this week.

The Minister focused on two areas of concern. First, he lamented how the colleges, so vocal in their criticisms of the Leaving Cert exam, had failed to deliver reform proposals promised last September. Second, he highlighted the €8 million in unauthorised payments made by the universities to senior staff – and their continuing failure to address the issues raised before an increasingly sceptical public.

Mr Quinn is raising perfectly legitimate questions. The Hyland report published last September outlined the negative “backwash’’ effect of the Leaving Cert and the points system. The university presidents promised to deliver their own reform proposals, but these have still to materialise. Their spokesman says the issues involved are weighty and require careful consideration but it’s not unreasonable for the Minister to expect some kind of response after a nine-month interval. Are each of the universities, as Mr Quinn suspects, protecting their own fiefdoms – instead of looking to the wider good? What are the universities doing about the huge level of duplication across the sector, where there are between 10 and 20 different specialised courses within the arts, business or engineering faculties?

The questions raised about the payments of unauthorised allowances are, arguably, even more serious. Controversy about these payments has been allowed to rumble on for more than two years. The colleges have been admonished by both the Dáil Committee on Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General. There has been particular criticism of UCD and UCC, the most culpable when it comes to unlawful payments to senior staff. Through it all, the college presidents have refused to explain why such payments were made without the required approval – and how they can justify this unauthorised use of taxpayer funds. Mr Quinn is correct when he says that “without accountability and financial probity, the perception that public money is being misused will gain even greater credence”.

The universities, it seems, feel a little bruised by Mr Quinn’s comments; some claim they are designed to deflect attention from the funding crisis in higher education. But that is another issue. For now, university presidents should stop the prevarication – and address the important questions raised by the Minister.