IRELAND: Probe into university payments embarrassing

Unauthorised payments of allowances, bonuses and enhanced pensions for some university staff over several years have been revealed in a report from Ireland's public spending watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General.

It has caused deep embarrassment to university leaders who tried to explain the expenditure when they appeared before a parliamentary committee on public spending earlier this month.

Although most of the overpayments have now ceased, there are no plans to recoup the excess money paid in the majority of cases. Legal advice suggests that the topped up pensions will have to be paid for some existing staff. In future, decisions about adding years for pension purposes will be taken by the Departments of Education and Finance.

The salary bill for the university sector is around EUR1 billion (US$1.3 billion) a year but the report showed that some were paid way above the odds. For instance, three people were simultaneously paid presidential salaries of almost EUR230,000 each at the University of Limerick in 2007-08.

But the main focus of attention in the report is University College Dublin (UCD), where it seems that for a while few people started work on the first point of their salary scale, hundreds received additional payments, a few received bonuses and most retired on enhanced pensions.

Not one of the 195 staff who began work in the academic year 2007-08 entered on the first point of the incremental scale. Some 70% were appointed above the third point of the relevant scale while five joined on the 10th point of a 15-point scale and three college administrative staff started on the 11th point.

The college said the starting salaries were negotiated at the time of appointment. Typical factors included relevant credentials, expertise and experience. But the report said that, in the absence of compelling reasons, the starting pay should be at the minimum of the scale.

Getting the best people was also the justification for generous payments to 11 senior staff who between them had a combined salary, bonus and special pension arrangements that cost just under EUR3 million in December 2008. Since then no bonuses have been paid and the basic salary has been cut in line with cuts throughout the public service.

Just over EUR1 million was paid in allowances to vice-presidents and other senior staff in the year ending September 2007 while 300 others got smaller allowances and the university also paid EUR265,000 in bonuses to 12 staff over a four-year period.

UCD said these performance-related payments were part of their overall remuneration.

The report revealed that huge numbers of academic staff retired on enhanced pensions. In UCD's case, 78% of staff retiring between October 2007 and September 2008 had years added to their service for pension purposes.

In University College Cork it transpired that 44 academic staff appointed prior to 8 July 1986 are eligible by legal statute to retire at 60 with seven added pension years. If they stay on until they are 65, they are entitled to 10 extra years.

The practice also benefited some non-academic staff. In Cork eight non-academic staff were given enhanced pensions last year, while Trinity College Dublin gave extra years to 37 non-academic staff between 2007 and 2009. The report concluded that added years became a de facto entitlement in Trinity for many staff.

The report could not have come at a worse time for universities, which are bracing themselves for more cuts in December's budget.

Fergus Finlay, a former Labour Party strategist, commentator and likely presidential candidate next year wrote scathingly that "it looks as if UCD was being run as a private gravy train, albeit with public money - at a time when college authorities were bleating to everyone who would listen about a crisis in funding for third-level education".