The chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) said there was a “disturbing picture” of internal workings and governance at the University of Limerick (UL).
In an open letter to the highest official at the Department of Continuing Education and Higher Education, HEA Managing Director Dr. Alan Wall that “very serious and far-reaching problems” have come to light about the university. dr Wall said they couldn’t conduct their own investigation because of the legal advice, but said a full review of UL’s corporate governance should take place.
A Sunday independent An inquiry last year raised concerns about UL’s controversial €8m purchase of a former Dunnes Stores building in Limerick, despite being valued at €3m by Limerick City Council just two years earlier.
It was meanwhile the subject of a report from KPMG and inquiries from the Public Accounts Committee €1.7 million in equity funding for the university was withheld by the Ministry of Continuing Education and Higher Education over governance concerns.
This decision was based on an email that Dr. Wall had sent to the department’s general secretary, Jim Breslin, about several issues within the university last July, a copy of which was obtained under the Freedom of Information (FoI) framework.
The email states that a report of internal complaints at UL about protected disclosure of personnel issues raises a variety of questions about the functioning of the university. dr Wall explained that they had already looked into running UL, only to later learn about the acquisition of Dunnes Stores.
He wrote, “I cannot understand why the UL Board of Directors and Audit and Risk Committee have not updated the HEA on the issues surrounding the Dunnes site through the annual corporate governance statement.”
dr Wall said they had access to logs regarding Dunnes Stores real estate deal and a decision to ask KPMG to investigate the purchase.
“Serious problems are emerging again,” he wrote. “With all of this and several other matters that we are aware of, there is a worrying picture emerging of UL’s internal workings that I believe needs to be thoroughly investigated and addressed.”
Legal advice had made it clear that the HEA could not conduct its own investigation, but Dr. Wall and the HEA are still evaluating their options for how to proceed “given how seriously I find the issues arising.”
dr Wall suggested that one option might be to contact the government agency and ask them to commission a review to be conducted by an independent body, based on an agreed terms of reference. He wrote, “While this is an unusual approach, I think it is warranted under the circumstances.”
In reply, Mr. Breslin said it was clear they needed to find a way to “appropriately review” the issues involved.
He said the department and HEA have been working on allocating grants to colleges, with some “earmarked funds” planned for UL and other colleges.
Mr. Breslin wrote, “In connection with the issue that exists regarding UL’s compliance with the capital management framework, I, as Accounting Officer, have decided to suspend the general vested allocation for discretionary capital expenditures to UL.” He said this could be revisited if UL addressed the issues and “resolved concerns or weaknesses.”
The correspondence was originally withheld by the HEA and was only released after an appeal under FoI legislation.
A spokeswoman for the HEA said the email exchange came about before a “deeper engagement” with authorities at UL began. “Since then, the government agency has conducted a review of the internal reform processes and has given assurances to the HEA on an ongoing program of governance reforms,” she added.
“There are regular contacts between the agency and UL, most recently earlier this month, where progress is being monitored. The HEA has expressed its satisfaction with the process to the department which, like the HEA, is awaiting the KPMG report to liaise with the authorities of UL to ensure that all recommendations related to governance in the institution can be implemented quickly.”
A spokeswoman for UL said the university continues to work with HEA. “HEA is pleased with the assurances it has received regarding UL’s governance and processes. The University of Limerick is committed to strong governance and continuous review and improvement of its policies, procedures and practices,” she added.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/hea-boss-warned-of-disturbing-picture-at-university-of-limerick-41466710.html HEA chief warned of ‘disturbing image’ at University of Limerick