From top: last night’s RTÉ Investigates featuring Former UL president Don Barry ; Aengus Ó Maoláin
Further to revelations broadcast last night by RTÉ Investigates about lack of oversight and accountability in publicly funded universities and colleges in Ireland…
Aengus Ó Maoláin writes:
Last night, higher education institutions were exposed as misusing public money for years, all the while insisting that they were broke, and that students must pay more.
A change in culture, and consequences must follow.
For the ten years I have been working for equality of access to higher education, the Irish university’s representative body has stood in our way.
Expressing the greatest sympathy for our calls, but regretfully insisting that the universities are so strapped for cash that they must call for higher and higher tuition fees. Year on year, that call has been answered by government, and Irish students now pay the second highest fees in Europe.
Strangely enough, in most other countries the universities don’t do that.
Those fees make up one part of university’s funding, the other significant part is direct funding from the Department of Education, through the Higher Education Authority – in other words, taxpayers’ money.
The universities have come crying to government time and again with their begging bowls in hand, on bended knee insisting that the solution to all their financial problems is for the students to cough up more. In other countries, the institutions lobby for more cash from the department, rather than fees.
It was an open secret when I was in the student movement that universities have a mostly free hand to spend their budgets how they will, but that open secret was blown open by RTÉ Investigates last night.
When any body is allowed to become a private fiefdom, corruption is inevitable, and so it is with the higher education system.
The bare-faced nature of crying out for higher student fees, all the while wantonly wasting the money already granted by the state is offensive.
Like Social democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy said on the programme last night, I am not disappointed by this, I am actually angry about it.
I served on the governing authority of Maynooth University several years ago, as president of the students’ union. There was at that time a great deal of trust in the financial management of the university’s accounts, and the authority’s audit committee had the full confidence of the body.
I wonder now what we might have missed. I recall clearly a frustration that we never received training on financial oversight, or our corporate governance obligations – but, sure, why would you bother spending that time or money on students?
Now when I see the sums being misspent in the institutions investigated it infuriates me that so much was diverted away from the universities’ core missions – education and research. Remember, this is our money.
Professor Don Barry of the University of Limerick treated the public accounts committee with absolute disdain. His attitude was deplorable – how dare these politicians pry into my financial affairs – but it’s not his money, it is ours.
NUI Galway’s Professor James Browne also refused, point blank, to discuss the financial management of its foundation, insisting that that little pot of money was no business of the people we have elected to make sure our money is being used for the right purposes.
The governing authorities of all the institutions have to be called into question now. The backhander of jewellery bought at Tadhg Kearney’s shop by UL is astonishing, as no conflict of interest was declared, and worse, that he was told he wouldn’t need to declare it despite being a member of the authority himself.
Universities do need a certain level of autonomy, if you examine higher education systems where that autonomy has been badly eroded (Turkey springs to mind) it is clear why. Research and teaching curriculum must be free from political interference, lest we go down a road towards indoctrination over education.
But, when that autonomy is abused, as has been the case here, there is a time to get involved.
Whistle blowers suspended and dismissed, treated with contempt; Executives approving their own expenses; External contracts signed with internal buddies of the management team – this is the sort of thing we got so angry about when it was exposed in the banking system.
There is to be an independent review of UL’s governance, HR and financial practices. I welcome that, of course, but what is needed is a change in culture. Corruption festers, and like a bad apple, spreads to the rest of the batch. We cannot allow universities to continue deceiving us, and misusing our money without consequences.
Our call for an independent anti-corruption agency was opposed by Fine Gael last year, but it is crystal clear to me that something more needs to be done.
Catherine Murphy’s final remarks on the RTÉ programme last night resonate powerfully “There needs to be consequences, or you won’t change behaviour.”
Aengus Ó Maoláin is chair of the Dublin West Social Democrats and local area representative for Castleknock and Blanchardstown.
Watch RTÉ Investigates Universities Unchallenged here
Top pic: RTÉ