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4 February 2010 Edition

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FÁS failures could be replicated across third level sectors

Education Minister Batt O’Keefe admits five-bedroom, three-storey house for university president is lavish

Education Minister Batt O’Keefe admits five-bedroom, three-storey house for university president is lavish

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

The comprehensive failures in how FÁS senior executives managed a budget of hundreds of millions of euro was one of the key new media stories last week. The Comptroller and Auditor General found not just “breaches of internal procurement and payment procedures” but perhaps more worryingly, a failure to detect or react appropriately to spending contraventions.
In particular, the report focused on the lavish travel and hospitality funded through the taxpayer in what was supposed to be the key state agency providing employment training for Ireland’s youth.
It raises questions then about the other government engines for funding and driving the knowledge economy in the 21st century. How is the publicly funded third-level sector managing the massive yearly state grants it receives?
Only last week it was revealed that the University of Limerick, which is €3 million in debt, had found €1.1 million to build a new house for the university’s president. Fianna Fáil Education minister Batt O’Keefe admitted that the three-storey five-bedroom house was “lavish” and that he had asked his officials for a report on the dwelling.
Last year the total level of taxpayer funding of the third-level sector in Ireland came to €1.764 billion, along with another €141 million for building grants and capital costs.
Last week, the heads of the seven largest universities appeared before an Oireachtas committee on Education pleading for more money; the seven colleges are facing a combined deficit of €32 million this year.
The university heads told the Oireachtas committee a tale of cutbacks and increased charges for students.
Not highlighted by them was that 400 professors in Irish universities received a 5.5% wage increase in 2009, with college presidents receiving a 19% pay rise.
It was revealed in March 2009 that the top 50 earners in Irish universities earned an average of €200,000 each in 2008, with UCD’s vice president for research, Des Fitzgerald, taking home €409,000. So it is clear that there is an existing double standard in the third-level sector as to how they budget for costs.
The coalition government have already appointed a National Strategy Group for Education, headed by Colin Hunt, which is due to report to the government before the Dáil breaks for the summer, which in reality means that any changes or reforms will not be introduced until 2011 at the earliest.
The Comptroller and Auditor General is also carrying out a review of spending on higher education. There is an urgent need for fast-tracking this work so it can dovetail with the National Strategy Group.
There is little doubt that the average taxpayer in Ireland wants to see the education sector, from primary to third-level, funded fairly and adequately. They don’t want to be funding the junkets and houses of the university management elites. We need to know urgently how our tax euros are being spent in the third level sector.
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