For readers not familiar with recent events in Irish higher education, this is a short summary of one particular development that has prompted a lot of commentary. Over a period of a few years, University College Dublin (UCD) paid allowances and bonuses to a number of senior staff, mainly as a form of incentive payment. Under current rules applying to universities, such payments – i.e. any payments departing from the established public service pay scales to which university salaries are tied – require government approval. The payments in question were made without any such approval, and after lengthy discussions between the Higher Education Authority and UCD the payments were discontinued. The whole thing received some recent attention before the Dail Public Accounts Committee and in an account prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
According to media reports, as part of the follow-up to all this, there are now talks between the HEA and UCD about a repayment to the HEA by the university of these allowances, which apparently came to a total of €1.6 million.
To be perfectly honest, I cannot get my head around this at all. Let us assume that the HEA and the government (and many commentators) are right, and the payments should never have been made. If you adopt that position, then you are saying that €1.6 million that should have been spent on students were in fact spent on allowances for managers. Now that a ‘remedy’ is being discussed, it seems to consist of the HEA requiring a ‘repayment’ of the sum – not by those who received them, but out of general university funds – thereby depriving students of this amount all over again. in other words, if damage was done to student interests, the HEA is insisting that this damage should be doubled. Maybe I’m missing something, but to me this seems bizarre.
I might also add the following. In my time In DCU I made sure that we abided by the rules (which was not always a popular position then), and indeed DCU received no criticism at the PAC meting. I took that position so as not to expose DCU to the kind of controversy we have now seen. But to be perfectly frank, the regulatory framework by which I was abiding is a crazy one. Whether incentive payments are made, and to whom they are made, should be a matter for each university and its governing body. The state is entitled to require that each university can account for how it has spent the money, but provided proper procedures were adopted in terms of governance and overall budgets are not exceeded, these issues should not be a matter for regulation at all.
I think the idea that all incentive payments in universities are inappropriate is wrong-headed – though admittedly I would also be of the view that incentive payments need to be based on the achievement of stretch targets given to the recipient. I think it is time that universities were no longer treated like public bureaucracies.