Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 17 June 2021
Public Accounts Committee
University of Limerick: Financial Statements 2019
Apologies have been received from Deputies Carthy, Hourigan and Sherlock. I welcome all of our witnesses to the meeting. Due to the current situation in respect of Covid-19, only the clerk, support staff and I are in the committee room. Members of the committee are attending remotely from within the precincts of Leinster House. This is due to the constitutional requirement that in order to participate in public meetings members must be physically present within the confines of the place where the Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House or the convention centre. I will ask members to confirm their location before contributing to ensure they are complying with that constitutional requirement. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, is a permanent witness to the committee and is attending remotely.
Today we examine the 2019 financial statements of the University of Limerick. Areas of interest to members, of which the university's representatives have been made aware, include protected disclosures, the contracting of retired staff, the remuneration and paid notice period of the president, the new student centre and the university's Limerick city campus. We are joined remotely from within the precincts of Leinster House by the following officials from the University of Limerick, UL: Professor Kerstin Mey, interim president; Mr. Andrew Flaherty, director of the human resources division; and Ms Rosemary Fogarty, financial controller in the area of operations. The witnesses are all very welcome and I thank them for the briefing material they have prepared for the committee. When we begin to engage, I will ask members and witnesses to mute themselves when not contributing so that any background noise will not be picked up. As usual, I remind all of those in attendance to have their mobile phones turned off or on silent mode.
Before we start, I wish to explain some limitations regarding parliamentary privilege and the practices of the Houses as regards reference witnesses may make to other persons in their evidence. As the witnesses are, within the precincts of Leinster House they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentations they make to the committee. This means that they have an absolute defence against any defamation actions in respect of anything they say at the meeting. They are, however, expected not to abuse this privilege. As Chair, it is my duty to ensure it is not abused. Therefore, if the witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with such directions.
Members are reminded of the provisions of Standing Order 218 that the committee shall refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government, or a Minister of the Government, or the merits of the objectives of such policies. Members are also reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
To assist the broadcasting and debates services, I ask that members direct their questions to a specific witness. If the question is not directed to a specific witness, I ask each witness to identify himself or herself when first contributing.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The University of Limerick’s group financial statements for 2018-2019 show income totalling €279 million. Of this, income in respect of recurrent State grant and pension funding totalled €82 million. Academic fees accounted for €103 million, almost a third of which was received directly from the Higher Education Authority. Research income recognised in the year totalled €34 million, with almost €26 million of this coming from State sources. Other operating income of €43 million was derived from a range of sources, with 40% coming from rental of student accommodation.
The university group’s expenditure in the year totalled €281 million. Pay and pension costs accounted for two thirds of the expenditure total. Other operating costs were €75 million, while depreciation accounted for just under €20 million. Overall, the group incurred a deficit of €2.1 million in the year. However, this must be considered against the group’s accumulated revenue reserves of almost €252 million at the end of September 2019.
My audit opinion on the financial statements was unqualified. However, I draw attention to the recognition in the financial statements of a deferred pension funding asset. In effect, the university is assuming that State funding will be available in the future to meet the pension entitlements already accrued by current and former staff. This is a standard practice for Irish universities in compiling their financial statements. My audit report also draws attention to the university’s disclosure in section 9 of its governance statement of instances where the procurement of goods and services was not in compliance with the relevant procurement procedures.
The financial statements of the University of Limerick Foundation are not consolidated in the group financial statements, on the basis that the foundation is not controlled by the University of Limerick. However, the audited financial statements of the foundation for 2018-19 are appended to the group financial statements for information purposes. These indicate that the principal activity of the foundation is the furtherance of education and research, and in particular the furtherance of education and research carried out by the University of Limerick and other educational, research and development bodies associated with the University of Limerick. The foundation’s balance sheet indicates that, at the end of August 2019, the foundation had cash of around €20 million.
Note 26 of the group financial statements discloses the transactions between the university group and the foundation in the year. This indicates that the university received income of €2.6 million from the foundation for specific purposes. The university contributed €350,000 towards the running costs of the foundation.
Like a number of the other universities, the University of Limerick appoints commercial auditors to carry out audits of the group companies and of the consolidated financial statements. In the interests of avoiding duplication of effort, I seek to rely on the work of the commercial auditors to the extent that is appropriate and, by agreement, staff of my office review their working papers as evidence for the purposes of my audit. While this makes the audit process somewhat more complex and prolonged than normal, it is effective. Nevertheless, there may be circumstances where my office seeks additional assurance and evidence and I form my own opinion independent of that of the commercial auditors.
Members may wish to note that my audit of the group’s financial statements for 2019-20 is not yet completed. We received a full set of draft financial statements, including a draft statement of governance and a draft statement on internal control, in mid-March 2021. Our audit fieldwork, including review of the commercial auditors’ working papers, has now been completed and the audit file has recently been submitted to me for review. There are a number of matters where my office has sought additional information and back-up documentation from the university. When these have been received and reviewed, I will be in a position to clear the account for certification.
Professor Kerstin Mey:
I welcome the opportunity to meet with the committee and to address questions members may have in relation to the 2019 accounts, the issue of protected disclosures and other matters as outlined in the meeting request and follow-up note. I am accompanied by Mr. Andrew Flaherty, chief corporate officer, and Ms Rosemary Fogarty, financial controller.
I became interim president of the University in September of last year. It was my honour to be the first female appointed to the role of a university president in over four centuries of higher education in Ireland. Prior to joining UL in 2018, I held senior roles as pro-vice chancellor and dean of the Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design, University of Westminster, and, before then, director of research and enterprise for the University for the Creative Arts in England.
Members will appreciate that my accent is not that of a Limerick native. I was born and raised in Berlin but, like everybody who comes to Limerick, I am immensely proud of the region and of the university and I am very conscious of my responsibility as chief officer to help strengthen this wonderful institution so that it can continue to play a transformative role not just in the mid west but in Ireland and further afield in the decades ahead.
The Covid pandemic has meant that the past 15 months have been a very challenging time for the university sector, as it has been for society at large. While dealing with the practical challenges posed by Covid-19 has dominated our activities during this period, we have also been very conscious of the need to make progress on other issues. In this context, together with the chancellor and the governing authority, I am very aware that the reputation of the university in recent years has been buffeted too often by controversy and disharmony.
I am also conscious that our relationship with this committee has not been as constructive or harmonious as it should have been, and I want to assure members that I will do all I can to make our relationship with the committee a positive one of trust going forward. The root cause of many of these issues lies in the areas of culture and governance which have been a major focus since I became interim president.
On culture, my goal is to reset the organisational culture and to build a new spirit of openness and trust within the university community so that every member of that community feels valued, supported and empowered by a shared purpose. To strive and thrive we require the talents of all and an inclusive and supportive climate where anyone can come forward with new ideas for improvement and can raise awareness of errors, weaknesses and wrongdoing without any fear of retribution. In an inclusive, supportive and proactively learning organisation, whistleblowing and protected disclosure – while always available - will no longer be needed.
To this extent, I have endeavoured to stimulate two-way communication processes between the campus community and senior management, to make improvements to financial reporting and data provision for evidence-based decision-making, and to introduce an inclusive consultation process on our strategic plan, UL@50. I am pleased to report that the participation in this process has been very encouraging, with 130 individual submissions and 57 group consultations in the first phase and evidence of a strong desire to participate in the second phase, which will inform the recalibration of our strategic plan.
In terms of governance, I can confirm that the recommendations from both the Mazars and Thorn reports have been implemented in full and we are now completing the implementation of the Code of Governance of Irish Universities 2019 and taking into account the recommendations made by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, in CINNTE Institutional Review 2020. We have also completed an overhaul of UL's policy management framework, ensuring consistent policy development, approval and review processes in line with best practice. We completed an external evaluation of the governing authority in 2020 by the Institute of Public Administration, with a draft report issued in early 2021 and the subsequent implementation of recommendations.
We have completed training on an annual governance statement and a statement of internal control for all senior managers by external experts, and introduced a new internal audit structure through the appointment of an in-house internal auditor. We have also introduced an enhanced risk management structure, namely, the audit and risk committee of the governing authority, which now invites owners of local risk registers as a standing item. Risk management is also a standing agenda item on the executive committee and governing authority. Finally, we have addressed the structure and size of the executive committee to strengthen governance and ensure a broader representation of all areas of the university in decision-making and, through a flatter structure, create a more distributed leadership to safeguard delivery on strategic initiatives. The new structure includes the appointment of a chief financial and performance officer through open competition.
I will address three issues that I know have been and are of concern to this committee. At our previous meeting in 2019, Deputy MacSharry put it to the then president that he should consider reporting a potential incident of fraud at the university to the Garda. I can confirm that following that meeting, my predecessor sought legal advice in respect of the relevant issue. The university briefed the Garda on the matter and we have co-operated fully with it on the issue since.
At that same meeting, there was a lot of discussion about the plight of two members of staff who had identified as whistleblowers. I can confirm we have reached agreement on one individual and the matter is completely resolved with approval from the Department. In the second case, the individual agreed to the terms of a full and final settlement but subsequently raised concerns about tax liabilities and has not yet signed the settlement that had been agreed.
Finally, there has been some recent speculation about the purchase of the Dunnes Stores site and building in Limerick city by the university for the development of a city campus and the fact that no formal written valuation report for the site before the acquisition is on file. The governing authority has asked KPMG to conduct an independent review of the governance around that purchase and we will share the outcomes of that review with the committee when it concludes.
I cannot say we have reached the end of what has been a difficult period for the university, but I can say with confidence we are making real progress. We understand we have to work hard to earn and maintain the trust of all our stakeholders, including this committee. We are committed to doing so, as am I. I thank members for their attention.
I thank our guests. Time is short with the way in which the Covid world has structured meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts these days, so I may cut in on them in their answers at times. This may seem rude and I apologise for that, but it may be necessary.
Is it the university's current position that the former president lied to the Committee of Public Accounts?
What is Professor Mey's position, as interim president? I have a copy of the chancellor's letter to hand, but I want to know, for the record and for the benefit of the public, whether it is the university's position that the previous president lied to the Committee of Public Accounts.
The chancellor stated, "I understand that the evidence was not correct and that a correction or clarification was thereafter made to the Committee by one of the persons who attended the meeting on behalf of the University." I do not have the academic qualifications of our panellists, but if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is usually a duck. Is it the university’s position that the previous president lied? That appears to me to be what the chancellor is saying.
Mr. Andrew Flaherty:
I might add a little to that. I think what the chancellor has said is that there was a correction from a member of the university team who was there on the day. I do not believe that correction was from the president but from somebody else. I do not believe the correction to the evidence came from the president. It is related to a protected disclosure, so the people here today are not fully aware of the details and ins and outs of that protected disclosure. My understanding is that it was not the president's evidence that was corrected but rather that an individual who attended along with the president corrected their evidence. That is my understanding.
I thank the Chairman. While he is absolutely correct, we have parliamentary privilege, which sometimes must be used in the interests of the public. It seems to me that we were lied to and misled that day. As Mr. Flaherty rightly said, the matter was the subject of a protected disclosure. I am conscious the interim president has acknowledged with candour the difficulties we have had in the past and the lack of harmony in our relationship and that she and her colleagues are committed to improving that. I will return to that later.
The issue related to a position I had asked about at the time, namely, the director of strategic projects. I was told this was a new position and someone had sought to correct the record. They told us this in correspondence that came to the committee and was demoted by the committee, but it also came to me personally. The correspondence clearly stated, and this has emerged since, that that role already existed and the person doing it was doing a very good job, such that the Higher Education Authority had acknowledged how successful the person was, going back to a report in 2017. Is the university's position today different from that?
According to the correspondence that came to me, the McKenna report found that the author was entirely satisfied, and found as a matter of fact, that the duties and responsibilities pertaining to the role of director of strategic projects and transformation were being carried out by a named person. I will not use the name but we know who we are talking about. The report went on to state the author was satisfied, and found as a matter of fact, that no consideration had been given by the then president to the fact the person was carrying out the role. It outlined that the author found it staggering no such discussions had taken place with the person in that role in advance of the role being advertised.
I ask Professor Mey to answer the question as fully as possible and maybe use a letter of the alphabet - I know three have been used already - in her answer. I think the committee would like an answer to the question.
Mr. Andrew Flaherty:
Perhaps I can respond to that. I will deal with the last part of Deputy MacSharry's question. The individual is now in a new position which is similar to that which he would have held originally. The individual is in a new position and I believe the matter is fully resolved to that individual's satisfaction.
The McKenna report is complete. It has six findings. In the interest of transparency and to give a feel of what came out of it I will give a high level understanding -----
No, Mr. Flaherty will not, with respect. What he can do is furnish the entire report to the committee, if he wishes, and I would like to formally ask for that. I am only interested in the areas that I have highlighted, which are the sum total of our engagement back on that day; I was misled, I was wronged in terms of the answer given and so were other people who were on the university staff, in my view. The McKenna report unequivocally bore that out. The chancellor unequivocally told us that incorrect information was given and now Mr. Flaherty is telling me that in effect that person has not been restored to that position but a new position now exists that is very similar. Is that the evidence that is going to be given today? Is that the truth?
Mr. Andrew Flaherty:
That is the evidence. That is the situation at the moment. I am very cautious about what I am saying because I do not want to identify any particular individual, as I am sure the Deputy will appreciate. What I can say is that the individual in question, to my knowledge and from most recent conversations, is very happy with the outcome and -----
I am not concerned about the level of happiness of that person, I am concerned about the taxpayer only. There is no questioning the academic prowess of UL. Sadly what we have seen in terms of governance would not amount to that of a hedge school in a banana republic. So far this morning, I am not getting any confidence in line with the words of the interim president around what has changed and I will go further.
There was a second part alluded to in my research to that protected disclosure which related to the McKenna report. In some correspondence that I read, that was withdrawn. Is that the case?
Mr. Andrew Flaherty:
Yes, that is correct. In the protected disclosure that was submitted, elements were substantially similar to other protected disclosures which were being investigated by Mairead McKenna. As a result, the elements that were similar were added to the McKenna investigation and were investigated there. The individual received a copy of the findings and based on the findings felt that the other parts of the protected disclosure were resolved to their satisfaction. The individual felt the complete protected disclosure was resolved to satisfaction as the findings came out in favour of that individual.
Professor Kerstin Mey:
As I alluded to in my opening statement, when I took on the role as interim president I restructured the executive to address the strengths in governance, to create a broader base to take on strategic initiatives. Based on my responsibility and remit as interim president as defined in the Higher Education Act, and Universities Act 1997, section 24 and schedule 4, I have reassigned certain duties to individuals where the skill sets were available. Where the skill set was not available internally, these positions went to open recruitment.
I have other questions on that that I might get to on a second round but I will conclude with the following. Professor Mey mentioned in her opening statement that the other protected disclosures are concluded and that terms and conditions were concluded with person C as well but that they had not yet signed, is that the case?
During last night, person C made direct contact with me and has authorised me to say the following:
Last night I read an article about the university meeting with the public accounts committee on 17 June 2021. I was sick to my stomach and shook by what the University of Limerick has said about me in the article and assume this is what they are going to tell the PAC about me. I believe this is another appalling tactic on their part. The university statement about me in this article is a lie, it is wrong, it is deceptive and misleading. I believe this was done to try and paint a false and wrong picture of me. They have done this for so long and seem to keep getting away with it.
It goes on very substantially for two pages. It says that person C never consented to be part of a mediation process and has never been in a mediation process with the university at any time. Later, it takes particular issue with the interim president and her wording and states that there was a lot of discussion about the plight of two members of staff who had been identified as whistleblowers. Is the interim president not willing to accept that they are whistleblowers? While I hope to get in on a second round towards the end of the meeting, I am bound to say that the interim president's opening words are empty to me. I do not find them convincing based on evidence available to me and it is business as usual at UL.
I want to touch on the previous president's role and the fact he was paid for some four or five months continuously after he had resigned the role. Were there any other additional costs associated with settlements, legal or otherwise?
That would be standard practice. For how long would the period of payments be? The previous president was paid for four or five months in that he was paid until the end of the year. Would that be standard practice for all employees?
Mr. Andrew Flaherty:
The contract in question did not have a notice period in it. To give as thorough an answer as I can, the contract in question was a ten-year contract and the contract was silent on the issue of notice. As a result of being silent, it would have given an entitlement to the individual to either give or receive reasonable notice at common law, so the expectation would be that reasonable notice is given. Six months' notice was given. Dr. Fitzgerald signalled his intention to resign in May and he subsequently gave six months' notice. He was involved in the university for the first two months and the governing authority made a decision to pay in lieu of notice the last four months to the president in order to allow us to appoint an interim president at an extraordinary time because of Covid and what we were facing into. He was paid. It would not be normal but, under the extraordinary circumstances, it was decided it was in the best interest of the university.
Okay. I want to move on to the role of the financial officer. I understand the university has now appointed a chief financial officer whereas the responsibility previously lay with the chief operating officer and vice president for finance. Why has there been such instability around the role of a finance officer?
Professor Kerstin Mey:
We have appointed a chief finance and performance officer in order to bring together the finances with an integrated planning process in the university. That is a relatively new role and, in fact, a new role profile for the university sector in Ireland to support a holistic planning approach and to build a data information piece.
With all due respect, that is not exactly answering my question. Was the creation of new positions and transfers of responsibility linked to any form of financial reporting or even misreporting to the governing authority, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, or the Department?
My question was in regard to whether the creation of new positions and transfers of responsibility was linked to any form of financial reporting or misreporting to either the governing authority, the HEA or the Department. That is a "Yes" or "No".
From where we stand, with the university represented today, we see historical issues with the treatment of whistleblowers, although it appears a number of cases have been resolved. One is outstanding. Whether they are resolved or not, I find repugnant the reports that the whistleblowers were offered cash to simply resign. There are questions about the purchase of land which seems to have been purchased at a price inflated by more than 250%. We are not getting answers to those questions. Salaries have increased dramatically. There are irregularities related to salaries in the transition between presidents and no answers in that regard either. There is an ongoing pension probe. There is mismanagement with the president's residence and €4,000 spent on bed linen. It is nuts and it speaks volumes about the manner in which the University of Limerick is managed. I wish we had more time to get into this.
The Committee of Public Accounts generally spends most of its time dealing with national bodies. Various members of the committee have concerns about other third level institutions. We will bring in the Higher Education Authority to discuss matters as a whole. We all felt it necessary to bring representatives of the University of Limerick before the committee again. What does that say about its management? There is a grave concern, which has been compounded by the fact that members of the governing body only found out about the witnesses' appearance before the committee through the media in the last few days, despite the invitation having been issued three weeks ago. It speaks volumes about the manner in which the university is managed.
I welcome the witnesses and wish Professor Mey good luck in her role. She has not been before the committee since she was appointed.
I will focus on the KPMG report. Professor Mey says she will provide it to the committee once she has received it. We will require the witnesses to appear again once they have received it. It is a pity we did not have the report for today's meeting.
How did the university select the Dunnes Stores site? My understanding is that the Limerick opera site was chosen and that there would be an application to the HEA for funding. Would the university just tell the HEA that another site had been picked without a valuation having been provided? It is difficult to get my head around the process that would have been followed for the valuation and site selection. Will Professor Mey address that?
Professor Kerstin Mey:
The university has endeavoured for a long time to develop a city campus. As the Deputy may know, all of the higher education institutions in Limerick are on the periphery, so to speak, so it is not evident that Limerick is a university town. We felt that we could make the biggest contribution to the transformation by having a city campus as well as our Castletroy campus. A number of regeneration sites were assessed in collaboration with Limerick City and County Council. There was interest in Dunnes Stores-----
It sounds as if this is being treated like Monopoly money. This is public money and the valuation appears to be far in excess of the value of the site. Does the university have many other properties in addition to the campus? Does it have overseas properties?
There is an investigation under way, which is fine, but there is also information available in addition to that investigation or review by KPMG. If the university did a review of another property, what due diligence regime is in place?
I thank the witnesses.
I wish Professor Mey every success in her role as president of the university.
I return to the issue of the purchase of a site in the city centre. I have served on a number of boards and it has always been the practice, especially when it is a State board, that when property is being bought, there would normally be a report from two different sets of consultants in order to get a fair and accurate valuation. Is that the process at the university now?
Professor Mey stated that an external evaluation of the governing authority had been conducted by the Institute of Public Affairs in 2020, with a report issued in early 2021. What changes were set out in that report? To what extent have those proposed changes been put in place?
Turning to the foundation, my understanding is that €20 million in cash is available in the foundation. How is the governance of the foundation worked on from within the university? If that amount of money is available, it is obviously important that there also be strong governance of that foundation. How is that managed and what is the input from the structures within the university?
Ms Rosemary Fogarty:
We looked at UL Foundation and shared information on it with the Comptroller and Auditor General a number of years ago in this context. From an accounting perspective, there are rules under various accounting standards as to whether something is consolidated. The main points are about control and, a layer below that, dominant influence and control. We looked at that under a number of objectives. We do not control the board or the members. Donations that come from the foundation are donor specific rather than open to the discretion of the university to decide what to do with the money. In instances where the foundation gets funding that is open to the discretion of the university, it is the foundation's board that makes the discretion, not me-----
We are talking about fairly substantial funds. There must, therefore, be transparency in that regard. Surely there is information available to the general public regarding how those funds are managed.
Ms Rosemary Fogarty:
That is why we do not consolidate the funds or control them. That is a question that would have to be put to the foundation board, unfortunately, but that is the key point as to why it is not consolidated. We include in our accounts as much information as we can about the foundation.
I thank the witnesses for their attendance. What has been the impact on the university's subsidiary companies that run the on-campus student accommodation from the reimbursement to students who in the end could not take up their accommodation due to Covid?
I wrote to the university and received a reply in November 2020. At that stage, on 26 November, it had received applications for rent refunds from only 264 students, 61 had been processed and the value was €455,887. How did the number of students increase to 2,000 students in the period thereafter?
That is fine. However, ultimately I had a lot of correspondence from, and engagement with, UL students who were very unhappy about how they were dealt with, as was I because I did not find the correspondence. As a matter of fact, they were completely disregarded. Much of it was down to the management and schedules set down by UL. I do not believe the university treated the students very well.
I will come to another question about the president's residence. What procedures are in place for the residence, which I believe has been completely refurbished, regarding the operational costs for maintenance?
I will let Deputy Murphy back in again later. Deputies Dillon and McAuliffe are not present.
I have some questions before we move to the second round. Regarding legal costs and legal expenditure by the university, I note there was a legal bill for the academic year 2018-19 of €360,000. How much of that related to protected disclosures?
Ms Rosemary Fogarty:
-----like the implementation of various recommendations under previous reports. The legal of €360,000 includes a number of items and a number of different legal advisers. The Chair will understand we have a framework for legal services and we deal with different legal events depending on the area of legal advice. They are all rolled into one.
To confirm this is correct, €200,000 in legal fees was paid that year around the issue of protected disclosures. I have another question on legal fees. The former president left his role in August 2020. We have established that he was paid his notice until December 2020; some of the other Deputies focused on that. Were there legal costs associated with the resignation of the president?
Is it not odd that there were such legal fees around it given the fact that the former president left, you could say, in a fairly comfortable position? He was paid as far out as December 2020. Why was there so much in legal fees and legal involvement in that?
I will move to the Dunnes Stores issue. Professor Mey confirmed there were no written valuations but did not confirm whether there were verbal valuations. Surely, if there was a verbal valuation, which would be unusual in itself, there would be some record of it on a file somewhere, given the amount involved. I take it from Professor Mey's answers there was no verbal valuation. This was pursued earlier in the meeting, but it was not clear whether anyone was asked even for an opinion about this. Getting the views of two different property consultants, given the amount, would be normal, but from what Professor Mey said, in this case the university is in a situation where it still only gets one rather than two. In this case, she clarified it did not get any. Is that correct?
Professor Kerstin Mey:
I would like to clarify. We do not have a written valuation report on file. That does not mean there was not opinion involved in the valuation of the Dunnes Stores site. As I said, KPMG is looking into the governance of the purchase process and we will share the outcomes of that process with the committee. With regard to the fact of two independent written valuations for a property purchase, I agreed with the previous Deputy who asked the question that this is best practice.
The point is, in this case, there was neither written nor verbal valuations. It does not appear even an opinion was noted. There is no evidence, or even a record, of an opinion being sought, verbally. Nobody was asked, even on a street corner, why the cost, which was valued a very short time previously at a much lower cost of €3 million, all of a sudden arrived at €8 million. The governing authority of the university, as I understand it, has 28 members.
I want a "yes" or "no" answer. This is not to be in any way abrupt with the witnesses but because of the time limits we operate under with Covid-19 restrictions. Did any members of the governing authority raise concerns around the lack of due diligence with respect to the purchase of the Dunnes Stores site?
It did. The witness can state that this morning categorically, so I thank her. The witness has confirmed that advice was received from the consultant who did some negotiating around the deal. Was that consultant on a percentage or was that how payment for consultancy fees operated? In other words, if the site was valued at €1 million, the consultant would get a percentage of €1 million and if it was valued at €10 million, it would get a percentage of that? In this case, in a short period the value went from €3 million to €8 million. Was the arrangement that the consultant was paid via a percentage of the purchase price?
It was stated earlier that this was purchased from the university's purse. Did the Higher Education Authority receive a costed development plan for the former Dunnes Stores site? My understanding is the authority received a costed purchase and development plan for the opera site. Did it receive such a plan for the Dunnes Stores site?
Ms Rosemary Fogarty:
In my role as financial controller in the University of Limerick, I do not really have any responsibility for capital projects. It sits on the management, planning and reporting side so I am not familiar with the detail, unfortunately. I am not in a position to answer as part of my day-to-day role.
Mr. Andrew Flaherty:
I am not in a position to answer but I will clarify a reply to a question that you asked a couple of times about verbal valuations on the property. It is my understanding a valuer was involved with the process and retained. Valuations were given on the property, although there is no written valuation on file. That is to confirm that there were verbals but not-----
There is ongoing investigation of this by KPMG. The public information indicates the chancellor of the University of Limerick was appointed to KPMG's public interest committee in December 2019. Is that correct?
The chancellor of the university, Ms Mary Harney, is still serving on the public interest committee of KPMG, the consultancy firm that is carrying out the examination of the purchase of the Dunnes Stores site and the lack of due diligence around that. Is that correct?
What is the reaction of the interim president to what I had to say about person C contacting me during the night and what I read into the record? It amounts to what was in her opening statement being inaccurate and false, "a lie" is what she called it.
Professor Mey is saying one thing and we have been contacted and told the opposite. There is also, of course, the history and culture alluded to by the witness. Have any disclosers been asked to or coerced into signing non-disclosure agreements?
We look forward to getting that. I asked earlier that the McKenna report be made available to the Committee of Public Accounts in its entirety, and if necessary that the permission of the people relevant to it is sought to that end.
Does the university seek the permission of the people relevant to it? I am a little bit confused. Earlier on, the president said it was normal to pay notice periods and Mr. Flaherty said it was not normal. Which is it?
I want to know if we can get sight of the contract for the now-exited president, to see how all of these add-ons and bonuses were included on a confidential basis and not for public session, and if the Comptroller and Auditor General can be provided with the same, so we can see in this contract, no matter what the circumstances in which a person exits, he or she is entitled to get six months pay.
Mr. Andrew Flaherty:
I will come in there to give Deputy Munster an update. As we said earlier, the contract was silent on notice, which obviously caused a problem. The legal costs were incurred in the discussions and negotiations around what reasonable notice may be. It was incurred in that space. That was part of the reason the governing authority, GA, approved the payment of those costs.
With regard to an employee or member of staff who has asked to enter into a mediation process, there is a document he or she was asked to sign which included a confidentiality clause. I thought Mr. Flaherty said there was no confidentiality clause. Can Mr. Flaherty explain what that document entails and why a person asked to enter into mediation was asked to sign a document with a confidentiality clause in it?
Professor Kerstin Mey:
When the Chair asked Professor Mey whether any member of the governing authority or the executive committee had concerns around due diligence with the purchase of the Dunnes Stores site, her response was that there were concerns. Had the executive committee of the university discussed the purchase, prior to its approval?
There are a number of different strands to the management of any institution, such as the University of Limerick. With regard to property, I understand how the funding for the president's house came from a philanthropist. Is the registration of the ownership of those properties vested in the university or are there different companies holding some of these properties? Has there been a full audit done on what is owned by the university and what is owned by companies which are not in the control of the university?
Ms Rosemary Fogarty:
The president's house is owned by the university. In general, all of the academic buildings and the buildings in the university are owned by the university. Plassey Campus Centre and its subsidiaries own the accommodation or residences. A number of years back, the Plassey Campus Centre, PCC, bought a unit near the university called Park Point as an investment property. The university has a building which is leased to Munster Rugby. That is in our accounts as an investment asset. Obviously, there is the Dunnes Stores transaction, which is owned by the university. In broad terms, the subsidiaries have the residences and Park Point and the rest of stock of buildings is in the accounts of the university.
The Comptroller and Auditor General and the commercial auditors, PwC, look at all our transactions and fixed asset additions each year, which include land and buildings in all entities, whether it is subsidiaries or the university. We have a breakdown of it and they have a breakdown built up from the audits over a number of years.
Ms Rosemary Fogarty:
I think the Deputy is referring the president's former residence in Killaloe, which was disposed of recently. We bought a property at the main entrance, through a bid process in the 2019-2020 accounts, called Larkin House. It is a strategic property located at the front gate and it adjoins lands we own immediately behind it. It is vacant but it is intended for strategic use down the line. I am not aware of any other properties.
When money is made available for research to be carried out within the university, what type of agreement is in place regarding the results of that research? What are the benefits for the university? I acknowledge there are obviously benefits for the people carrying out the research, but what are the overall long-term benefits for the university itself?
Professor Kerstin Mey:
Any research funded by and conducted in the university is reported to the funders and internally to our research strategy board and the executive. The research we carry out is in most cases of benefit to the economy and society at large, while for us, the benefits of research are that we can maintain our education programmes at the cutting edge of knowledge. We can develop new education programmes and liaise with external stakeholders to foster new knowledge generation and knowledge exchange.
Are processes in place in regard to where research is carried out such that somebody who was initially involved in the research can set up his or her own separate entity and use the benefits of that research?
Is Professor Mey satisfied that enough safeguards are in place such that the maximum benefit can be ensured? I fully accept there has to be benefit for the people carrying out the research, but is there maximum benefit for the university as well such that it will not lose out if there is a major research project, for example? I am sure it happens all the time that new projects are successful. Are enough procedures and mechanisms in place to ensure the university gets the benefit of that research?
Professor Kerstin Mey:
I think the Deputy is referring to the intellectual property policy that sets out how the university benefits from the commercialisation of intellectual property. We have recently reviewed and revised our intellectual property policy. I am satisfied we have sufficient checks and balances in place.
I ask that the university respond to this question in writing. What has the university spent since 2016 on the investigation of the protected disclosures received from employees? Does the cost include the legal advice of either side?
What was the purchase price of the house adjacent to the university and the 1.1 acres purchased?
In regard to the fees from the procurement process, the university might also outline that all the procurement criteria were followed and how it believes they have been fulfilled.
I return to the issue of student fees and reimbursements. Professor Mey outlined figures for what has been paid out, but what has been the impact on university funds?
Ms Rosemary Fogarty:
In 2019-2020, for which our accounts are complete, the subsidiary incurred a loss of €8 million and the university had a surplus of €4.7 million, leaving an overall consolidated surplus of €3.9 million. The impact of the refunds from a subsidiary perspective was a loss of €800,000. For context, in the previous year, 2018-19, the subsidiaries made a profit of €1.9 million. That was a swing of €2.7 million, which is consistent with the value of the refunds the president spoke about earlier. That is the movement.
I have a couple of questions in the brief time that remains, and other members might raise their hand if they wish to contribute further. To return to the issue of the Dunnes Stores site, our guests might clarify something for us.
Professor Mey will understand that, because of the technology, answers may not be as clear as they might be, through no fault of her own or anyone else. Could she clarify whether the consultant received a percentage? Were its fees based on the purchase price? Was it a case of the larger the purchase price, the greater the consultancy fee?
Prior to the purchase of the Dunnes Stores site, UL made a request to the HEA regarding the purchase of the Opera site, which was very much a landmark site, for the same purpose. Why was the plan changed so suddenly? The timeline was extraordinarily short. What happened there?
Professor Kerstin Mey:
To be clear, we made the funds available for the purchase of the Opera site. That site was identified at the time as a preferred site out of a number of regeneration sites that were available in Limerick. The Dunnes Stores site was not available for sale, although strategically of great interest. From what I understand, it became available and the university purchased it.
I thank Professor Mey for that.
I have a couple of questions on property-related matters. It was reported last year, as I recall, that UL pulled out of buying a Georgian house in Ranelagh, Dublin. It was valued at €5 million. I understand UL had paid a deposit but received it back. Is that correct?
The Chairman asked how fees would be agreed. Is there a retainer figure involving a decision to pay someone €80,000 per year to look after all the UL property deeds, for example? How is it determined?
Ms Rosemary Fogarty:
It got paid more than that because there were moneys due from previous years. The payment was higher. Some of the transactions related to a period before the tender was in place. That is disclosed in our information on procurement non-compliance concerning 2018 and 2019. We wrote to the committee about that in early January and set out the details. It is the first line item in the table from that letter.
It would be a pretty good wage for a verbal valuation. How is it that UL has not rung GVM's managing partner and asked whether a copy of the €9,500 valuation could be sent to it? I am sure there is not a partner in a company in the world who gets €9,500 for an opinion over the telephone. Therefore, I assume there is a document. Has Mr. Flaherty called GVM and asked it for that?
I am really pleased to hear that but Mr. Flaherty has led me to believe that although €9,500 was paid for the service, there is no paper trail other than the bill. What exactly was GVM paid the €9,500 for?
Mr. Andrew Flaherty:
The best thing for us to do is to revert to the committee with confirmation of the services given and the involvement in the transaction.
Is Mr. Flaherty saying no document exists? I hope that GVM is not scurrying around doing up a €9,500 valuation at this stage. I am bound to say that I do not find this very credible. I will conclude with three other points. I am going to ask the witnesses to send information to us.
Yes, I will be very brief. I see during Covid we managed to spend €1.02 million on entertainment. I cannot wait to see the breakdown. Could the witnesses send us that? In the previous year, €1.7 million was spent but there was no Covid then. The university still managed to spend €1.02 million on entertainment in 2019-20, although half of the year was affected by Covid. It must have been party central down at UL for that period.
The other information I want to get is a nauseatingly detailed breakdown of the €496,000 for the strategic project change management and advisory services. In particular, I want a breakdown of all costs associated with the person who took up that role - moving to Limerick, being put up in Limerick, any settlement assistance or anything financially or in lieu. Was the person put up in an apartment? Were they looked after? Were they wined and dined? Was there a food allowance, a clothing allowance, a moving allowance or a travel allowance, and everything else under the €496,000?
I thank the witnesses for coming in. It is a tough day for them. I am trying to be as fair as I can, but I believe we have made no progress.
I want to pick up on what Deputy MacSharry has asked Professor Mey about the valuation process, just so I am correct in understanding it. A valuation was given for the Dunnes Stores site but it was never put in writing. Is that correct?
How does anyone know what the valuation was if there is no written record? What did the witnesses go to the solicitors who were doing the conveyancing with to close a deal where there was nothing in writing to give the valuation?
Clearly, "the lack of governance" is better terminology to use. Without putting words in anybody's mouth, do the witnesses agree that it is not credible to expect that there is no written record of any meetings where the valuation of this site was discussed? I appreciate that the university is tackling governance, but this is not just governance. From a commercial transaction perspective, using publicly funded moneys, it is not credible to say that there is no written record on a valuation worth millions of euro. Is that fair to say? Do the witnesses agree with that?
Mr. Andrew Flaherty:
There is a written record in emails about the valuation and what the building was worth, but there is no definitive valuation on it. There is correspondence between the valuer and the consultant involved. There are records of that correspondence, which have been shared with KPMG to review in full and come back with its findings.
In endorsing Deputy MacSharry's question, I presume those emails will be required for the transaction fee note from the consultant. To establish credibility, we are going to have to see it, not just the KPMG report but the history of what has happened. I presume that the witnesses have gone to great lengths to address corporate governance issues. We cannot address something unless we admit there is a problem in the first place, and it can only be addressed on the basis that it can be improved upon. Does Professor Mey agree with that?
Regarding the other property transactions such as the acquisition and disposal of the president's residence, even though the corporate governance review is not yet complete, I expect it will be highly compliant on everything that was involved in those transactions. Is Professor Mey happy with that?
I have a couple of questions before we conclude. The president confirmed earlier that there was no written quotation on file on the large financial transaction regarding the Dunnes Stores site, which involved substantial public funding. From my limited experience, anyone who has served on the board of a company would know that if the fire extinguishers in a modestly sized building were going to be changed at a value of €2,000 or €3,000, the board would ask the manager to get at least two written quotations and present them to it at the next meeting. I appreciate that Professor Mey is new in the job. She outlined that in her opening statement, and she accepted that things have not been good or the way they should be. What I say to her is not meant in any lecturing way, but I think I am expressing the view of the committee that how things have been managed to date at UL is very unsatisfactory. It is public money. I acknowledge Professor Mey is aware of that. We are all public servants. We will probably revisit these matters again. I ask that substantial progress be made. I understand that it can be difficult to deal with issues retrospectively. We can see there are difficulties in a number of areas.
I understand there were recommendations in the McKenna report regarding the creation of specific roles for individuals. Is that correct?
I thank Professor Mey for her evidence on that matter. I ask the witnesses to bear with me for a moment. I know it has been a difficult meeting. They set out in their opening statement that they will make progress on many of these matters and we wish them well on that. I thank the witnesses from University of Limerick for joining us. I thank the staff at the university because I imagine that substantial work went into preparing for today's meeting, particularly in the context of the information provided. I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General and his staff for attending and for assisting the committee in preparing for the meeting.
Is it agreed that the clerk will seek any follow-up information and carry out any agreed actions from the meeting? Agreed. Is it agreed that we will note and publish the opening statements and the briefings provided for today's meeting? Agreed.