The University of Limerick has been sharply criticised for its use of severance payments and its management of staff disputes by an independent review commissioned by the Higher Education Authority.

The review arose following numerous controversies and several protected disclosures about UL which were made to the HEA. 

UL whistleblower 'suffered for telling the truth'

It was carried out by Dr Richard Thorn and found the number and scale of pay-offs at the university were well out of line with other institutions.

The review looked at eight severance packages which totalled €1.7m.

"The number of severance agreements entered into by UL over the period considered by the investigation is by several orders of magnitude greater than any other institution under the Department's jurisdiction," it said.

Dr Thorn's report said the reasoning and management of the payments was "confusing", and there was no evidence the Governing Authority approved or discussed them. 

Prior approval was not sought from the Department. 

The review said both the Executive and the Governing Authority were remiss in their handling of the approval and oversight of the deals.

The report followed revelations in the Universities Unchallenged programme by the RTÉ Investigations Unit which was broadcast in May.

The programme found the Department of Education, the Public Accounts Committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General had been deliberately misled about the two largest packages paid out by the University.

The programme had revealed that two senior managers had received these severance packages which were well in excess of public sector guidelines and had they not been sanctioned by the Department.

When UL was challenged it told the Department and the C&AG they were necessary to avoid a costly legal process and disciplinary proceedings.

Later, UL conceded this was not the case and in fact both men had been immediately hired back on consultancy deals, which were almost identical to their earlier payoffs and these were built into the severance arrangements.

One of the managers has since issued High Court proceedings against UL after he categorically denied that he had been the subject of any disciplinary proceedings.

The report launched today did not deal with what UL had told key stakeholders about this issue, and references to the case before the High Court were redacted from Dr Thorn's review. 

The report said the chain of communication involved was not investigated as it was dealt with separately by an internal report carried by Deloitte and commissioned by UL.

However, Dr Thorn's report did recommend that UL prepare a comprehensive and accurate account of the circumstances surrounding each of its severance payments and send this to relevant bodies, including the C&AG and the Public Accounts Committee, within the next month.

The review was also critical of the account UL gave about a third severance deal reached with a member of academic staff.

In this case it highlighted a letter that was sent to the Public Accounts Committee in April 2017 which included reference to "inappropriate touching" in a description of disciplinary proceedings in one case.

In this letter the then UL president Prof Don Barry described the cases as involving three complaints against a lecturer which involved "inappropriate sexual references in class and inappropriate touching of students causing them to feel uncomfortable".

The review said this was included in Prof Barry's letter despite an investigation UL commissioned into the matter - previously noting that it "did not obtain any evidence of inappropriate touching or feeling".

The Dr Thorn review said: "The phrasing of the paragraph in the then President's [Prof Don Barry] letter... did not properly describe the circumstances of the case and had the effect of leading the reader to the impression that Person E had his contract terminated for matters other than those findings of the investigation."

Dr Thorn's review team interviewed 34 people including senior figures in the University. 

It received 28 written submissions as well as additional oral contributions.

The university's decision to commission its own report also meant Dr Thorn decided not to examine other aspects of the RTÉ Investigates programme. 

These included conflicts of interest in the awarding of contracts to companies connected to Governing Authority members and the payment of almost $100,000 to cover tuition costs for two senior managers.

However, the review did examine the approach of the university in dealing with controversies and particularly its decision to issue High Court defamation proceedings against the Limerick Leader and its editor, Alan English.

It said UL's approach was "suggestive of an institution that is not confident in its own ability to engage with enquiry and challenge".

The actions, it said, did not reflect well on UL and were "ill-conceived".

The report was also critical of UL's HR policies and procedures. 

It said they lacked consistency, had a negative impact on individuals and were unfairly reliant on the University's ability to cover large legal bills.

It said: "The review believes that the University, through its capacity to draw on substantial legal resources in negotiations with persons under investigation should have been aware of the power imbalance and moderate its approach accordingly."

Chief Executive of the HEA Dr Graham Love said it was important for the wider education sector that UL acted on the recommendations of the report.

"Swift and complete implementation of the recommendations in this report by the University will enable a line to be drawn under this story and allow the University and the persons impacted to move on.

"This is essential for the people involved, for the University, its students and staff, and for the wider higher education sector in Ireland."

Education Minister Richard Bruton welcomed the publication of the report and said the university must act on its recommendations.

"I see the culmination of this review as a positive step towards addressing the serious matters which have been raised in relation to the University of Limerick by a number of stakeholders.

"The Review makes a number of important recommendations that must be addressed by the University of Limerick in order to bring these serious issues to a conclusion," he said.

In response UL's President Dr Des Fitzgerald, who requested the report on his first day in office, said the report showed that the university had not treated its staff properly in the past.

"It is an extensive report and we must now study it in detail and respond to the HEA as quickly and comprehensively as possible and certainly by 24 November.

"Nevertheless, I do wish to immediately acknowledge the seriousness of the matters addressed within it.

"Personally, despite the complex management and governance issues this report clearly highlights, what concerns me most of all is what it is says about how UL has treated some of its people in the past. Since I arrived at UL in May, I have emphasised our duty of care as an employer. This report casts light on occasions in the past where UL fell short of this standard," he said.

Dr Fitzgerald said the university would address the matters raised and hoped it could draw a line under some ongoing controversies. 

He said since the report had begun its work, a major restructuring of its management had also taken place.