Secretary General of the Department of Education has told the Public Accounts Committee that it is examining ways to recoup money from higher education institutions where breaches of governance have been identified.

Seán Ó Foghlú was appearing before the committee following a special report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) published last November which found irregularities in pension payments to senior staff at the University of Limerick and the Institute of Technology Sligo.

The C&AG's report found that two employees of a subsidiary of University of Limerick received additional pension benefits valued at €1.2m, after being admitted to a university pension scheme that was about to close to new entrants in 2012.

"The Department is currently examining the matter of recoupment of funding from higher education institutions where governance breaches have been identified and considering the most appropriate options available to it in that respect," Mr Ó Foghlú told today's hearing. 

The Public Accounts Committee was told today that that in relation to the University of Limerick there was a "deliberate attempt to mislead" the Comptroller and Auditor General in relation to written agreements with the individuals concerned.

The committee was told that the report stated that the university "withheld relevant and material information" from the examination team of the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Public Accounts Committee, the Department of Education, and the company it engaged for its own legal advice.

In response to Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane, Mr Seamus McCarthy told the meeting that as a corporate body, there was a deliberate attempt to mislead.

"I think if I were managing a private audit practice, we would have walked away from this audit. But that option wasn't available to me," Mr McCarthy said.

He added that he accepted the current president representations that this would not occur again in the future.

Dr Des Fitzgerald took over as President of the University of Limerick in 2017.

Fianna Fáil TD Marc McSharry called on Dr Fitzgerald to write to the Garda Commissioner to request the gardaí's fraud department to examine the outcome of the report, with a view to a detailed investigation taking place.

Dr Fitzgerald told the Committee that apologies had been issued to some of the whistleblowers who came forward to make disclosures. 

Social Democrat TD Catherine Murphy said that some of those who came forward had paid "a very heavy price in terms of not having a career, losing out on superannuation and not having a pension into the future".

Separately, the C&AG's report also found that a 2016 severance arrangement at the Institute of Technology Sligo "significantly exceeded" the sanction received from the Department of Education and Skills, when account is taken of a sum incorrectly classified as a payment related to sabbatical leave.

The Comptroller and Auditor General's report followed an RTÉ Investigates 'Universities Unchallenged' programme into the specific severance deals agreed by UL and wider corporate governance failures broadcast in May, 2017.

In a session this afternoon, the Public Accounts Committee will later discuss the C&AG findings in relation to the sale of a spin-out company developed on the campus of Waterford Institute of Technology.