New bill could allow spying in universities

Seven University presidents have expressed concern about proposed legislation which could give ministers power to appoint “cronies” to spy on their operations, according to a Freedom of Information request made by the Irish Times last month.

The presidents said: “Our concerns include the potential for future Ministers to misuse the Act to influence university appointment processes based on political agendas, or to appoint cronies as ‘investigators’ or persons to carry out certain functions of a university, and we would have no option but to strongly oppose the changes.”

Minister Ruairí Quinn first put the Universities Amendment Bill forward in 2012 after senior administrators were found to be receiving top-up payments; this was one of a number of similar controversies.

The presidents state that resurrecting this Bill could do serious damage to the higher education sector. This reaction occurred after Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan proposed to re-introduce the Bill before summer.

Figures released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in 2013 showed that seven universities spent a total of €7.2m on unauthorised top-ups. This occurred between 2005 and 2011.

UCD president Dr Michael Murphy was among those against the Bill and defended his €232,000 salary in 2012. The department capped president’s salary at €200,000. UCD was the college most affected by the HEA’s withholding of the top-ups, which added up to €1.6m. DCU was least affected with €27,000 being held back.

A senior academic administrator in TCD, Dr Patrick Prendergast, said if the Bill was passed it might affect Irish universities reputation abroad.

“Some of the measures proposed in the draft Bill are punitive and, if enacted, will send out the wrong signals to universities abroad with whom we wish to establish joint activities and, I fear, to potential foreign direct investment partners and university philanthropists,” Dr Prendergast wrote.

Elaine Carroll

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