University of Limerick bosses facing tough questions from Public Accounts Committee 

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UL Chancellor Mary Harney with former President Des Fitzgeral at the former Dunnes Stores site.

WITH University of Limerick President Kerstin Mey and Chancellor Mary Harney due to appear before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) this Thursday, it has been revealed that a second tranche of State funding has been withheld from the university.

Last year, €1.7million, or 69 per cent of UL’s capital budget, was withheld over concerns about the university’s financial governance.

Earlier this week, the Irish Examiner reported that a further €2million was withheld by the Department of Higher Education “until acceptable assurances of its financial soundness are provided”.

The €2million was allocated to UL to help finance energy efficiency retrofitting and the decision to suspend the allocation brings the total amount withheld from the university to €3.7million.

A spokesperson for the department said that the position in respect of capital funding to UL remains under review in the context of completion of capital governance assurances.

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Governance issues will also feature at this Thursday’s PAC session, with the university’s acquisition of the Dunnes Stores site on Sarsfield’s Bridge in Limerick City for €8million in 2019 likely to top the agenda.

The site was valued at €3million for Limerick City and County Council two years earlier when the local authority considered buying the building. The former supermarket underwent some refurbishment last year and has been used by UL architecture students since January.

According to the Sunday Independent, a briefing note prepared for Further Education Minister Simon Harris suggests that the controversial deal  may not have complied with spending rules and some procedures surrounding the transaction were “a departure from normal practice”.

Last year, UL told the PAC it obtained a verbal valuation of the Dunnes site from one surveyor, but this did not satisfy TDs scrutinising the deal, who said the college should have done more to ensure the purchase represented good value.

UL commissioned KPMG to conduct a review of the sale and although the report was sent to the college in January, it hasn’t been published because of a legal objection. The university’s former chief operating officer Gerry O’Brien has filed High Court proceedings against the university relating to issues concerning the purchase.

PAC chairman Brian Stanley said he will ask UL to share the report with the committee at Thursday’s meeting which he expects to be attended by college chancellor Mary Harney.

In a statement issued to the Limerick Post on Tuesday, a spokesman for UL said that it welcomes the opportunity to appear in front of the Public Accounts Committee and to answer any and all questions that its members may have.

“UL has engaged with the Higher Education Authority and has provided assurances that were sought on governance to the satisfaction of the HEA. UL is committed to strong governance and a continued review and enhancement of its policies, procedures and practices,” the statement concluded.