Special Report 74: Education Sector

Introduction

This report examines a range of issues arising out of recent financial audits. The common feature of the reviews is that they involved administration by universities, institutes of technology and other bodies, in circumstances where those bodies received substantial State funding, ultimately borne on the Vote for the Office of the Minister for Education and Skills.

The audits reviewed, inter alia, the following

  • the application of the first cycle of funding allocated from the Strategic Innovation Fund
  • the extent to which the National Educational Welfare Board responds to the educational welfare needs of students and is positioned to evaluate the effectiveness of its operations
  • the factors that gave rise to cost and time overruns on a capital development project at Cork Institute of Technology
  • the granting of an early retirement scheme by FETAC without the approval of the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Finance
  • the remuneration and expenses paid in the Royal Irish Academy of Music
  • the current estimate of the cost of redress to victims of abuse in residential institutions and the extent to which the State indemnity has been invoked.

The key conclusions are as outlined below.

Strategic Innovation Fund

The limited identification of expected outputs and outcomes of projects funded by the Strategic Innovation Fund impacted on the capacity of the Department of Education and Skills and the Higher Education Authority to monitor and evaluate the programme results. The funding should have been more directly linked to upfront identification of measurable outputs and outcomes.

A number of similar projects were funded under the programme leading to a risk of overlap. The mid term evaluation of the Strategic Innovation Fund has recommended an aggregation of similar type projects and future funding will be contingent on viable proposals being developed.

One aim of the programme was to induce a greater level of collaboration between institutions. A good practice example of collaboration is the shared procurement service developed by the Shannon Consortium. However, overall, the full impact of collaboration in terms of improved efficiencies and shared resources has yet to materialise.

Going forward, if the third level sector and the State is to get maximum value from these investments it is essential that the results be assessed and the opportunities for better practice identified, mainstreamed and shared under the guidance of the Higher Education Authority and the sectoral representative bodies.

Monitoring School Attendance

In 2008/09, primary school students missed 11.5 days and post-primary students missed 13 days, on average. 15% of absences reported to the National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) in the course of the year were for students who missed 50 days or more. However, it is estimated that only 61% of absences of over 20 days in 2008/09 were reported in the course of the year. Currently, there is a gap between the number of pupils for whom intervention is required and the capacity of NEWB to respond. In 2008/09, taking account of cases already on hands, NEWB dealt with just over 6,000 cases in the course of the year.

Information derived from periodic reporting is inadequate to focus NEWB activity because that reporting is neither comprehensive nor validated. A planned move to prioritisation based on real-time referrals should help to address the effective identification of ?at risk? pupils.

The overall services relating to school attendance and participation are being reconfigured. This represents an opportunity to achieve a more joined-up approach to school participation and in particular improve

  • the process by which those at risk of early school leaving or who have a pattern of poor attendance are identified
  • the development of local and national responses to tackling attendance and early school leaving
  • the coordination of resources at local, regional and national level.

Capital Development at Cork Institute of Technology

There was a 45% uplift in the cost of the construction of an Administration Building and a Student Centre in the main Cork Institute of Technology campus at Bishopstown and there are outstanding claims of ?1.2 million in respect of the works.

The form of contract used at the time left considerable risk with the Institute. A new form of contract which has been introduced, generally, since 2007, places an onus on the contractor to price for risks relating to necessary design changes and the relocation of utilities to facilitate the works as well as bear the cost of additional measures to address unforeseen ground conditions. This should reduce the risk to the State in these types of cases.

Early Retirement Scheme in FETAC

To facilitate the amalgamation of three bodies ? NQAI, HETAC and FETAC into a single entity, certain pension arrangements were entered into. The actuarial value of additional superannuation benefits granted to four FETAC staff who took early retirement was of the order of ?800,000. The additional benefits did not have the required approvals from the Council of FETAC or the Minister and did not conform to the statutory authority governing them.

It would be preferable if this type of restructuring was carried out as part of an overarching plan approved by the Department which sought to achieve both process efficiency and operational synergy in the combination and integration of the amalgamating entities.

Royal Irish Academy of Music ? Remuneration and Expenses

In the case of the Academy, the remuneration of the Director is determined by the Academy?s Governing Body.

While the Governing Body acted within its legal competence, the Director?s overall remuneration package as agreed by the Academy covered a range of separate functions, and was higher than that of benchmarked post holders when account is taken of the agreed time commitment.

The Academy is a body in receipt of substantial State funding. This gives rise to an expectation that its expenditure should be broadly in line with public sector norms and that departures from public sector pay policy should be agreed with its overseeing Department before contractual arrangements are concluded.

A single clear contract of employment would bring greater clarity to the arrangements.

Residential Institutions Redress Scheme

The likely cost of the redress scheme for victims of abuse in residential institutions is now put at ?1.1 billion. The bulk of the contribution of religious congregations agreed with the State has been provided by way of cash or property. While final title to 28 properties is still being established the transferees are in possession of them and all but seven properties have been brought into use.

The indemnity has cost the State ?8 million in cases finalised to date. However, there is a contingent liability arising out of the fact that 157 cases are still awaiting resolution. The Accounting Officer stated that the majority of those cases are likely to be resolved through the Redress Board process or have been inactive for a long period.

It is estimated that in the region of ?34 million has been paid by way of assistance to voluntary survivor groups and ?9 million has been disbursed out of an Education Fund mainly by way of assistance to survivors and their families.