Three Institute of Technologies facing financial black holes as it emerges they are millions in debt

At least three leading State-funded third level institutes of technology have been ordered to draw up three-year financial recovery plans after it emerged they are millions of euro in debt - putting significant pressure on key front-line services.

The Higher Education Authority revealed the situation to the Dáil public accounts committee as the PAC amid heightened concerns over the need to protect funding levels for ITs, colleges and universities across the country.

IT Tralee

In a detailed document sent to the PAC as one committee member separately hit out at the "Robert Mugabe"-esque scale of spending at a "going away party" at Cork Institute of Technology, the HEA said despite significant funding a number of ITs are struggling to remain within budget.

In a two-page overview to the committee, the HEA said that according to the latest figures available, of the 14 ITs in Ireland three were financially in the red to the tune of almost €9.5m.

The HEA said the majority of ITs have millions of euro in additional funds available to them due in part to prudent spending levels, including DIT (€13.3m), IT Blanchardstown (€13.5m) and IT Sligo (€10m).

However, it admitted there are concerns relating to the overdraft levels at Waterford IT, Galway-Mayo IT and IT Tralee, which at the end of 2016 - the latest full accounts available - were €4.4m, €3.29m and €1.8m overdrawn respectively, and insisted three-year financial plans are immediately introduced to tackle the situation.

"The HEA has been working closely monitoring the financial position of all institutes... to eliminate the deficit. The HEA has a policy framework for engaging with institutes in financial deficit which requires institutes to submit a three-year plan to return to a balanced budget situation.

"All institutes with deficits are engaged in this process," the HEA said.

Comptroller and auditor general Seamus McCarthy told Thursday's PAC meeting the financial problems relate to a "frictional deficit over several years" and that the Department of Education has been made "fully aware" of the risks involved.

However, while Mr McCarthy said the issues can be addressed, a number of PAC members said there are serious underlying issues which must be examined, with Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy raising the prospect of cuts in other areas by saying:

Purely in the case of deficits, if you have a deficit then you have to fund it from somewhere.

During the same PAC meeting, a number of TDs including Labour's Alan Kelly, Fianna Fáil's Marc Mac Sharry and PAC chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming raised separate concerns over ongoing financial problems surrounding Cork Institute of Technology.

In particular, the trio of TDs said there are ongoing problems about how the IT has dealt with whistleblowers who raised concerns about a previously revealed lavish retirement party for its former president which involved an expensive ice sculpture of a dolphin.

Hitting out at the situation, Mr Mac Sharry said the lavish event should not have happened as "it's not [former Zimbabwean leader] Robert Mugabe's going away party".

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
Irish Examiner Political Correspondent

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