By Paddy Henry
NUI Galway’s official fundraising charity, the Galway University Foundation, has been criticised by the Charities Regulator after an investigation found that aspects of spending were ‘inconsistent’ with value for money policies.
An investigation was launched by the regulator after concerns relating to travel expenses were raised.
Former President of the NUI Galway Dr Jim Browne held the position of Charity director during the period of investigation.
The conclusion of the investigation found that the Galway University Foundation, which operates independently of the University itself, spent €48,584 on business class flights, the majority of which were to New York over a three year period from 2015 to 2017, while a further sum of over €24,000 was spent on economy class flights. The watchdog deemed the spending on Business class flights as not in keeping with good practice.
The report detailed that business-class flights accounted for between 30-40% of flights taken during the time by ‘certain individuals’ within the organisation.
Included in the total figure spent on flights was €10,884 for the spouses of the foundation’s directors, €7,965 of which had been incurred in the name of Jim Browne’s wife.
Inspector Tom Murray’s report also revealed that the foundation had spent €30,398 on over 100 taxi trips, the majority of which were between Galway and Dublin. Dr Browne was the passenger for 77 of the 102 trips taken. The report also revealed that there was no substantial documentation on file detailing the purpose or necessity of taxi travel.
Dr Browne argued that usage of private transport services was necessary in giving his best when acting on behalf of the foundation at meetings and other official engagements, telling the report, “We’re expected to be ready for meetings, being there is important and being tired is not giving our best”. The former president of the University also argued that private taxi services were safer than driving while fatigued and that use of taxis only occurred when public transport could not be availed of to fulfil all of his commitments. “It was more efficient and safer to avail of a driver than to risk driving when tired”, Professor Browne told the report.
In addition to spending on flights and taxis throughout the period, the use of 4 and 5–star hotels, averaging a cost of around €385 a night, including the luxurious 5 star Shangri-La hotel in Singapore, were deemed to be “in excess of Revenue guidelines for overseas travel”.
Mr Murray’s report was also critical of the Foundation’s spending on what it described as donor acknowledgements, which included spending of €61,000 on the Galway Races and a further €10,000 on tickets to Irish international rugby matches over the three-year timeframe.
Despite criticisms in relation to spending, the report acknowledged that the Galway University Foundation was, for its part, a well-run charity, but noted more transparency and documentation was needed in the running of the foundation with regard to the use of taxis.
Students’ Union Outrage
NUI Galway’s Students’ Union issued a statement on the controversy expressing their disgust at what they described as “wasteful and frivolous” spending by the University Foundation. The Union outlined their dissatisfaction with the findings of the report, arguing that money is donated towards the foundation with the assurance that donations are used for scholarships and to enable students who are facing crisis or financial hardship to remain at University.
The Student representative body also claimed that the Foundation had not adhered to its mission statement, in which the foundation committed to transforming the lives of students and support research that enhances the lives of people across the globe.
Students’ Union President Clare Austick was scathing in her criticism of the Foundation’s governance structures, noting that she expected better from NUI Galway in setting standards of “good corporate governance and efficient management of resources”. In a statement, she said: “We expect better from an institution like NUI Galway that should be setting an example of good corporate governance and efficient management of resources. Instead, we see money that could have been used to support vulnerable students being spent on business class flights to five–star hotels. Students sitting exams have to pay for transport to off–campus exam centres, which should be provided by the university. For commuting students, and students not familiar with the city, this is an added source of stress, and they don’t have the luxury of personalised transport to ‘ensure they are not tired and can give their best’. The University needs to take action to reassure its many donors that their money is being used for the purposes it was donated. We are asking for a commitment from the university that this will not happen again by allowing a student representative to oversee the accounts of the board.”
How the money could have been spent:
The €48,584 spent on Business-Class flights could have paid for
- Thestudent levy of 216 students.
- University fees for 18 arts students
- A twin–bedroom with a shared bathroom in Corrib Village for the 2020-21 Academic year for 13 students
The money spent on ‘donor acknowledgements’ on the Galway Races and International Rugby matches amounting to €71,000 could have been spent on
- A single bed with private en–suite bathroom in Goldcrest Village for the 2020/2021 academic year for 10 students, with money left over
- A year–long membership of the Kingfisher for 284 students
- One–year’s worth of SUSI grant payments at the highest rate for 12 students
The €30,000 spent on taxis between 2015 and 2017 could have been spent on
- 1,304 student return tickets by train from Galway to Heuston Station
- The €2 exam bus fare for 15,000 students, almost the entire student population
The annual salary of 2 student nurses on 36 weeks of rostered placement