I welcome the opportunity to meet with the committee and to address questions members may have in relation to the 2019 accounts, the issue of protected disclosures and other matters as outlined in the meeting request and follow-up note. I am accompanied by Mr. Andrew Flaherty, chief corporate officer, and Ms Rosemary Fogarty, financial controller.
I became interim president of the University in September of last year. It was my honour to be the first female appointed to the role of a university president in over four centuries of higher education in Ireland. Prior to joining UL in 2018, I held senior roles as pro-vice chancellor and dean of the Westminster School of Media, Arts and Design, University of Westminster, and, before then, director of research and enterprise for the University for the Creative Arts in England.
Members will appreciate that my accent is not that of a Limerick native. I was born and raised in Berlin but, like everybody who comes to Limerick, I am immensely proud of the region and of the university and I am very conscious of my responsibility as chief officer to help strengthen this wonderful institution so that it can continue to play a transformative role not just in the mid west but in Ireland and further afield in the decades ahead.
The Covid pandemic has meant that the past 15 months have been a very challenging time for the university sector, as it has been for society at large. While dealing with the practical challenges posed by Covid-19 has dominated our activities during this period, we have also been very conscious of the need to make progress on other issues. In this context, together with the chancellor and the governing authority, I am very aware that the reputation of the university in recent years has been buffeted too often by controversy and disharmony.
I am also conscious that our relationship with this committee has not been as constructive or harmonious as it should have been, and I want to assure members that I will do all I can to make our relationship with the committee a positive one of trust going forward. The root cause of many of these issues lies in the areas of culture and governance which have been a major focus since I became interim president.
On culture, my goal is to reset the organisational culture and to build a new spirit of openness and trust within the university community so that every member of that community feels valued, supported and empowered by a shared purpose. To strive and thrive we require the talents of all and an inclusive and supportive climate where anyone can come forward with new ideas for improvement and can raise awareness of errors, weaknesses and wrongdoing without any fear of retribution. In an inclusive, supportive and proactively learning organisation, whistleblowing and protected disclosure – while always available - will no longer be needed.
To this extent, I have endeavoured to stimulate two-way communication processes between the campus community and senior management, to make improvements to financial reporting and data provision for evidence-based decision-making, and to introduce an inclusive consultation process on our strategic plan, UL@50. I am pleased to report that the participation in this process has been very encouraging, with 130 individual submissions and 57 group consultations in the first phase and evidence of a strong desire to participate in the second phase, which will inform the recalibration of our strategic plan.
In terms of governance, I can confirm that the recommendations from both the Mazars and Thorn reports have been implemented in full and we are now completing the implementation of the Code of Governance of Irish Universities 2019 and taking into account the recommendations made by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, in CINNTE Institutional Review 2020. We have also completed an overhaul of UL's policy management framework, ensuring consistent policy development, approval and review processes in line with best practice. We completed an external evaluation of the governing authority in 2020 by the Institute of Public Administration, with a draft report issued in early 2021 and the subsequent implementation of recommendations.
We have completed training on an annual governance statement and a statement of internal control for all senior managers by external experts, and introduced a new internal audit structure through the appointment of an in-house internal auditor. We have also introduced an enhanced risk management structure, namely, the audit and risk committee of the governing authority, which now invites owners of local risk registers as a standing item. Risk management is also a standing agenda item on the executive committee and governing authority. Finally, we have addressed the structure and size of the executive committee to strengthen governance and ensure a broader representation of all areas of the university in decision-making and, through a flatter structure, create a more distributed leadership to safeguard delivery on strategic initiatives. The new structure includes the appointment of a chief financial and performance officer through open competition.
I will address three issues that I know have been and are of concern to this committee. At our previous meeting in 2019, Deputy MacSharry put it to the then president that he should consider reporting a potential incident of fraud at the university to the Garda. I can confirm that following that meeting, my predecessor sought legal advice in respect of the relevant issue. The university briefed the Garda on the matter and we have co-operated fully with it on the issue since.
At that same meeting, there was a lot of discussion about the plight of two members of staff who had identified as whistleblowers. I can confirm we have reached agreement on one individual and the matter is completely resolved with approval from the Department. In the second case, the individual agreed to the terms of a full and final settlement but subsequently raised concerns about tax liabilities and has not yet signed the settlement that had been agreed.
Finally, there has been some recent speculation about the purchase of the Dunnes Stores site and building in Limerick city by the university for the development of a city campus and the fact that no formal written valuation report for the site before the acquisition is on file. The governing authority has asked KPMG to conduct an independent review of the governance around that purchase and we will share the outcomes of that review with the committee when it concludes.
I cannot say we have reached the end of what has been a difficult period for the university, but I can say with confidence we are making real progress. We understand we have to work hard to earn and maintain the trust of all our stakeholders, including this committee. We are committed to doing so, as am I. I thank members for their attention.