I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to attend today’s meeting, which concerns the financial statements of the University of Limerick for 2019-20. Those in attendance with me are Ms Mary Harney, chancellor of the University of Limerick, and Mr. Gary Butler, chief financial and performance officer.
If the Chairman will allow, I would like to briefly share some thoughts on the institution, of which I am extremely proud to be president. A modern university must meet a variety of societal needs. It must be: a centre of high quality education and research; a place for the discovery of new knowledge and better understanding about the world and ourselves; and, perhaps most importantly, a vital force in realising the full cultural, social and economic potential of the communities it serves. Since its establishment, the University of Limerick has been a dynamic catalyst for change for the people of Limerick, the broader mid-west and nationally. The capacity of our university to build and sustain deep and mutually beneficial relationships with industry continues to be a major driver of the region’s economic prosperity and social transformation. In addition, our strong academic and growing international research profile has attracted talented people across a broad range of disciplines, nationalities and cultures to come here to study, live and work.
Beginning this month, the University of Limerick will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its establishment in 1972. In addition to celebrating our unique heritage, this will be an opportunity for us to articulate and promote our excellence in research and education and highlight the extraordinary achievements of our students, alumni and staff. This important anniversary also coincides with, and has very much informed, our current strategic plan, UL@50, which we have recently refreshed, and also the development of our sustainability framework, which will provide us with a roadmap for development over the next decade. Students are at the heart of everything we do and the campus settings in which they receive their education is to the forefront of our drive for sustainability. Our objective during the lifetime of the strategic plan and beyond is to ensure that the university continues to evolve and prosper and contributes to a thriving world so that we can continue to provide future generations with an exceptional, inclusive and recreational environment in which they can excel.
I would like to share with the committee the performance of University of Limerick relative to its peers during the past number of years. We are honoured to be the recipient of multiple awards for our world class campus, marketing and communications success, excellence in the provision of academic and professional services, gender equality in higher education, our research and for our incredible Erasmus programme. In addition, we have: grown our student numbers to well over 17,500; our graduate employment is up 15% on the national average; we have become the first Irish university to engage with apprenticeships from level 7 up to doctorate qualification; and we have surpassed 10% of employment market share in Limerick.
Regarding our financial position, as requested, I have provided the committee with a comprehensive briefing paper outlining the university’s financial position at the end of the 2019-20 year. I have also provided some more detail on many of the matters which members raised at our previous attendance before committee. My intention in so doing is to assure the committee of my personal commitment, as president, to ensuring our university’s sterling reputation for excellence in education and research shall be matched by a commitment to the highest standards in corporate governance, transparency and accountability, and an open and inclusive, supportive and empowered organisational culture.
The 2019-20 year was unique and was characterised by the extraordinary uncertainty that accompanied the arrival of a global pandemic. We also had to contend with the evolution of Brexit. The governing authority, executive committee and staff of the university, in partnership with the student unions, worked tirelessly to ensure the continuation of academic activities and impactful research while also safeguarding our financially sustainability. In the relevant period, the university returned a surplus of €3.9 million. The executive committee and the governing authority are agreed that this surplus must be reinvested in areas that will directly and demonstrably further enhance the student and staff experience, including implementing the broad learnings from Covid-19. At this month's governing authority meeting we agreed to consult widely, especially with the student body on our intentions in that regard. The consolidated university statement of comprehensive income and net profit for the year to 30 September 2020 are shown on page 38 of the financial statements. During the period in question, Covid-19 impacted virtually all areas of the university’s activities. From 12 March 2020, the campus was effectively closed to staff and students. While we continue to adhere to public health guidance and to assess ongoing and any permanent financial impact of the pandemic, it appears the worst is now behind us. Happily, the university is emerging from the pandemic in very good financial health.
The Comptroller and Auditor General issued an unqualified audit opinion on the financial statements for 2019-20. The university welcomes this. In the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General on information other than in the financial statements, attention is drawn to procurement non-compliance as disclosed in the annual governance statement; the purchase of a site for the city campus, the override of controls and the president’s remuneration. With respect to procurement, I draw the committee’s attention to a sustained reduction in the percentage of such expenditure deemed non-compliant. In the relevant period, non-compliance was 0.6%. That is two thirds lower than the prevailing rate in the sector, which is 1.8%. I am pleased to advise the committee that the university is one of the leading institutions regarding procurement compliance. There is still room for improvement, and I have outlined a number of further and better controls we have put in place. These will identify any future inadvertent or deliberate breach of public procurement protocols.
The university is wholeheartedly committed to its civil and civic mission, and this is very much reflected in our strategic plan and the refreshed plan. We intend to contribute fully to the rejuvenation of Limerick city and we are working closely with our partners, including Limerick City and County Council, in that regard. We have opened up part of our existing city centre campus where our digital fabrication lab offers opportunities for exploration and learning to University of Limerick students as well as the community. The renovated space includes a Limerick City and County Council Community Engagement Hub and a further flexible space for teaching and events, which is heavily utilised. When circumstances permit, we hope to make the significant capital investment that will be required in order to develop a truly vibrant city campus, accessible to everyone and an exemplar of sustainability.
I am well aware the committee has been particularly concerned to understand the circumstances which gave rise to the university’s acquisition of the former Dunnes Stores site for €8.343 million. KPMG was commissioned to conduct a review, which has been completed but which is the subject of a legal challenge. We are working with our legal advisers to try to unblock impediments to its publication. I appreciate this is still a very live issue. However, I hope the committee would permit me to draw a distinction between the process by which the property was acquired, arising from which the governing authority commissioned the KPMG review, and the enormous civic potential of this strategic site in the centre of Limerick city on the banks of the Shannon, which gives me cause for great optimism about the future of our city centre campus.