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Irish colleges blows through €750k on cabs -- university expenses under review again

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Enda+Kenney+HeadshotThe more things change, the more things stay the same.

If there was one adage that could sum up public sector spending in Ireland, that could quite possibly be it.

The latest expenses revelation concerning Ireland's publicly-funded university sector is that they've managed to spend a stellar €750,000 ($952,000) on cabs in the last two years alone.

And given that there are just seven of them doing the spending, that works out at a fairly substantial $107,142 a piece.

The worst culprit was University College Cork (UCC), which saw fit to dish out €263,000 -- or 35% of the total spend -- on transporting the likes of lecturers, visiting academics, and other motley recipients of the massive funding dish-out, followed by the University of Maynooth (€128,038), and DCU (€95,000).

"One has to question if that is the case in respect of all the universities, but particularly in UCC, given its proximity to the train station and the airport," Cork South West Labour TD Michael McCarthy said, commenting on the news."

"There have to be consequences and the minister must take action to prevent wastage of money if there is found to be unjustified spending."

Unfortunately, while desirable, that's hardly the way things currently stand.

The universities and the Department of Education seem perfectly happy to engage in a continuous game of passing the buck and shirking responsibility for whatever (and there have been many) funding blunders are found to occur.

This was neatly exemplified in a quote from the Irish Examiner outlining the Department's reaction:

"A spokesperson for Mr Quinn said the universities have their own governing authorities and accountability structures to determine how their funding is spent," the newspaper's chief education correspondent, Niall Murray, reported.

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The problem goes beyond universities' spending, however.

At a time when one now-deposed think tank member warns that Ireland is facing into a potential ten years of further austerity Budgets, it's hardly reassuring for the general population to know that Departmental and public service spending is largely dictated by the whims of those in charge of the Budgets, with seemingly very little in the way of checks and balances available to right the many wrongs that have been found on the part of those administering the systems.

While the Government seems to have no doubt about the consequences attending not paying the much hated householder tax, the consequences for making reckless use of the taxpayers' money on the part of the government and its quangos seem to be - at best - a cursory drag through the Public Accounts Committee, but more often than not a drag through the media, after which the media moves on to dealing with the next bout of recklessness.

The news also adds strongly to the feeling of hypocrisy surrounding those at the pinnacle of higher education in Ireland, who seem happy to vouch for raised student contributions, but unhappy to address the often endemic spending crises that go on in the institutions over which they govern.

UCC's Michael Murphy has been one of the strongest advocates for increased fees, and drew heavy criticism for elitist remarks about disadvantaged students' right of access to third level, but increasingly seems happy to ignore realities such as these, his salary (Murphy is the highest paid university president in Ireland), or the generally high wage-base at the top of UCC.

While I'm an admirer of Murphy as a president and the fantastic work he's done on furthering UCC's global reputation and research clout, I believe that his strong pro-fee position will only prove tenable if he's willing to make a real bond-fide effort to tackle spending on the part of staff of UCC. Otherwise, talk of increased expenses will only continue to draw the obvious retort of what the university is doing to minimize costs.

More than anything, though, it's the Irish people who deserve better than this.

Maybe this small scandal will make a ripple of a distance.

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