Students at one of Ireland's smallest colleges, Letter-kenny College, Donegal, have discovered the complex side effects of changing their drinking venue. The decision to transfer student discos and other social events from the Golden Grill bar and lounge to Nero's nightclub was followed by a series of events which has both amazed and amused the general public.
These included calling in the police and the data protection commissioner and securing a court injunction to prevent elections to the governing body. There were so many allegations and counter-allegations that Niamh Bhreathnach, the education minister, appointed an inspector to find out what was really happening.
Miriam Hederman O'Brien's report was so damning that the minister is now rushing through legislative changes which will allow her to appoint a commission to run the college or indeed any other regional technical college that steps out of line in future.
The 11 colleges, offering certificate, diploma and certificate courses, were put on a statutory footing in January 1993 -- prior to that they were under the control of local vocational education committees. Letterkenny is one of the smallest, with 1,515 registered students last year or perhaps that should have been 1,497 students. Dr Hederman O'Brien found discrepancies in the reported number of students at the college.
Her inquiry also concludes that: * the governing body did not fully comply with guidelines on conflict of interest for members.
* the level of involvement by the chairman in college affairs was "much too detailed".
* the college disregarded legal guidelines and regulations in some areas.
* selection procedures were not always conducted in accordance with best practice and the official guidelines.
* the process of accrediting and sanctioning courses at the college was "careless, if not haphazard".
The report agrees that the student union accounts for 1992/93 were deficient, but says that this was known to the college for some time and did not suddenly arise last summer when the Golden Grill row began.
The directors of the Golden Grill are Paul McGlinchey and his father Bernard, a local authority councillor who was also chairman of the college's governing body. Councillor McGlinchey is a prominent local member of Fianna Fail and a former member of the senate.
In August 1993, the Golden Grill was informed that the union was transferring its business to Nero's nightclub. In September Paul McGlinchey wrote to the private addresses of second and third-year students inviting support for the establishment of an alternative student entertainment committee. It is not clear how the confidential list of names and addresses was obtained and the matter has been referred to the data protection commissioner.
When the student union presented its audited accounts, the chairman produced receipts from the Golden Grill which conflicted with the figures in the accounts and the governing body rejected the accounts. The report says it was unwise of the chairman to involve himself so closely in that meeting and particularly to produce, in dramatic fashion, documentation from a commercial establishment in which he was personally involved and which purported to undermine the accounts of the student union.
Then the sabbatical union officers were rejected from the elections to the governing body. The person who was then automatically elected was also involved in the alternative student entertainment committee. But, Councillor McGlinchey told the investigator, this was "coincidental". The students then obtained an injunction preventing the elections taking place which is still in force.
The report also quotes anonymous college staff as telling of their concerns about intimidation and victimisation if they challenged the way the college was run. Dr Hederman O'Brien found 20 applicants being interviewed in a single day for a lecturer's job. There was no shortlist, fuelling ideas that the outcome had been predetermined, she suggests.
As for relations between the college and the department of education, they always seemed to be on the brink of dispute, says the report. At one stage the department had to seek a judicial review to block an appointment that the college had made. On another occasion the department refused to allow the head of science leave of absence to take up an European Union post in Brussels. The college allowed the individual to take up the post anyway, but the department was left under the impression that he was still teaching in Letterkenny.
The college director, Bill Fitzsimmons, also comes in for a fair degree of criticism. But most of the public comment has been about the colourful character of Councillor McGlinchey. Dr Hederman O'Brien says that McGinchey's knowledge and skill "placed him in a superior position in the college management strata, and, combined with his approach, pulled him more and more into a level of involvement in college affairs which was much too detailed".
Councillor McGlinchey is unrepentant. "My only critics in the college were the small number of staff enjoying a remunerative gravy train who did not want me to spoil things for them." In a robust defence last week he said that he had been appalled at some of the poor work practices he had discovered in the college. "As a substantial taxpayer I was not prepared to close my eyes to wilful waste of public money," He has announced his resignation as chairman.