By Poly Pantelides
THE HOUSE Education committee yesterday gave state universities the go-ahead to use most of the budgets which parliament had blocked earlier this month.
But the University of Technology will need to discuss with the state’s legal service contracts amounting to millions for the rent of half-used or empty buildings.
In a tense meeting which went on for almost five hours, during which legislators clashed with university representatives and each other, deputies eventually agreed to free up most of the blocked, or crossed off, funds of the University of Cyprus (UCY) and the University of Technology (TEPAK) budget.
TEPAK’s and UCY’s self-generated funds – obtained via donations, competitive research programmes granted by EU bodies and the like – will be mostly, but not completely freed up.
TEPAK got €750,000 out of €1million of its own revenues unblocked.
MPs also unblocked €33 of some €40 million that UCY earns via external funds from the EU or elsewhere.
The House plenum’s move on July 11 to block access to those funds and demand further explanation for how exactly they were being used before freeing them up, raised a storm with angry academics claiming politicians were trying to thwart their autonomy and micro-manage them.
The UCY’s Christopher Pissarides, a Nobel laureate, said that it is universities that are in a position to know how best to manage their budgets. “I could have easily chosen to take out a grant with the London School of Economics but I brought it to Cyprus,” he said. “We want to build a good university.”
Pissarides was recently awarded €2.2 million by the European Research Council (ERC) on a research project on unemployment. The highly competitive grants are also audited by the funders, as do almost all of competitive research projects granted to academics.
Andreas Themistocleous, the ruling party DISY MP who has previously berated the “well-fed” academics for being insensitive to the ongoing debt crisis, said he hopes universities would come to be less dependent on the state. He also said universities should not compete with the private sector for tenders, and should not create for-profit companies.
MPs did also flag questionable expenses by universities.
TEPAK will have to report back to the House and state’s legal services on contracts that come to €4.2million this year for renting out buildings, often at above-market rates or else for buildings which are either empty or under-used. It did however get 75 per cent of its budget for building rentals freed up.
TEPAK rector Elpida Keravnou said they have tasked a law firm to conduct independent disciplinary probe on the matter.
Legislators also took issue with a budget of €280,000 for paying transportation fees for 65 members of staff who are being driven to and from their workplace in Limassol and homes in Nicosia between September and June.
“In a time of crisis, why is there a still a budget for this?” said DIKO MP Athena Kyriakidou. Keravnou said the budget was part of the package when the university was founded in 2003, and had “remained unchanged for years”. Legislators kept most of that budget blocked for now, pending state legal advice on whether they are obliged to liberate the amount.
AUDITOR-GENERAL Chrystalla Georghadji scolded members of parliament who had accounted for their actions in blocking university funding by referring to suggestions she never made.
“You had every right to take the actions you did, but you cannot ascribe them to the auditor-general,” she said.
Despite protestations by MPs that they never intended to belittle or attack the institutions, the most vocal of the MPs regularly clashed with academics.
Eventually, the interruptions by DISY MP Andreas Themistocleous prompted UCY rector Constantinos Christofides to state that if he were his teacher he would have kicked him out of class.
This was a response to a scolding of Themistocleous by the committee’s new head, Georgios Tasou, for interrupting, to which Themistocleous responded he was not a primary school student to be told off.
Themistocleous and Kyriakidou, who were also the most prominent in the media during a two-week dispute between academics and parliament, also talked the most at the committee, leading a heated discussion.
AFTER FIVE hours of discussions, and two weeks after the fact, most of the funds pertaining to the universities’ legal and transport expenses, funds for hiring visiting lecturers and professors were freed up.
Legislators already reduced allowances and benefits, but agreed to come back to decide on a promotion freeze.
Universities want to be able to grant title promotions but the state’s legal services said they will possibly need to draw up a law to clarify that a title promotion of the kind would not impact remuneration, including pensions.
The Open University, with a more modest budget and only one fund crossed off has raised no objections and its budget will remain as is. The education ministry only submitted the budgets in June, because of the general upheaval in the run-up and after an international bailout agreement for Cyprus.
Freeing up most of the funds in essence enables the education ministry to be reimbursed for the money it has already put in towards those funds, some of which have already been spent, seven months into 2013. But it will also allow universities to make payments now, in preparation of the September start to the academic year.