Education ministry report: TalTech issues arose from systemic shortcomings ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

The Ministry of Education and Research in Tallinn.
The Ministry of Education and Research in Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

An audit of Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) practices conducted by the Ministry of Education in the aftermath of allegations of the misuse of European Union funds, says that errors uncovered in the management of international research projects arose from systemic weaknesses in the university's system of project management and staffing practices.

These include regulations the university had drawn up itself, but did not appear to have adhered to, according to the report.

The audit summarizes the lack of uniform management principles at TalTech – as it's known internationally (in Estonia it is referred to as TTÜ) – a lack of consistent application of self-imposed rules, no overview of actual contributions of overseas staff, the general or even verbal assignment of contracts, and the absence of a system to monitor multiple projects and the actual individual contribution of the person to each project, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.

As reported on ERR News, education minister Mailis Reps (Center) said it was regrettable that TalTech, a public university, had been lax about enacting and enforcing regulations. 

"TalTech urgently needs to improve the organization of project management, making it clearer and more transparent," Reps said Tuesday, according to a ministry press release.

At the request of the education ministry, TalTech has to improve the organization of its project management and personnel accounting.

Incomplete project management principles

According to the report's authors, the university's development plan has been strong in diversifying sources of funding, but no steps have been taken to develop a supportive central project management organization.

As a result, time spent by project managers and academic staff on project management has grown unreasonably, and the transparency, consistency and consistent application of project management and other key management processes throughout the organization have not been ensured. 

This means that different structural units have developed their own management practices, the report found, which in turn can lead to misunderstandings and inaccurate expectations among employees and students. This in turn hampers the development of a unified organizational culture, and can threaten the reputation and credibility of the institution as a whole, the report said.

The issues affect various TalTech institutes and faculties, the report said.

One such institute was at the center of a story which broke last August. EU funds from the Horizon 202 program allocated to the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance's (RNI) OpenGovIntelligence (OGI) project had allegedly been misused, since the RNI had, according to a whistleblower, submitted false information to the European Commission, artificially inflating Taltech's working hours, including money being paid as wages to individuals.

The Horizon 2020 funds totaled a reported €267,500.

Inconsistency in following regulations

The university does not consistently enforce its own regulations, the report said. 

Taltech's statute assigns responsibility for its internal structure and organization to institutes' heads, but not all institutes comply with this.

Many TalTech employees do not have job descriptions, although the university makes job descriptions a mandatory addition to an employment contract. 

At faculty and institute level, verbal arrangements are often made, the report found, which are not set in stone and where information is disseminated only orally at random. As a result, access to relevant information for staff, students and partners depends on which networks the employee belongs to or how close they are to the head of the unit in an institute's hierarchy, which undermines the legal certainty and clarity of all parties.

Overseas employment contributions not clear

The university has employment contracts with people who are based abroad.

However, the university's work organization rules contain detailed prescriptions which can only be followed or checked if the place of employment is Estonia, which leaves the status of the contribution of people working overseas unclear. 

As the university has the right, and to an extent the responsibility, to establish a regulatory framework for certain processes based on the specifics and needs of its organization to ensure their uniformity, legitimacy and control and equal treatment of its members and partners is necessary, the report found.

Tasks enumerated generally and/or verbally

Tasks in many employment contracts are fixed at a general level or by verbal agreement with the immediate supervisor. The duties may be specified in the job description or in annexes to the employment contract. TalTech, as the employer, has changed the sources of an employee's pay without informing the employee, which results in a situation where the employee does not know what kind of projects he / she is supposed to be working on or which project the work they are currently working on is connected to, the report found. 

These sources of finance for wages change frequently, and in the case of individual employees often come from a variety of different origins, the report found. 

Additionally, TalTech has no uniform system for employees involved in multiple projects to estimate how much of their time is spent on any particular project. 

As reported on ERR News, TalTech had in 2018 invested €60,000 on time management software, in spite of this.

There is also no overview of the actual workload employee, the report also found. Combining salaries from different project-based sources of money without informing employees, or agreeing with employees on a possible change of tasks, creates a situation where staff may unknowingly gain additional responsibilities (eg. other than those filled-in in a timesheet)) or provide misleading data to financial donors (e.g. be assigned to projects to perform tasks that are not actually performed).

Such practices damage the reputation and credibility of the university as a whole, the report states.

Regulations need to be harmonized

The report's author recommended the rector (Jaak Aaviksoo-ed.) ensure that the TalTech's various levels of management activities and regulations are consistent with each other, as well as review and regulate the institution's work procedures organization with the establishment of job descriptions and performance and control.

In addition, the central organization of project management should be improved, internal control measures should be supplemented to ensure a more uniform level of project management, and the clarity and transparency of the system as a whole also needs improving.

The report also found a review of the university-based decision-making system when switching financial sources, which also involves changing the responsibilities of staff by extension, was needed. When the duties change, the employee must be informed of this, the report said.

TalTech's response: No offense has been committed

TalTech issued a response to the Ministry of Education audit on Tuesday, where it noted no offense had been found to have been committed against or by an employee of the institution, a conclusion the university says it agrees with.

The University itself has reached the same conclusions.

As to violations of the university's own internal rules, TalTech said that it had already identified these shortcomings, with three previous internal audits set up in the aftermath of the media reports starting last August.

These identified problems in project management, working time in its accounting, overseas staff employment relationships and other smaller issues, the university said.

More detailed analysis of the Ministry of Education's audit, and conclusions from that, are to be drawn up in the next three to four weeks, Taltech says.

TalTech Vice Rector for Research Renno Veinthal said that: "The shortcomings identified by the supervision are, of course regrettable and the University takes these recommendations very seriously."

"We hope that as a result of the proposed steps, the university will succeed in sensibly combining bureaucratic requirements on the one hand, and adhere to principles of academic freedom and university autonomy on the other," he added, according to a TalTech press release.

Whistleblower's comment: Report vindicates my claims

The original whistleblower who took the story to daily Postimees in late August last year, then-RNI employee Keegan McBride, says that the findings of the education ministry's report indicate that his findings had grounds, and were not without merit as TalTech had previously said.

"The University has previously claimed that my claims were unfounded, but the report by the Ministry of Education presents evidence to the contrary: There is large scale and systematic mismanagement of project funding at Tallinn University of Technology that has gone unnoticed and unchallenged for years," McBride told ERR News Tuesday afternoon.

"The responsibility for this lies purely in the hands of the upper management for creating an environment conducive for this activity, as suggested by the authors of the report," he added.

TalTech is also  subject of both a European Commission audit, whose findings have yet to be published, and an Estonian prosecutor's office investigation, also not yet concluded.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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