An open book?

Universities are required to be open to scrutiny because they are publicly funded. But how far should it go? When it comes to their internal business, David Matthews discovers that competition may be a stumbling block to transparency

April 4, 2013

If we win the election,” a younger looking, tie-less David Cameron told a trendy TED conference three years ago, “we are going to make all spending over £25,000 transparent and available online and searchable for anyone to see.”

The future prime minister guaranteed a slew of data to allow citizens to discover the risk of infection in the local hospital or how likely they were to be mugged when popping to the shops. This information would empower people to improve their public services by holding organisations to account, Cameron argued. If there was a moment when the open data movement - and its cousin, the transparency agenda - went mainstream in the UK, this was it.

Data.gov.uk - the central repository for state information set up in January 2010 - now hosts 9,248 datasets, with the number rising steadily. It is open to debate how useful this avalanche of information has actually been, but the idea that the public should be able to look inside the institutions they help to fund - to see how they work and what they spend - is now close to an orthodoxy.

The UK’s move towards open access has focused attention on the issue of public access to research findings in recent months - but what about other areas of a university’s business? How open are our universities? And how open should they be?

Openness takes many forms, of course. One of the best-known measures to increase the transparency of public bodies is the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

In his 2010 memoir, A Journey, Tony Blair called himself a “naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” for bringing in the right to request information from public bodies - fearing that such accessibility would hinder frank discussion - but the Act has become a fact of life for public institutions, if not always a welcome one.

FoI requests allow anyone to seek information held by the government and public authorities. It has been estimated that universities spend about £7.2 million a year to employ FoI officers and a further £2.3 million to answer requests, according to Jisc research released last year. Although these figures overlap to some extent, taken together, they constitute 0.36 per cent of the sector’s expenditure in 2011-12, a sum that Universities UK describes as “considerable”.

Paul Gibbons, an FoI officer at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London who blogs about the subject, is clear about how FoI requests are viewed by those running universities: his personal view is that they are seen “as a pain in the backside”. Although FoI officers themselves are generally keen to help, he argues, “the issue is trying to get the rest of the institution to keep up”.

Why should the university fund the newspapers’ information-getting exercise? The entire cost of such an exercise is placed on institutions

With universities increasingly relying on funding from private sources, some believe that the burden placed on universities by the Act is unfair and unsustainable. “As funding of the sector changes, and a greater proportion of university income comes from non-governmental sources, it is even more arguable whether universities are truly public authorities and whether the Act should therefore apply to them,” the University of Essex told MPs on the Commons Justice Committee when they audited the Act last year.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that in 2011- 12, about 45 per cent of university income came from what could be described as private sources such as student tuition fees, charity- and industry-funded research, and catering services.

Most of the institutions that gave evidence to the Justice Committee voiced concerns about the cost of fulfilling FoI requests. Ferdinand von Prondzynski, principal of Robert Gordon University, thinks universities should be allowed to charge for them. Many requests are from potential suppliers looking for a “leg-up in a commercial context”, he says. As for those from journalists, he asks: “Why should the university fund the newspapers’ information-getting exercise?” He stresses that he is not opposed to the principle of FoI, however. “What is bugging me is that the entire cost of such an exercise is placed on institutions who receive no money for it.”

Universities can be unforthcoming for different reasons. In response to recent FoI requests submitted by Times Higher Education, a number of universities have refused to divulge information because they say it could harm their commercial interests - an exemption permitted by the Act. One THE request prompted this round-robin message from Staffordshire University to other FoI officers: “I have been asked by my student office if we can refuse this using this [commercial interests] exemption, I can’t see how we could - any thoughts?”

With the government pushing the idea of greater competition between institutions, we can expect this exemption to be wheeled out more frequently in the future, Gibbons predicts. “That’s something that may well happen because the government’s got this agenda to make us more commercial.”

But FoI requests do not always cost the sector money - they can do the opposite. Gibbons once received a request for Soas’ directors’ expenses. When these were examined, it was realised that more of the costs could have been covered by outside organisations, saving the institution about £9,000. The value of FoI requests is in their unpredictability, he says, which makes them “a useful check on things that you haven’t thought to have audited”.

Indeed, one key promise of open data, say advocates, is that it can reveal inefficiencies and even injustices that public bodies are unaware of. Outside higher education, Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, points to research carried out last year by the non-profit Open Data Institute that analysed publicly available data to find that GPs were needlessly prescribing branded drugs rather than their equally effective, cheaper, generic alternatives, squandering billions of pounds in the process.

Are universities transparent about how their senior management make decisions? Most publish minutes of their governing council and senate meetings online (although some are hard to find) roughly three months after the event. “We publish our council minutes. How many companies publish their board minutes?” asks Hall.

But as with FoI, the rough and tumble of competition appears to be having a chilling effect on transparency. The board of governors at troubled London Metropolitan University decided in January to withhold its minutes for a year after each meeting because it needed a “safe space” to discuss tricky issues, “especially in these turbulent times”, although this decision is being reviewed at the time of writing.

Governing council minutes may be a red herring anyway, von Prondzynski thinks. Decisions in universities are “taken informally by a small group of people” around the vice-chancellor, who then get the council to “rubber-stamp” their decisions, he says.

These small groups - sometimes called the executive board or university executive committee - do not make public the minutes of their meetings. They should do, von Prondzynski argues, otherwise you end up with decisions “that nobody gets to review or understand”.

Hall disagrees. “You can’t carry on the business of your executive advisory boards in the public domain.”

Universities also have important subcommittees, covering, for example, research or ethics policy, that feed their deliberations up to the governing council. Public minutes for these bodies are a rarity.

“What I have detected is that around the university system there’s often an assumption that unless something is explicitly made public, it should be confidential,” von Prondzynski complains. “If in doubt, publish,” he urges.

He is also of the opinion that a lot of information is “very effectively hidden on university websites”, although he attributes this more to “appalling” website design than to a desire for secrecy. “Ease of access is as important as fact of access,” he believes.

The University and College Union, meanwhile, argues that the transparency of decision-making is threatened by the erosion of staff representation and of the role of senates and academic boards. “We need proper scrutiny of decisions from academics and others prepared to ask the difficult questions,” says Sally Hunt, the union’s general secretary.

Small groups around the leader rarely make public their minutes. ‘You can’t carry on the business of your executive advisory boards in the public domain’

Nowhere is public scrutiny of senior management more intense than over executive salaries and bonuses. How transparent are universities about these?

Details of vice-chancellors’ pay and pension packages are published in university accounts annually. However, von Prondzynski argues in his 2012 report into Scottish university governance, Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, that baffling university accounts can make it difficult to discern whether an institution’s head is receiving a bonus. Universities should get out of the bonus business altogether, he contends, lest they be tarred with the same brush as profligate bankers.

A number of universities awarded their heads performance-related pay in 2011-12, including Birmingham (£32,000), Exeter (£54,000), Salford (£18,100) and Aston (£20,000, of which £10,000 was subsequently waived at the request of the vice-chancellor). The reasons for the extra sums are not explained in the financial statements, but Aston University and Salford told THE that they were rewards for the principal achieving various undisclosed targets and objectives.

Banks, in contrast, dish out vastly bigger bonuses, but they have to say exactly how much they award and why. Barclays filled 12 pages with dense text and tables justifying its £2.15 billion bonus pool in its 2011 accounts, for example.

The NHS, meanwhile, has recently come under fire for paying off whistleblowers in deals that include gagging clauses preventing them taking their concerns public, and the government has promised to clamp down on this. Does the sector indulge in similar silencing?

According to the responses to a THE FoI request, in the three years to 2012, 73 universities signed 192 non-disclosure agreements with staff who had been bringing a case before an employment tribunal but settled before a full hearing.

Anyone who signs a compromise agreement as part of voluntary severance with the University of Edinburgh, for example, agrees “not to make any disparaging remarks in any circumstances” about the university, although this is “subject always to the principles of academic freedom”.

If this all makes the sector sound rather opaque, registrars might beg to differ. Writing in THE last year, Simeon Underwood, academic registrar at the London School of Economics, bemoaned the “vast” quantity of information that institutions must collect for bodies such as Hesa.

It’s profoundly in the public interest to know these figures. Rather than sharing a department, we might all end up independently closing down Arabic

The UK is unusual in that it has a dedicated statistics body for higher education rather than one for all forms of education, as is the case in the US. Hesa was created by the sector because the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 demanded more data in order to work out exactly how to fund the UK’s new universities.

Since then, its data demands have grown. It now collects data on students (including gender, ethnicity, domicile, degree class, school background, socio-economic background, accommodation type), staff, finances, business and community interaction, graduate destinations and university estates.

And it is merely one of a multitude of bodies demanding information from the sector. A 2010 report for the Higher Education Better Regulation Group unearthed 544 types of data institutions had to collect, for a host of different organisations (although some are needed only if a university runs a particular course or is in a specific part of the UK).

These data are of interest to politicians, the media, researchers and universities. “They can show how the student body changes over time, which students drop out, and so on. In time, they will provide the main evidence for whether the new tuition fees regime has or has not increased recruitment from disadvantaged socio-economic groups. But their cost and cost-effectiveness are rarely subject to scrutiny,” Underwood argued, adding that the requirements can be fiendishly complicated.

In its 2011 White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, the government promised to “empower prospective students by ensuring much better information on different courses”. Arguably, would-be students are now swimming in data about prospective universities.

Applicants have details on course costs, satisfaction rates, the proportion of time spent in lectures and average graduate wages at their fingertips following the introduction of the Key Information Sets and the launch of a revamped Unistats website in September last year. Organisations such as Which? and bestcourse4me have also got in on the act, using this information in websites aimed at students and their parents.

But there has been plenty of debate about how useful some of these data are. Writing in THE in 2011, Richard Partington, senior tutor at Churchill College, Cambridge, warned that information relating to student destinations, graduate-level employment and average salaries is “notoriously difficult to gather and verify” and that key details about teaching, such as class size, are missing from the KIS.

And researchers such as Graham Gibbs, professor of higher education at the University of Winchester, have warned that graduate earnings can be influenced by factors such as the reputation of the graduate’s institution and the individual’s school qualifications and social class, making them a poor indicator of quality.

Elly Walton illustration (4 April 2013)

Meanwhile, the holy grail of transparency - a breakdown of how an individual student’s tuition fees are spent - remains out of reach, at least for now.

In 2011, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, urged the sector to produce a pie chart for each course showing where students’ money was going. The Higher Education Funding Council for England is currently considering whether to make public more detailed expenditure data on teaching, research and other areas as part of a consultation on the Transparent Approach to Costing (Trac). A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says: “Students should have clear information available on how their tuition fees are being spent. We have asked Hefce to look at this.”

This raises the question of how students might react to such information: what if undergraduates on business or humanities courses, for example, find that their tuition fees are subsidising research or the education of their friends on courses such as chemistry or engineering that are more expensive to run?

But breaking this down at course level would be difficult and would require even more form-filling by academics, Hefce says. More Trac paperwork would also conflict with the White Paper’s call to have the process “radically streamlined”.

It is more likely that Hefce will release a spending breakdown by institution, although the funding council cautions that detail could be limited by competition law.

And in one key area, despite the wealth of information on Unistats, applicants have seen a reduction in the information available to them: this year, for the first time, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service refused to publish a breakdown of the number of university applicants by institution after the main 15 January application deadline. Ucas says that revealing such data could change applicant behaviour in a way that is “not helpful in a fair and competitive application process” and might conflict with competition law.

This worries Hall. “It’s profoundly in the public interest to know these figures,” he argues. “It leaves us in a very bewildering situation.” After all, he points out, universities will eventually have to reveal how many students they have attracted, so Ucas’ decision creates only a brief “artificial protection” for struggling institutions.

And without knowing their rivals’ application data, universities cannot work together to save sinking subjects, he adds. Rather than sharing a department, “we might all end up independently closing down Arabic in Greater Manchester because we didn’t talk to each other”, he speculates. “How can I have conversations if I don’t have the figures?”

Transparency is fine…’as long as it is not confused with truth…Knowledge of what is going on in any institution is not revealed by raw data’

In other areas some universities are making a point of opening up their data. In March 2011, the University of Southampton boldly promised to allow “the app generation” to “create the information they seek in the way that they want it” by publishing raw data on its courses, procurement and estate online, ready to be turned into user-friendly web applications. Its approach has been widely praised, and so far staff and students at the university have created 15 apps from the data - five to do with buses, and one that compares the price of all food and drink available across the campus. Although no new app has been developed since 2011, a spokesman for the university says the institution is still “very active” in the area.

So how do universities compare with other sectors? “In terms of releasing open data and awareness about the benefits of sharing data openly, universities are generally lagging behind the public sector,” says Jonathan Gray, director of policy and ideas at the Open Knowledge Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation advancing the open data cause.

On data.gov.uk, government departments publish spending data on transactions greater than £25,000, and many make public all spending over £500. Their management structures are laid bare, too: for example, you can browse the Student Loans Company to discover the names of the senior team, their salaries to the nearest £5,000, their responsibilities and who reports to them, right down to junior staff.

But UK universities - some of them, anyway - are queuing up to give away their teaching materials for free. Seventeen institutions have joined Futurelearn, the UK’s answer to US massive open online course (Mooc) providers such as Coursera, edX and Udacity. Details of the first Futurelearn courses are yet to be confirmed, but they should be open to students in the second half of 2013. While some argue that such courses can attract students to more conventional courses, others fear that it could undermine universities’ business models.

Should universities - as free-thinking and occasionally contrarian bodies - pay more heed to the current vogue for transparency? Transparency is fine, says Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Warwick, “as long as it is not confused with truth or even reliable knowledge. Knowledge of what is going on in any institution is not revealed by raw data.

“The demand for transparent data to operate as a kind of substitute for knowledge or truth is part of a culture of ‘immediacy’,” he thinks, which is “anathema to knowledge, and to education, both of which require time, delay, and the mediations of thinking.”

Overall, however, it is hard to avoid concluding that when it comes to being open and transparent about their internal business - particularly how universities function and why decisions are taken - the sector’s record is patchy. And the pressure to become more commercial, competitive organisations may make them only more tight-lipped.

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