Freedom of Information: why it's important for universities to stay subject to FoI

John Morgan on the Green Paper's plans to make universities exempt from FoI

November 20, 2015
Sunlight in forest

The government’s higher education Green Paper is all in favour of providing more consumer-style information about universities and their courses to students.

Information is a good thing in the Green Paper. But one type of information is bad: Freedom of Information.

In the Green Paper, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills notes that private providers are not classed as public bodies and not subject to FoI. In rather coy wording, it raises the prospect of making universities exempt from FoI, seemingly by ensuring they would no longer be classed as public bodies for the purposes of the FoI Act.

The passage is on page 68 of the Green Paper. The proposed change would be in line with the government’s wider plan to water down the FoI Act.

Universities have a poor track record on voluntarily making public information about how they are run. Making them FoI exempt would reduce the scope for public scrutiny even further.

The Green Paper doesn’t mention the source of its estimate that FoI costs universities £10 million a year. But it comes from a report by Universities UK (page 66 here), which I imagine has been lobbying the government on this. 

If I worked in a university dealing with FoI requests, I’m sure I would feel angry at some of the pointless requests asking for vice-chancellors’ inside leg measurements, etc. Universities also have concerns about FoI requests for research data.

But perhaps there is a way to cut down on time-wasting requests while retaining the important principles underpinning the FoI Act relating to transparency and accountability in the decision-making of public bodies.

The FoI Act is, of course, used by journalists in researching stories. Some of which will be of the inside leg measurement variety.

But media use of FoI can be an important way of bringing to light issues of public interest that would otherwise remain hidden.

Times Higher Education has used FoI requests to universities to report that:

THE reporter David Matthews also secured a win in a ruling by the Information Commissioner, when he appealed against London Metropolitan University’s refusal to publish minutes from its governing body until 12 months after meetings.

The university was ordered by the Information Commissioner’s Office to release minutes of meetings held shortly after it temporarily lost its licence to sponsor international students in 2012. It was also told to consider reducing the 12-month waiting period.

That highlights the reluctance, or refusal, of many universities to voluntarily provide information about how they are run.

The meetings of university governing bodies are held in private. There is no requirement on universities even to publish minutes of governing body meetings. Predictably, some don’t.

Many others delay publishing minutes until they have lost all relevance. For example, Coventry University’s latest governors’ minutes come from November 2012, the University of Birmingham’s latest council minutes appear to be from October 2013 and the University of Exeter’s from July 2014.

There are also examples of better practice by universities, Newcastle University and the University of Cambridge among them, with respect to publishing papers and reports of discussions from their governing bodies.

But generally, if you were a member of the public wanting more information about why or how a university made a particular decision, FoI would be one of your only options.

Scrutiny by the public or the media can, on occasion, lead to embarrassing coverage for universities. But, as many working in universities would agree, it can also be a positive – improving the quality of decision-making.

Some universities were established by local authorities. All have buildings created by public funding. The sector as a whole relies on billions of pounds a year in direct public funding and student funding coming via the public loans system. Universities are institutions of vital importance to their regions and to the nation.

FoI is used by only a fraction of the population. But if universities take the chance to cease being classed as public bodies so they can become FoI exempt, they will be sending out a message that might be heard more widely.

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Reader's comments (2)

"why or how a university made a particular decision" is not the real issue here. The real issue is the vast amount of academic time wasted on dealing with malicious and frivolous FoI requests from activists on various issues (medical, social, environmental) who know that if they bombard some academic who dares to express unfashionable views with enough FoI requests, they will have proportionately less time to get on with their real work. Having been the victim of this sort of tactic from environmental extremists, I have to say it works, and I for one would not be sad to see the FoI closed down, at least as regards research.
The issue is quite simply that the Universities are private organisations and are not public bodies. They should never have been subject to FOI in the first place. If , as appears to be suggested here, receiving public money is to be the criterion for being considered a ‘public body’ then the classification of ‘public body’ and inclusion in the FOI would need to be extended up and down the country to every business that won a government contract for goods or services of one kind or another as they are also then in receipt of public money. Accountability for public money is right and proper and certainly universities should be required to provide that accountability for any public money they receive. But the receipt of public money for one set of activities should not automatically mean an obligation to provide information on demand on any or all of your activities , processes and procedures, whether they are publicly funded or not. I don’t think that is required of companies winning government contracts – and there would likely be very strong protests were it to be suggested.

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