Don't go on the defensive

Alan Ryan ponders why institutions are so uptight about freedom of information

September 3, 2009

This is the season for denouncing the total collapse of academic standards - as evidenced by the A-level successes of all those good-looking young women with long blonde hair - or denouncing those who denounce it. But I have the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act on my mind.

Since the Act came into force, heads of colleges have had a string of requests for information. Undergraduates want to know if we behave like MPs and claim outrageous sums for duck houses and moat cleaning; other people want to know things we don't - though perhaps should - about the social composition of the student intake, or what proportion of students from what sort of schools gets firsts and upper seconds.

There's a marked lack of attention to Clause 21 of the Act, which says inquirers needn't be told what they can easily find from public sources - such as the published accounts on college websites. Where we have the numbers, dates or whatever, we hand them over, with due regard to the constraints of the Data Protection Act. What people are entitled to, they get.

Out of curiosity about the way the central administration at the University of Oxford reacts to FoI requests, I asked last autumn about the circumstances in which the university's director of development and pro vice-chancellor for external relations - Jon Dellandrea, our bluff and cheerful Canadian fundraiser - was appointed, remunerated and then why he left quite suddenly, this time last year. After ten months, I am impressed by the university's capacity for stonewalling - but am no better informed than I was at the beginning.

Readers of Times Higher Education will recall some interesting discussions in Oxford a few years ago about the appropriate form of governance for the place. Those who wanted to give more power to externals - retired civil servants, the heroes of the banking crisis and the like - told sceptics that we needed more transparency, accountability and contestability.

These would indeed have been good ideas, so I applauded, even though I hadn't noticed much enthusiasm on the part of most members of the council or the executive for awkward questions, let alone being contradicted. The passion for secrecy in the university offices was such that it was rumoured that even the loo paper was stamped "strictly private and confidential".

I asked the Audit and Scrutiny Committee to have a look at the process whereby we acquired and lost Dr Dellandrea and tell me how he was appointed, how his pay was fixed - whether he received bonuses and so forth, and what the appraisal process was - and on what terms he had left. After some months, I was told that everything had been done in the way things were done at the time when they were done. His departure was in accordance with his contract and the contents of the contract were personally and commercially confidential. His departure, too, was covered by a confidentiality agreement. This non-news was conveyed under the seal of strict confidentiality, although it could have been broadcast to the entire world without invading anyone's privacy or revealing anything damaging.

In short, everyone had behaved properly so why didn't I shut up? Since I had never thought that anyone had behaved improperly - though I thought that the council had done a poor job of supervising the management of the university for several years - reassurance as to their probity was irrelevant. But I didn't shut up, mostly because I have always thought Oxford needed a proper board of scrutiny, based on the Cambridge model, and I hoped to force the Audit and Scrutiny Committee to do a bit of scrutiny.

A board of scrutiny is an idea that fills the local senior management team with horror - as it does our beloved chancellor, Lord Patten, and the Committee of University Chairmen. It allows the rank and file to ask awkward questions and prevents the management hiding behind privacy, commercial confidentiality and who knows what else. Who knows where that might lead?

I then sent in a formal FoI request to the registrar, asking the same questions and receiving, of course, exactly the same answers. Everyone had behaved as the rules then in place allowed or required them to do, just as the Committee on the Salaries of University Senior Officers had behaved exactly as it ought to have on the basis of the appraisals it received.

What is interesting - intellectually and psychologically - is not the reluctance to answer; I take it for granted that senior management would rather not waste time answering questions, quite rightly. Once they've agreed a policy, they want to get on with it, not to revisit it, argue for it or dig out the evidence on which it is based. At some point discussion must stop and the troops must advance.

What is interesting is the confusion between providing information - which is what I asked for - and asserting the propriety of everyone's conduct - which I never questioned. The FoI is about the provision of information: how much does someone get paid; what are the terms of her or his contract? The answer to such questions is not "we behaved as we were supposed to" but - as it might be - £250,000 a year plus a house, or £25,000 a year and an old person's bus pass. What's required is either the facts or a good story about why they can't be provided, not blanket appeals to commercial confidentiality.

The point of the Freedom of Information Act is to allow the rank and file to be informed about persons exercising public functions; what they conclude about those persons when they have been informed is their business.

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