FoI costs? University ‘spies’ only add to them

An online experiment proves that part of the bill for complying with the Freedom of Information Act is self-inflicted, says Louis Goddard

May 12, 2016
James Minchall illustration (12 May 2016)
Source: James Minchall

It is surely good news that the movement to exempt UK universities from the Freedom of Information Act is now in effect dead.

Universities’ complaints about the costs involved in answering requests – which private universities do not have to bear – resulted in the inclusion of the suggestion in last November’s higher education Green Paper. But Lord Burns’ Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, which published its report in March, sided with the trade unions, media companies and campaign groups that argued against the shuttering of one of the few windows in the ivory tower.

In perfect civil servants’ English, Lord Burns described representations from the higher education sector as “unpersuasive”. With little to gain and plenty of political capital to lose if it defies its own independent commission, it now seems extremely unlikely that the government will push ahead with the proposals.

Opponents of exemption would no doubt agree that university budgets are best spent on research and teaching, so the possibility of some sort of incremental reform around the cost of compliance remains. But what if at least some of the blame for that cost could be laid at the door of the universities themselves?

As a PhD student and a writer on education policy, I send FoI requests to universities on a regular basis. Recently, I’ve noticed a worrying trend. Shortly after I send off a request to a university, my personal website will often receive a hit from the same part of the country, led there by a search term along the lines of “louis goddard sussex”.

This sort of “Google stalking” directly contravenes guidance from the Information Commissioner, which states clearly that FoI requests should be considered on an “applicant-blind” basis. It’s also a waste of time and money. Universities are permitted to reject any request that would cost more than £450 to answer, based on an hourly staff rate of £25. If administrators are spending time looking me up online, the time left to process my request is diminished.

To probe the extent of the problem, I conducted an experiment. First, I created a personal website for an obscure but non-descript pseudonym, which I could be sure would rank highly in search results but which wouldn’t attract any unwanted hits. I then registered an email address in the same name and used it to send out an FoI request to every higher education institution in the country (a request I was planning to send anyway).

The hits soon flooded in. The website received more than 30 unique page views on the first 24 hours from networks at more than a dozen universities. A third of visitors went so far as to download a fake CV that I’d uploaded, and more than 30 looked up the pseudonym’s Twitter page. While the amount of time wasted by each of these amateur sleuths might have been minimal, when multiplied by the number of requests that a university gets in a year – an average of 212 in 2015, according to Jisc – it starts to seem more serious.

There is also a broader problem of transparency in the way that universities are handling FoI requests. In their submissions to the Burns Commission, they made much of the supposed competitive disadvantage they face from opening themselves up, but the truth is that they are not nearly as open as they seem. Under a little-known provision of the FoI Act, a public body can refuse a request when the information required is “reasonably accessible by other means”. While this may seem sensible, the definition of “reasonably accessible” includes sources that require payment, such as the Higher Education Statistics Agency. When I asked recently for a relatively simple set of figures from the national staff record, I was quoted a price of £135.

Hesa appears to be staffed by dedicated and scrupulous statisticians, but the way it is set up is cause for concern. Imagine the outcry if, say, the Metropolitan Police engaged in this sort of data outsourcing, setting up an arm’s-length private company that could then erect a financial firewall between the public and information that is rightfully theirs. Legally, there is no limit to the fees that can be charged: a principle affirmed by a 2013 tribunal judgment in a case brought against the Health and Social Care Information Centre, Hesa’s equivalent in the NHS. Hesa’s most recent business plan forecasts a £541,000 overall surplus for 2014-15, giving the lie to any claim that it is simply covering costs.

The FoI Act also allows organisations to refuse to release information that might “prejudice the commercial interests of any person”, including the public authority itself. With universities increasingly reliant on outsourcing for everything from catering to teaching, and in a world where the government itself sees the higher education sector as a competitive marketplace, this exemption is becoming easier and easier to fall back on.

The truth is that universities have a much easier ride over FoI than many other public bodies do. No wonder Lord Burns found their complaints unpersuasive.

Louis Goddard is a PhD candidate at the University of Sussex and a freelance writer and researcher on education policy.

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Print headline: FoI ‘Google-stalking’: time-wasting and against all guidance

Reader's comments (4)

I wonder if the author of this piece ever reflected on what they were actually doing and what they were hoping to achieve. "As a PhD student and a writer on education policy, I send FOI requests to universities on a regular basis. " I have never been impressed by people using FOI as a substitute for doing their own research work - indeed if the author feels the need to send FOI requests on a 'regular basis' there is a high likelihood that these may be reaching the point of being 'vexatious', frivolous or just a plain lazy way to avoid having to look things up themselves. Take the point about HESA. If the author is a registered PhD student as they say, they will be able to access HESA publications and related sources of HE stats for free through that old-fashioned thing, the University Library. Indeed as a legitimate research student I am sure their own University Planning Office would help by giving them access to HEIDI ( if they asked nicely.) Another point that occurs to me is as an education researcher it might be more productive to engage the relevant University staff in discussion about what is being sought for your research - most university staff will bend over backwards to help student research. Indeed the author's trumpeted approach to the use ( possible abuse) of FOI in his/her research strikes me as providing evidence on the side of those who think universities should be exempt from FOI.
Really good article. That's a ridiculous comment from Ursula Kelly, though. "I have never been impressed by people using FOI as a substitute for doing their own research work." Whatever are we going to do without your respect, Ursula? Sending FOI requests is a perfectly legitimate way to gather data. If someone wants to see the minutes of university committee meetings for example, how else does she suggest a researcher finds this information unless it's posted on the university website (which it often isn't)? And no, most university staff won't bend over backwards to talk to researchers, and understandably so, because they're very busy. In any case, scheduling an interview is a lot more time consuming that fulfilling an FOI request. Failing an interview, said university staff can't be expected to go looking for documents at the a researcher's request. Relying on that kind of generosity simply isn't feasible or efficient. Best to have an information officer for the task, as is mostly the case now.
Addendum: Your point about HESA is a complete red herring. Louis is obviously not making FOI requests for such information, simply because he can't. Also, anyone who has even slept through a methods class is laughing at you for suggesting that this is "evidence on the side of those who think universities should be exempt from FOI." I'm just stunned that someone who presumably has a PhD herself can be so ignorant as to the mountains PhD students so often have to climb in order to gather data. She then advocates taking away one of the few relatively streamlined (albeit with some serious flaws, as is outlined in the article) ways of gathering data. I despair. Universities are eating themselves and it's happening right in front of our eyes.
Requests to see teaching materials are routinely turned down by universities, It took 3 years and an Information Tribunal, to get hold of the stuff being taught on a "BSc" on homeopathy (!) at the University of Central Lancashire. By the time the tribunal had been won, the university had very sensibly shut down most of its degrees in gobbledygook, though that didn't stop the university from spending £80,000 of taxpayers' money in attempting to keep secret what they were teaching. You can read about it at http://www.dcscience.net/2009/12/08/information-tribunal-rejects-appeal-by-university-of-central-lancashire-freedom-of-information-wins/ None of this would have been accomplished without the Freedom of Information Act

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