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.