Leader - Why too much knowledge may be a dangerous thing

Institutions have a delicate line to tread in being open about their organisations versus the pressures of competition

April 4, 2013

Access to information is an unqualified good: the foundation on which much of the modern world - and our future economic and social prosperity - is built.

It is also the means by which English universities will be reborn as institutions straddling the public and private sectors, shaped by the power of informed “student consumers”.

This mantra has become familiar in recent years: from the introduction of Freedom of Information laws, to talk of the potential of big data, to the government’s faith in Key Information Sets as a way to set “student consumers” free. But while unfettered transparency is an ideal, intended to encourage good governance and to limit excess, the effect of publishing data can be unpredictable.

Last week, we produced our annual survey of vice-chancellors’ pay, which showed that the average package rose to £247,428 in 2011-12, with the top one at £424,000.

Although this year’s average increase was a modest 0.49 per cent, there has been significant salary inflation since executive pay began to be published in universities’ accounts.

The idea was that transparency would make remuneration committees think twice before awarding hefty rises, keeping salaries in check. It appears to have done the opposite: universities started to benchmark salaries against competitors, or even those with a status they coveted.

The fact that universities cannot retain control of the information they release about themselves is no reason to sit on it

Concerns have also been raised about the usefulness of new data requirements and the potential of information to mislead: for example, whether the KIS will actually help students to make the right choices about where to study.

In her 2002 Reith lectures, Baroness O’Neill questioned whether openness and transparency were really the “unconditional goods that they are fashionably supposed to be”, warning that demands for universal transparency could encourage evasion and half-truths.

These dangers should be borne in mind, but there is no doubt that we are living in a data-hungry age and universities must respond appropriately, if not slavishly, to the “if in doubt, publish” mantra.

Our cover feature asks how open universities are in their day-to-day business and focuses on the tricky question of how they cope with the dual and sometimes conflicting pressures for greater openness and greater competition.

This tension is already resulting in some changes in behaviour: institutions are beginning to refuse FoI requests citing commercial confidentiality, for example, while the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service recently made a controversial decision to not publish universities’ application figures because of concerns about competition law.

There are times when resisting demands for openness are entirely appropriate: an FoI exemption for research data prior to its publication is a case in point.

Universities must also remain alert to the potential misuse or distorting effects of data, and do what they can to ensure that transparency is a force for good in higher education.

But universities are evidence factories, and although every bit of evidence comes with caveats and context, the fact that they cannot retain control of the information they release about themselves is not a reason to sit on it.

Although universities undoubtedly face challenges in this area as a result of their public/private status, they risk being seen as opaque if they get the balance wrong.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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