Bad and mad: the FOI requests undermining our independence

Universities need exemption from the time-wasting - and costly - absurdities of the Freedom of Information Act, argues Jon F. Baldwin

September 11, 2008

Universities are communities that love finding answers to questions. Those answers may save lives, help a business, overthrow a paradigm, or they can simply be interesting and inspiring.

Although that is what they were created and funded to explore, we now live in an age where this is not enough. Now there is a law that obliges universities to address even more questions.

But what more could our legislators want universities to answer? What powerful but supposedly neglected questions could there be that require the law itself to bend university resources to the task of answering them? Welcome to the strange world of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has opened up a whole new, and often bizarre, world in which questions are put to universities. These questions are considered so important that we are under threat of legal action if we fail to answer them.

Now that we have a few years' experience in dealing with these new questions, what vital new areas of knowledge have they unlocked?

One key theme so far has been requests for information that will bring a company a commercial advantage.

The University of Warwick has been one of higher education's most passionate advocates of the advantages of working with industry. We have helped to create new processes and products, bringing new insights to managers and technologists. But the FOI Act has brought us nearer to a much less attractive, parasitical type of commercial contact. For example, the legislation has been used to demand detailed information about our current suppliers and contractors.

The aim often seems to be to give an advantage to questioners' own supply bids. Companies that have failed in a tender use the process to mount lengthy inquests into their loss, while marketing bodies require us to supply endless details on student numbers.

Of course we can use FOI rules to refuse some of these commercial requests, but the mere existence of the legislation creates expectations from questioners that embroil us in unnecessary, fractious and time-consuming confrontations.

Bad requests run in parallel with the simply mad. For centuries, universities have attracted - and cheerfully answered - all manner of questions from the public. The FOI Act has done little to change the flow of such questions except in one small but very depressing way.

If the question suggests that the university is part of some vast international conspiracy, or makes some other equivalent assertion, you can be pretty sure that the questioner will choose to clothe their inquiry with the full glory of the FOI process.

Of course some of the most staunch defenders of the FOI legislation - journalists - must now be expecting me to turn my fire on them. While I do defend the benefits that FOI can bring to a journalist seeking to pin down the facts about a matter of public interest, it is surely reasonable for me to be vexed by the frequent round-robin FOI requests made by a small number of journalists.

These trawl large lists of universities with questions in hope of a story. These requests are so sweeping in scope that I almost expect the next one to be "please simply list the three things you would least like us to publish in our next edition".

I have a question of my own that I would like to pose about the FOI process, although sadly the law will not force anyone to provide me with an answer. Why does FOI legislation include universities within its remit when it so obviously undermines the whole idea of universities being independent, self-governing organisations?

If I go to the Directgov website, I am told: "The FOI gives you the right to ask any public body for all the information they have on any subject." But why are we considered one of those public bodies?

One could argue that it is because universities are in receipt of public money, but so are a vast number of other charities and organisations that remain exempt from the Act.

There is one question that we at Warwick have yet to be asked through the FOI process: roughly how much a year does it cost us to process and respond to FOI questions? The answer is £50,000 a year. If that is typical of the sector (and I suspect the figure is low), UK universities are spending in excess of £5 million a year on this process.

Is there a legislator who also feels that it is time for a simple amendment to the Freedom of Information Act that would free up £5 million for UK universities? Now there is a question.

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