Boo! Poo, ban Onan in the loo

Bizarre FoI requests waste university resources, say fatigued staff. David Matthews writes

January 5, 2012



Cease and desist: a fake notice resulted in an FoI query for St Andrews


The Freedom of Information Act strove to advance democracy by committing public institutions to exacting standards of transparency and openness. You can also use it to ask universities about duck poo, hauntings and bans on masturbation in the library toilets.

Those burning issues are among the bizarre FoI requests that universities had to process last year, with institutions warning that issuing responses is a drain on resources.

Highlights from last year include the member of the public concerned by a "Masturbation Notice" that appeared at the University of St Andrews stating that self-gratification was banned in the library toilets.

He dispatched an FoI request to St Andrews to check the sign's veracity, asking for "all internal correspondence regarding the decision to create the notices".

Niall Scott, director of corporate communications at St Andrews, wrote back to say that "a strong clue that the notice is fake is the line 'Please go home and masturbate if you are bored.' As a matter of policy, the university would never encourage students to go home during term-time."

The St Andrews request came from prolific FoI Act user Steve Elibank, who also asked the University of Oxford for the "branding and/or style guidelines" for the Oxford Reading Tree series of children's books featuring the Biff and Chip characters, published by Oxford University Press.

The request was refused because the guidelines could be used to create "pirate copies" that would "reduce sales of legitimate copies of books in the Biff and Chip series".

The universities of York and Brighton were both asked how many complaints they had received about haunted buildings, ghosts or "other paranormal phenomena" on their premises, what action they took and how much it cost.

York, famous for its on-campus wildfowl, was also asked to state how much money was "dedicated to the clean-up of duck excrement on a year-by-year basis for 2008, 2009, 2010", plus its forecasts for spending on clean-up operations in 2011.

A student journalist requested that Oxford provide an estimate of how much its administration spent per year on biscuits for meetings.

One press officer at a Russell Group university said: "Of course it is a perfectly valid argument that this diversion of teaching and research resources is worth it for the transparency the Act attempts to provide. But it's worth mentioning how much time it takes up."

She added that the university was "churning out" Excel spreadsheets every day to answer FoI requests and that this had to be done by "people whose job is to do something else (eg, admit students)".

"Emails and documents provided daily under FoI have to be carefully searched for by the relevant departments and academics," she said.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Worried man wiping forehead
Two academics explain how to beat some of the typical anxieties associated with a doctoral degree
A group of flamingos and a Marabou stork

A right-wing philosopher in Texas tells John Gill how a minority of students can shut down debates and intimidate lecturers – and why he backs Trump

A face made of numbers looks over a university campus

From personalising tuition to performance management, the use of data is increasingly driving how institutions operate

students use laptops

Researchers say students who use computers score half a grade lower than those who write notes

As the country succeeds in attracting even more students from overseas, a mixture of demographics, ‘soft power’ concerns and local politics help explain its policy