The use of the Freedom of Information Act to elicit details about the way universities are run has increased dramatically in the past year, particularly among commercial companies.
According to a survey by Universities UK and the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc), the number of requests rose from an average of 3.6 per month in 2007 to 5.4 in 2008. This is a 50 per cent increase year on year, compared with an average annual increase of 14 per cent in previous years.
University admissions, management, administration and IT were among the areas under the most scrutiny, while the number of commercial organisations making FoI requests increased by 50 per cent, second in volume only to requests from journalists.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said firms were increasingly using the FoI Act to obtain information to drum up business.
"The chances are they're contractors looking for opportunities to bid for contracts," he said. The UUK/Jisc report came to the same conclusion, suggesting that the findings "confirm the anecdotal evidence that emerged throughout 2008 regarding an increase in the number of 'round robin' requests sent to all (or a high proportion of) institutions by commercial organisations for obtaining commercial intelligence".
Mr Frankel said a better public understanding of the FoI Act was also a factor in the rise. "It's possible that with the gradual increase in publicity of the Act, people who didn't realise universities were covered by the Act have gradually cottoned on," he said. "If the National Union of Students or another union has a concerted campaign, that will have an impact on the rise."
Despite the increase in requests, universities are managing to respond within the legal 20-day limit, the report says. But 78 per cent of institutions still took a "long", "very long" or "extremely long" time to respond, it concludes.
The report adds that the number of requests to universities made under the Data Protection Act has increased marginally in the past year.