Hefce burdened by requests for details

March 4, 2005

Responding to the deluge of Freedom of Information Act requests is proving a more time-consuming and costly business than expected for the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Hefce has received more than 100 requests for information from the sector under the new Act. These are predominantly from people on a particular quest - for example, to find out why their grant applications failed.

Hefce is replying, but this involves a lot of work. Getting the requested information means trawling through the archives to extricate the relevant documents, then censoring any confidential parts with heavy black ink.

The funding council then gives a lengthy explanation as to why each blacked-out excerpt is exempt under the terms of the Act.

What makes the process even more burdensome are the extra precautionary measures that Hefce is taking.

After sensitive material has been blacked out, the funding council then photocopies the documents and sends the facsimilies out to information applicants.

This is done because Hefce is worried that resourceful academics will be aware of, and have access to, chemicals that can strip off the top layer of blackout ink, revealing the information beneath.

But Algy Kazlauciunas, director of colour chemistry analytical services and lecturer in imaging science at Leeds University, said Hefce was being overly cautious.

"It would be extremely difficult I would have thought. I don't think it's possible to work out what's underneath. If it was ink jet (text underneath), you wouldn't have a cat in hell's chance."

There might be more possibility of removing the censoring ink above laser print, which is a pigment rather than a dye, with a high-intensity ultraviolet light source, he suggested.

But he said this would be incredibly difficult to get hold of and that the alternative would be three weeks in the summer sun.

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