The Government's freedom of information watchdog has ordered De Montfort University to disclose a series of highly sensitive internal documents about academic standards, in a landmark ruling likely to have widespread implications across higher education.
The information commissioner this week ruled that De Montfort had failed to comply with its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 when it decided to withhold a number of documents from The Times Higher , after an information request in January 2005.
The ruling, which could open the floodgates to scores of requests about academic standards from students and parents in the era of top-up fees, is important because it puts public interest before commercial confidentiality.
Among the reasons in favour of disclosing the material, the commissioner said: "Students and their families make considerable personal investments in order to study at university. Therefore information concerning the standard and quality of degree courses is of particular importance to those who may wish to study in the future.
"The commissioner has concluded that the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the public interest in withholding it."
The Times Higher reported in March 2005 that De Montfort had been accused of abandoning academic standards after deciding to improve students' exam results by up to 14 per cent because their performance was so poor.
Leaked documents had revealed that a decision in summer 2004 to change marks for degree students on the MPharm course, which in effect lowered the pass mark on one course unit to 26 per cent, had been attacked by De Montfort staff and external examiners.
As part of the investigation, The Times Higher used the FoI Act to request a series of documents linked to the concerns. The university released 25 papers but withheld nine key documents, arguing that they were exempt from disclosure under the Act. The commissioner has given the university 30 days to release the documents.
Roy Adams, FoI officer at De Montfort, said: "The university is reflecting on the commissioner's detailed response and seeking points of clarification, so it would not be appropriate to comment at this stage."
Maurice Frankel of the Campaign for Freedom of Information said the ruling was a "welcome" clear signal that the public's right to know outweighed any public body's desire to keep such matters secret.