Open your post or fall foul of new Act

January 7, 2005

Academics face a major culture shock as the Freedom of Information Act starts to make an impact in the workplace.

Mail to academics and administrators will have to be opened centrally by their university when they are away on holiday or business. And the retrospective nature of the Act, which allows people access to information held by public institutions, means that academics will have to be scrupulous in their record-keeping.

It is also claimed that the Act, which came into force on January 1, will jeopardise academic and university links with industry.

Part of the problem for academics is the short timescale, 20 working days, in which they and their universities have to respond to a request for information.

An exemption was granted for schools, extending the limit to 60 days over the summer vacation because there would be nobody to pick up a request during this time.

This does not extend to universities, meaning that requests could sit unopened for weeks, potentially leaving academics and institutions in breach of legislation.

The Joint Information Systems Committee has been working in universities and colleges for the past 18 months to raise awareness of the Act and its implications.

Steve Bailey, information and records manager for Jisc, said that staff must ensure all post was opened while they were away so no requests were missed. He said that using email out-of-office assistants could buy some time.

"Some people are sensitive about having mail opened. But information you create is for the benefit of the organisation, not you as an individual," Mr Bailey said.

He said it was vital to manage information in a businesslike fashion.

"There is a backlog of information in universities because records management hasn't been strategically important," he said.

He believes universities are keeping information unnecessarily and suggests this is a good opportunity for a spring clean.

Judith Hollands, university records manager at Sunderland University, said:

"It's hard to know what people are interested in. But we feel confident we're prepared and have procedures in place."

The Act could also complicate relationships between universities and the private sector, which does not have to comply with the Act. Philip Graham, executive director of the Association for University Research and Industry Links, said: "A lot information is in commercial confidence, and organisations would not be happy if the details were made public."

caroline.davis@thes.co.uk

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