Openness laws may be a shock

June 26, 1998

Universities could be in for a culture shock when freedom of information legislation comes into force, a leading expert in the field has warned.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, told this week's Society for Research into Higher Education conference on freedom of information that universities had so far been sheltered from the open government requirements that had been imposed on other public-sector bodies.

"Central government has been subjected to open government requirements since 1996, the National Health Service since 1995 and local government meetings have had to be open since the 1960s. Universities have been left to make their own rules, and they may find catching up a bit of a culture shock," Mr Frankel said.

Freedom of information will require institutions to disclose information requested unless they can satisfy the applicant or, in case of dispute, an independent commissioner that they are justified in withholding it.

Mr Frankel cited several examples of such requirements affecting overseas universities, including:

Griffith University, Queensland, which was challenged by a staff member to release the contents of a thesis on its handling of a change in status. It had been agreed that the thesis should not be published for five years

The University of Michigan, which was forced to disclose guidelines for the treatment of applicants of different races

A Canadian university, which was forced by press pressure to disclose the findings of a commission of inquiry into the conduct of a scientist it employed, against the scientist's protestations.

Mr Frankel added that a University of British Columbia student had been less successful in seeking publication of an exclusive agreement between Coca-Cola and UBC to stock soft drink machines on campus.

He said universities were likely to be challenged by people seeking information on issues such as sources of funding, decisions on course structures and academic standards, as well as by members of staff.

Colwyn Williamson, lecturer in philosophy at the University of Wales, Swansea and case coordinator of the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, told the conference that institutions had used disciplinary procedures to bypass considerations of academic freedom in dealing with staff who spoke out of turn.

Clive Booth, former vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes, said that although applicants and parents were offered much more information than before, it was still unclear that they got what they wanted and needed.

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