Public right trumps university secrecy

August 12, 2005

Universities can now be forced to reveal the details of secret reports, including reviews of failing courses, after a landmark ruling by the information watchdog.

The move establishes an important precedent, signalling that the public's right to know is likely to override an institution's concern to protect its reputation.

The Information Commissioner, who oversees compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, this week instructed Middlesex University to reveal details of a consultant's review of its School of Computing Science. The report addresses a host of problems and led to the replacement of the school's quality assurance dean.

Maurice Frankel, head of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, said the decision was the first known case of its kind in the higher education sector. "This means universities and other public bodies are not able to get away with blanket refusals to release sensitive information. They have to weigh up whether public interest is best served by secrecy or by disclosure, and this shows that the public's right to know can override a body's reputation or commercial interests."

The Act lists information that is "absolutely exempt" from disclosure, including information supplied by the security services.

Other types of information have "qualified exemption", such as information that may prejudice commercial interests or that relates to the formation of government policy. But this information can be withheld only when it can be argued that the public interest is better served by secrecy.

Middlesex twice refused to release the report after requests by The Times Higher . It said that disclosure would prejudice the university's commercial interests, as the review was set up to "form strategic and operational policies to improve the academic and commercial performance". It also said that such reviews would in future be impossible if there was threat of disclosure.

The commissioner said that while the university's arguments were "strong", public interest would be served by the release of a summary of the conclusions.

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