Release salary information, ombudsman tells Adelaide

Regulator dismisses Australian university’s claim that it is primarily a commercially funded organisation

November 26, 2021
Confidential report
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In a result that could increase scrutiny of other Australian universities, a government watchdog has overturned a South Australian institution’s decision to exempt itself from freedom of information (FOI) obligations on commercial-in-confidence grounds.

The South Australian Ombudsman has reversed the University of Adelaide’s decision to reject an FOI application for details of the salary and bonuses paid to the institution’s 50 most highly remunerated employees.

The application from Michael Zyphur, associate professor of human resources management at the University of Melbourne, requested data the university had provided to the Australian Taxation Office in 2019 and 2020. Adelaide took slightly over a fortnight to deny the application, citing expectations among staff and the institution that information about pay “is maintained as confidential”.

“The university operates in a highly competitive market which enables staff and the university to privately negotiate salaries,” it subsequently explained. “While the university is an agency for the purposes of the FOI Act, it cannot be treated in the same way as a government department. [It] is a significant commercial enterprise financed primarily through sources other than the public purse.”

Deputy ombudsman Steven Strelan directed the university to release the information in full, saying he was “not satisfied” of the data’s commercial value.

“Staff members…receive public funding for the purpose of the agency’s educational and research functions. While acknowledging that the agency receives supplementary funding from sources that are commercial in nature…I would hesitate to describe [it] overall as an institution which engages in activities of a for-profit nature.”

Times Higher Education asked Adelaide how it could claim to be financed primarily through non-public sources, given that its latest annual report shows about 55 per cent of its 2020 revenue came from federal government grants for teaching, research and base operations.

A spokeswoman declined to answer, saying that the university would “take the appropriate time” to consider the ombudsman’s determination.

Dr Zyphur has requested similar information from all Group of Eight universities. While several “happily complied”, notably the Australian National University, he encountered opposition from Adelaide and three others.

“Universities behave as if they’re kind of between private and public,” he said. “They’ll classify themselves for accounting purposes as charitable organisations. But when [you] request information…they say, ‘No, we’ve got all these business interests’, and try to block any inquiries into how they’re using public funds.”

Dr Zyphur highlighted the contrast with his native US. “At the University of California system, arguably the best public education system in the world, every single employee has their salary publicly available. You can find it online.”

Peter Tregear, director of the University of Melbourne’s Little Hall residential college and a member of the Academics for Public Universities lobby group, said universities tended to regard and govern themselves “first and foremost” as corporate businesses. “[They] use commercial-in-confidence arguments all the time to lock staff and students out of decision-making.”

Dr Zyphur said he was seeking the information as a concerned citizen, although it also related to his research and union activities. He told the ombudsman’s office that his aim was not to identify “or in any way critique” specific individuals.

“The public debate [that information of this type] can and should generate is, in my view, precisely why we have FOI legislation. The public has a right to know.”

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