Scholar triumphs as Uclan ordered to release homeopathy material

Tribunal rejects appeal and cites public interest as a reason for disclosure. Zoë Corbyn reports

December 17, 2009

After a three-and-a-half-year battle, the University of Central Lancashire has finally agreed to hand over the teaching material from its defunct homeopathy course to a campaigning academic.

In a decision with potentially wide implications for universities, the institution last week lost an appeal against an earlier ruling by the Information Commissioner that it must release teaching content used on a BSc degree in homeopathy to a prominent opponent of "pseudo-scientific" courses.

It has been given 28 days to either hand over the material or take the case to the High Court.

The ruling followed a three-day Information Tribunal hearing in Manchester, during which senior Uclan managers including Malcolm McVicar, the vice-chancellor, took to the witness stand to argue the university's case.

The case was triggered by David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London, who is known for his blog attacking what he sees as phoney science. He first requested the Uclan material in 2006 under the Freedom of Information Act.

The university had argued that the material was commercially confidential and could be reasonably accessed by other means - namely, by enrolling on the course.

In addition, it said that "the effective conduct of public affairs" would be prejudiced or was likely to be prejudiced by the release of the information.

The tribunal found that, contrary to the Information Commissioner's earlier decision, course material could be "properly described as commercial" - a decision that institution heads fearful of the precedent the case could have set will take heart from.

However, it added that Uclan could not demonstrate the commercial value of its homeopathy course.

"It was not clear to us how a competitor could significantly exploit access to this material without infringing Uclan's copyright or brazenly aping the content of a course, which would surely attract the scorn of the wider academic community," the tribunal says in its decision.

The fact that the course's enrolment was limited, with a "virtual absence" of overseas interest, also cast doubt on its commercial value, it adds. But even if the course's commercial value had been proven, it appears it would have been overruled by a public-interest test.

"There is significant public controversy as to the value of such study within a university. In this case, that factor alone would have persuaded us that the balance of public interest favoured disclosure," the tribunal's ruling says.

Professor Colquhoun, who cross-questioned Dr McVicar while he was giving evidence, said he was looking forward to receiving the material.

"Officially they say it is not a precedent, but obviously it is going to act as one and deter people from refusing such requests," he told Times Higher Education.

A spokesman for Uclan said it was pleased that the tribunal had recognised "the principle" that universities have a commercial interest in their course materials.

"We no longer offer a BSc course in homeopathy, recognise the court's ruling and will comply with the decision of the tribunal," he added.

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