SFC withheld papers from publication, say principals

Reluctance to publish meetings in full is keeping 'secret discussions' private, writes Hannah Fearn

January 14, 2010

The Scottish Funding Council has been accused of being overly secretive following claims that it is withholding an excessive number of its board papers from publication.

Concerns have been raised by the heads of several Scottish universities about a lack of information being passed from the funding council to the higher education sector.

According to information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, at one meeting last year less than a third of the items discussed were subsequently published in full.

Times Higher Education has seen details of the papers that were and were not published following two meetings held by the funding council in 2009.

At the first, on 19 June, 22 papers were tabled for discussion, but just seven were published uncensored on the quango's website. Eight were withheld from publication, while the remaining seven were published in an edited form.

At the second meeting, on 24 September, the SFC's Access and Inclusion Committee discussed the contents of 11 papers. Of these, two were withheld from publication.

Alastair Sim, director of Universities Scotland, which represents Scottish principals, said the funding council had to be as transparent as it could be, and warned that "secret discussions" should be the exception and not the rule.

"We recognise that there are some controversial policy changes being proposed, but that is a reason for more openness, not less," he said.

One senior source said there was "universal dismay at the SFC position" among principals and academics.

The criticism comes at a turbulent time for the SFC, which was recently forced to delay the introduction of a new system for allocating teaching funding, following complaints from Scotland's newer universities that they would be adversely and unfairly affected.

Last month, it also withdrew a controversial consultation on the future of knowledge exchange funding shortly before it was due to be published.

Duty to publish

A spokesman for the Scottish Information Commissioner said that public authorities had a duty to publish as much information as possible.

But he reminded universities they would still have the right to request any missing SFC documents under the FoI Act, and could challenge any refusal.

"The commissioner would encourage anyone who feels that information has been incorrectly withheld to do so," he said.

Mark Batho, chief executive of the SFC, said the quango was "very conscious of the importance of openness and transparency in our dealings with universities - especially in times of uncertainty and change. It is not the policy of the council to withhold information without there being a strong reason for doing so."

He added that the SFC had an "extensive programme of meetings" with representative bodies to ensure it was engaged with the sector.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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