The rising cost of free information

Universities are having to devote more resources to meeting FoI demands, reports John Gill

May 8, 2008

The burden of dealing with freedom of information (FoI) requests is mounting as the number submitted to universities increases - and many are being made by institutions' own staff and students.

A survey of the higher education sector canvassed 107 institutions across Britain that dealt with almost 3,000 FoI requests last year. This equates to an average of 3.6 per month at each institution, up from 3.2 in 2006.

The study, carried out by the Joint Information Systems Committee, Universities UK and GuildHE, found that more requests were made by journalists (601) than by any other group, followed by institutions' own staff (337), and then their own students (0).

Commercial organisations made 269 requests and "external staff, researchers and students" made 199. Trade unions and campaign groups made 101. The most common subject was student admissions, which overtook management and administration issues (see chart).

The annual increase in requests is, according to the survey, an expected trend based on other countries with similar legislation. "We can expect the average number of requests to continue to rise for another seven years or so before reaching their natural level ... there are already indications that even these modest increases are beginning to bite," said the report.

Although 50 per cent of requests were dealt with within four hours, almost one in ten required more than ten days of work to answer.

The survey also noted a year-on-year increase in the number of requests not answered within the required 20 days, from 3.5 to 4.8 per cent last year, and said the fact that 78 per cent of institutions reported finding it a "long" or "very long" process to access information was a "worrying sign of pressure".

While FoI laws have been used extensively to extract information about everything from animal experimentation to staff abuse in higher education, universities, like all publicly funded organisations, are also at risk from misuse of the Act.

In a recent online discussion, FoI officers debated the difference between vexatious requests, which are designed to waste time, and frivolous requests, such as the inquiry submitted to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that asked how much embassies had spent on Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

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