Universities' Freedom of Information responses vary

Times Higher Education assesses the differing attitudes to rising FoI demands

January 9, 2014

Source: Alamy

Ask and you shall receive? Only 35 per cent of institutions supplied all the information THE requested by the deadline

The number of Freedom of Information requests received by UK universities has risen by about 40 per cent in the past three years, analysis by Times Higher Education indicates.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, THE asked 135 UK universities how many FoI requests they had received during the past three years, how many they had refused and for what reasons.

The request was made at the beginning of December, so the 2013 figures are incomplete. Despite this, the recorded number of requests received was 39 per cent higher in 2013 compared with 2011.

Rises of more than 300 per cent were recorded by the University of Winchester and Institute of Education, University of London. Manchester Metropolitan University received 183 per cent more requests and the University of York 135 per cent more.

York also received the second-highest number of requests in 2013 – a total of 416. The University of Cambridge received 418, but was among several universities that declined to provide more detailed information as it was to be published in a forthcoming Jisc survey (expected early this year). Others among the 16 universities that turned down THE’s request relied on exemptions for the excessive cost or time it would take.

Another 12 institutions failed to answer all THE’s questions, while 55 – 40 per cent of the total – had not responded at all by 1pm on 6 January. The statutory deadline of 20 working days expired on 3 January. Overall, only 35 per cent of institutions supplied all the requested information by the deadline.

The University of Birmingham was the most likely institution to turn down requests in 2013, declining 45 per cent in full or in part. This compares with a sector average of 21 per cent, which has held steady since 2011. A Birmingham spokeswoman said its high percentages reflected the fact that it included all the cases it could not fulfil as “refusals”, even when it was because it did not hold the information.

The University of Cumbria turned down 38 per cent of requests and the University of York refused 36 per cent. A spokeswoman for Cumbria said most of its refusals related to cases where the information was available elsewhere (which some universities excluded from their figures) or where personal data were sought.

A York spokesman said only a “relatively small proportion” of requests were rejected outright despite the “significant amount of staff time and effort” required to answer them. “There is an extremely active student media at York, which can lead to many FoIs which are impossible to respond to for a range of legitimate reasons,” he added.

By contrast, the University of Winchester turned down none of the 65 FoI requests it received in 2013 and Goldsmiths, University of London turned down just 2 per cent of its 181 requests.

Asked whether such large disparities in rejection rates could be justified, a spokesman for the Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees FoI law, said: “It completely depends on the nature of the requests the universities are receiving.”

He was unable to provide comparisons with other sectors because the ICO does not collect figures for the overall number of FoI requests. He noted that the ICO monitors institutions that “repeatedly or seriously fail to respond to freedom of information requests within the appropriate timescales”, as a possible precursor to taking further action against them. However, no universities have been monitored since 2010.

The most common reason cited for declining an FoI request was cost. In all three years, about 6 per cent of requests were turned down for this reason. However, there were wide institutional variations. In 2013, Cardiff University turned down 22 per cent of requests on grounds of cost and the University of Leicester rejected 15 per cent.

Other commonly cited exemptions included those for personal information (cited in 5 per cent of cases in 2013) and for commercially sensitive material (cited in 4 per cent of cases).

The institutions most likely to claim commercial confidentiality were Birmingham (claimed in 13 per cent of cases), the University of Westminster (12 per cent) and Nottingham Trent University (11 per cent). The Birmingham spokeswoman said its figure reflected the fact that it was “one of the largest multidisciplined research-led institutions in the UK”.

“Therefore, in addition to safeguarding our own commercial interests, we have the interests of a wider portfolio of commercial collaborators to consider,” she said.

Last month, the Information Commissioner upheld an appeal by THE against London Metropolitan University’s imposition of a 12-month embargo on releasing minutes of council meetings through FoI.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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