Watch out: FoI research shines light on the sector

Should universities be exempt from Freedom of Information Act probes? John Gill on a hot debate

October 23, 2008

A decision by managers at a UK university to accept Rolex watches from a Saudi construction firm, the disappearance of dozens of overseas students and a "dumbing-down" scandal that saw a course's pass mark drop to just 21 per cent are among a wealth of stories unearthed through the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act in recent years.

These examples of the ways that journalists, campaigners and others have used the Act to scrutinise the higher education sector are cited in a recent report by the Campaign for Freedom of Information.

The study, which lists 1,000 examples of the Act's use across the public sector, aims to show evidence in support of the controversial legislation.

Its publication follows an editorial in Times Higher Education last month in which the University of Warwick's registrar Jon F. Baldwin argued that universities should be exempt from FoI law, a move he said could save the sector about £5 million a year.

Stating that many of the requests received were from companies aiming to achieve some commercial advantage by gathering information to help their own supply bids, he added that "bad requests run in parallel with the simply mad".

"If the question suggests that the university is part of some vast international conspiracy, or makes some other equivalent assertion, you can be pretty sure that the questioner will choose to clothe their inquiry with the full glory of the FoI process," he said.

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, accused Mr Baldwin of reverting to the "common practice of saying, 'we are the exception'".

"This idea that universities are such well-regulated, exemplary organisations that there's no need for FoI, or that they are uniquely sensitive or vulnerable to being damaged by the release of information, is one that can be argued by every sector.

"They all say that freedom of information is a good thing, but not really appropriate for us," he said.

"Mr Baldwin asks what vital new areas of knowledge FoI requests have unlocked, but it's not the purpose of FoI to make new research discoveries - that is the purpose of universities. He says FoI undermines the whole idea of universities being independent, self-governing organisations, but how does it undermine that principle? Accountability is not inimical to independence and self-governance."

Among the examples cited in the Campaign for Freedom of Information report is a Times Higher Education story four years ago on De Montfort University. The university gave passes to pharmacy students who had received marks as low as 21 per cent, prompting allegations of dumbing down.

Another story revealed a funding council list of 43 institutions that had been deemed to be at risk of financial failure between 1998 and 2003, while other stories focused on cheating and plagiarism.

One FoI investigation in Scotland showed that, between 2002 and 2006, 700 students were found to have downloaded inappropriate material, including pornography, using IT equipment belonging to their institution, while another report revealed that nine managers at the University of Ulster had accepted Rolex watches as gifts from a Saudi firm.

David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology at University College London and the author of an outspoken science blog, described the FoI Act as a rare step towards increasing democracy and one that should be preserved rather than eroded.

He said: "If there are genuine commercial reasons then (universities are) exempt already, but in my experience the commercial exemption is often claimed by universities when the real reason is simple embarrassment.

"As universities become increasingly run by managers rather than academics, the PR ethos becomes more predominant and the need for FoI increases, not decreases," said Professor Colquhoun.

Jamie Grace, associate lecturer in law at the University of Derby, was also adamant that universities should be subject to scrutiny through the FoI Act.

"The university sector in the UK has had research in many disciplines, most notably social sciences, greatly enhanced by FoI.

"If it is facts and figures you're after from a public-sector organisation, often there is no better tool for the researcher than a well-placed FoI request.

"The FoI legislation is principally in place to ensure transparency and accountability in public-sector spending," he said.


Higher education stories uncovered through the Freedom of Information Act:

If "inappropriate use of foodstuffs" means food fights and having "unauthorised guests" means sneaking a boyfriend or girlfriend past the duty porter, students at the University of St Andrews are probably behaving in an entirely predictable fashion. But that did not stop the university fining 77 of them in a year for these and other offences.

The whereabouts of international students at the University of York was put under the spotlight in 2007 by the revelation that 43 had gone missing over a three-year period.

The university said they did not know if the students had left the country, but said that the problem of overseas students dropping out without informing their university was a nationwide problem.

The scale of cheating and plagiarism among university students has been a regular focus of newspaper stories based on information released under the FoI Act. The most recent found that London Metropolitan University had caught the highest number of cheats last year, with 65 students caught cheating in exams and 801 caught plagiarising, while the University of Westminster and London South Bank University were second and third.

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