Wolverhampton under fire on ‘secret’ behind league table refusal

University appeals ICO notice to publish report on refusal to take part in league tables

May 15, 2017
looking through a gap
Source: Alamy

A UK university has come under fire for refusing to disclose the reasons why it withholds data on which domestic league tables are based.

The University of Wolverhampton was told by the Information Commissioner's Office earlier this year to publish, in unredacted form, a report from its vice-chancellor that sets out the conditions that would need to be met before it re-entered domestic university league tables published by newspapers and other organisations.

The ruling came a year after the institution rejected a Freedom of Information request for the information, on the grounds that the report was commercially sensitive. The FoI request was made by David Jobbins, media adviser to The Complete University Guide, who said he made the request as an individual.

Following the rejection of the original request, Mr Jobbins lodged a complaint with the ICO, which led to a redacted version of the report being made available in August. But this was insufficient to satisfy Mr Jobbins. The university has appealed the decision to force it to publish the report.

The decision could have wider implications for other UK universities claiming confidentiality in response to FoI requests.  

Wolverhampton refuses to authorise the Higher Education Statistics Agency to release official data on the institution that would be used to include the university in domestic league tables, according to The Complete University Guide.

Critics of such league tables argue that by including average entry tariffs among their criteria, they are slanted against universities that recruit higher proportions of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A statement on Wolverhampton's website argues that national rankings “disadvantage universities such as Wolverhampton as they are constructed using a methodology that does not accurately reflect the positive impact we make upon the communities we serve or represent a fair picture of our strengths”.

Wolverhampton argued that disclosure of the information “could contribute to rumour, speculation and inaccurate public debate which would be of harm to the university and its students”, according to the ICO. 

The institution added that it would publish the full report at some stage in the future, but disclosing the information now may “reduce the number of students applying to it”, “negatively impact on its reputation” and “harm the university in a competitive market”.

However, the ICO said that the arguments put forward by the university failed to show that disclosing the information would result in prejudice to its commercial interest.

The report at the centre of the case relates to a document presented by Wolverhampton's vice-chancellor, Geoff Layer, to the university’s board of governors and academic board in 2015.

Minutes from one of the meetings confirmed the university’s intention to re-enter league tables at an appropriate time to be specified by the vice-chancellor based on its estimated re-entry position, but do not reveal any further details.

The university, which was last rated 113 out of 119 UK universities in The Times ranking in 2009, the last year in which it appeared in league tables, confirmed that it is in the process of appealing the decision but declined to comment further.

Mr Jobbins said the university’s argument applies to many other institutions that do take part in rankings and “would-be applicants are entitled to ask why Wolverhampton is excluded”.

Wolverhampton is the only university not to have featured in his organisation’s 2018 league table, he added.

“The report by the vice-chancellor gives what the university regards as confidential reasons for its stance, but I think that prospective students have a right to know what its so-far-secret strategy is,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

In English, one appeals "against" a decision: please do not adopt American usage.
Aren't there more important things in the world to be concerned with?
Ellie Bothwell has written her piece for the leading U.K. journal dealing with Higher Education. English practice ought to be her guide here.

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