Freedom of Information and Universities

AuthorGabrielle Bourke,Ben Worthy
DOI10.1111/j.2041-9066.2012.00107.x
Publication Date01 September 2012
SubjectFeature
The Impact on Universities
The main aim of FOI is to make bodies more
‘open’ and transparent, with many other
benef‌its hoping to f‌low from this including
improved record-keeping. FOI is seen very
much as an ‘add-on’ by universities, who
already strive to attract students by publish-
ing a great deal of information about them-
selves, such as course and fees information,
Freedom of Information
and Universities
The full provisions of the Freedom of
Information Act 2000 came into force
in the UK in 2005. The FOI Act cov-
ers 100,000 different public bodies, from
central and local government to hospitals,
schools and universities. Coverage of
universities has been the subject of much
debate since 2009, when the so-called
‘climate-gate’ scandal exposed evidence of
apparent attempts to evade FOI requests at
the University of East Anglia.
The application of FOI to universities
remains controversial but what difference
has FOI made to how universities work?
What has the act achieved? How has FOI
changed university life?
At the centre of every Freedom of Infor-
mation law is the right to ask for informa-
tion, subject to certain restrictions (called
exemptions) and an external appeals system
in the shape of a commissioner, tribunal or
the courts. This article is based on f‌indings
from a project looking at the impact of FOI
on universities, and is based on interviews,
survey data, coding of logs of FOI requests
and evidence from other inquiries.
Although there have been few requests
for research, the impact of FOI has been
felt in universities. The Act has increased
transparency in particular areas, most
notably with regards to salaries, contracts
and human resources issues. It has had
less effect on records or teaching. By far
the biggest worry is the possible effect on
research. Those we spoke to were divided
over whether it had affected how or if re-
search is undertaken. This was made more
complicated by disagreement over how
robust existing protections are and the fact
that FOI requests for research information
are often for topics that are already con-
troversial. There is also concern about the
effects of competition in the future as the
university landscape changes.
The Freedom of Information Act has forced universities to become more transparent. While the effect of FOI
on research remains to be seen, the new spirit of openness is already causing tension within the academy. Ben
Worthy and Gabrielle Bourke report.
Who Uses FOI?
Making an FOI request is designed to be a relatively straightforward process. An applicant applies
by asking a question of the institution via email or in writing and does not need to mention the Act
itself. Each applicant must be responded to, whether it is granted, refused or more time is needed,
within 20 days. FOI is ‘requester blind’, meaning the identity of the requester is protected – conse-
quently, little is known about who uses FOI and why. Patterns elsewhere, in local government in par-
ticular, show that people often use FOI for matters of personal importance or ‘mini-political’ issues
rather than high-prole matters. It is much more a tool for getting hold of ‘everyday’ information.
This same pattern can be seen with universities.
FOI rights overlap with many other ‘access’ rights. Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs)
serve a similar function for environmental information (broadly dened); while the Data Protection
Act controls access to personal data. Personal data is exempt from disclosure to third parties under
the FOI Act, so individuals seeking access to their personal data must apply under the Data Protec-
tion Act.
Our research (see Table 1) sought to outline broadly which groups used FOI to access HE institu-
tions. Frequent users of the Act include a small group of journalists, often from specialist publica-
tions; businesses looking for useful information; current students and sta; and a small number of
ex-students and sta. Users we spoke to found FOI to be a useful tool for accessing statistics and raw
data, though they expressed unhappiness with resistance to requests within universities.
TABLE 1 Most common types of requester to universities, 2008–2011 (per cent)
Type of FOI and EIR requester 2008 2009 2010 2011 Average
Public 22 31 33 31 30
Journalist 29 21 48 29 30
Sta, researcher, student from other institution 16 10 8 10 10
Commercial organisation 11 12 5 6 9
NGO/campaign group 5 9 0 6 6
student satisfaction data, and employment
and salary outcomes of graduates. From
2012, universities will also publish stand-
ardised Key Information Sets (KIS).
Thus FOI only ‘opens up’ particular areas
that are not already open. Transparency
via FOI affected a small number of areas,
primarily details of staff salaries or f‌inancial
decision-making information not provided
previously.
19September 2012

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