The higher education freedom of information dilemma

During the past academic year, my university received 294 information requests under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Of these, 60 requests came from journalists or journalism students (the latter often given this as a task by their lecturers). Others came from a variety of people or organisation whose reasons for asking were not always clear. But significantly, 20 per cent of the requests came from companies or commercial organisations seeking information to assist them in putting business propositions to the university. Answering these requests took up 1.6 hours on average for each request – leading to a total in aggregate of six working weeks.

I bring this up because the Herald newspaper has reported that Scotland’s universities would like to be exempted from this particular burden, in line with a call to this effect made by Universities UK. In the Scottish context Universities Scotland is reported as saying:

‘Scotland’s HEIs are committed to transparency, which is guaranteed through the Scottish Code of Good HE Governance and many other regulatory requirements. However, they would welcome the removal of FoI obligations, which impose a very high administrative burden on institutions and, consequently, the diversion of resources away from core educational and research activity.’

It is of course a sensitive issue. Journalists’ investigations have revealed some uncomfortable stories from higher education, and freedom of information is an important journalistic tool. I suspect most university heads would agree with that. But is it our duty to spend public money on providing information to private companies wanting to business with us? Is it our duty to allocate serious staff time to queries which are unconnected with any public interest issues?

Its is, I suspect, inconceivable that the universities will be removed from the freedom of information framework. However, it is important that freedom of information is exercised in a way calculated to assure the general public that high standards of ethics and probity are employed in higher education, while not drowning the institutions in a sea of bureaucracy, staff time and costs. The time is right to review the system.

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6 Comments on “The higher education freedom of information dilemma”

  1. Let’s review the FOI Act by all means. But let’s also not exaggerate the burden or minimise the gains. Most FOI requests are handled very quickly indeed; when I was a DP, my university pre-empted many potential requests by putting information on our website, so that we could simply point queries towards the relevant page. Much of the information requested by journalists and other specialists (including higher education researchers) is material that the university should already have to hand, and probably have discussed. So far so simple.

    You are right about private companies using the legislation to pursue their commercial interests. Sometimes they do so in ways that the legislation was not intended to permit, and the HEI in those circumstances can legitimately refuse to release the information. These are the cases that in my experience tend to consume time.

    On the other hand, some universities simply ignore FOI requests. The Times Higher recently published a list of those who had refused to answer a simple and reasonable request, and it didn’t make for happy reading. Transparency is part of the price that universities have to pay for being publicly funded institutions, and I very much hope that it stays that way.

  2. Vince Says:

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to create a special category. And since you cannot allow open access to your files you simply will have to suck it up and factor it into your budget. And for what it’s worth, if I were you I’d open a special office for since England started charging fees this can only get larger. In fact don’t be shocked when Which gets their teeth into you.

  3. paulmartin42 Says:

    1.6 Hours per request seems very little …

  4. cormac Says:

    Unfortunately, FOI procedures can certainly be misused.
    In recent years, some climate skeptics have taken to bombarding the institutions of well-known climate research groups with FOI requests. These requests are not motivated by an honest desire for information, but by a desire to cause time delays and irritation.
    And it works – college administrators and heads of departments are often not sure how to deal with such requests, and put time and effort trying to organise a response in good faith.
    I had heard about this phenomenon a few years ago in the US, and was surprised to experience it myself last year – despite the fact that my research group don’t do any research in the area of climate science.

  5. Jeremy Says:

    Transparency in a civil society is of vital importance … I hope the journalists get what they are seeking.

  6. Dr Iain Biggs Says:

    While it’s easy to understand the frustration and cost of dealing with business requests presented in this way, it’s vital not to underestimate the importance of ensuring that the the university sector is not allowed to ‘hide’ vital information from either public spirited researchers, journalists, or others. There are an increasing number who have started to question the way in which academic researchers in areas like medicine and psychiatry have become deeply complicit in anti-social activities such as supporting punitive government legislation. That’s to say legislation designed to make the lives of the poorest citizens and those with chronic health problems even more difficult than they already are. We now know, for example, that the Camelford water poisoning was just that, yet at the time one academic, now holding possibly the most senior UK position in his profession, when out of his way to use his authority to support the official line that there had been no wrong-doing. We have finally received an unreserved government apology for that cover-up, but the academic involved – who has sided with the status quo to dismiss the seriousness of ‘gulf war syndrome’ and other contested forms of illness, continues to enjoy the fruits of his complicity. It’s this that freedom of information requests should, in a responsible society, enable us to address and even prevent.

    That this remains very much a current issue has been made clear by Prof. James Coyne’s efforts to obtain data relating to the PACE trial, a piece of research that was hailed by the medical and psychiatric establishment and journals at the time as outstanding, but is now heavily disputed on account of its poor science and major conflicts of interest of some of its authors. Significantly, the universities where these researchers work have tried to block access to the data because of possible links between the request (made by a senior academic with relevant research interests and in good faith) to a situation in which they feared that their researcher might suffer ‘repetitional damage’. Given the money generated through research grants to pursue what is increasing understood to be an irrelevant and even harmful line of ‘post-PACE’ research, their refusal is understandable but no less deplorable.

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