FOI Man examines a news story that appears to use FOI responses and other information in a misleading way.
Today’s Times Higher Education magazine includes a story with the headline:
One of my other hats at work, alongside FOI, data protection and copyright, is dealing with student complaints. So this story caught my eye. A story featuring FOI and complaints. Imagine my excitement!
The article claims that “Universities are declaring only a fraction of the student complaints made against them, figures show, prompting accusations that they are deliberately minimising the figures.” It explains – correctly – that universities are expected to issue a completion of procedures letter when a student has exhausted the internal procedures of the institution. This letter sets out the university’s position on the complaint or appeal and gives the student instructions as to how they can take their complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, commonly known as the OIA.
Each year the OIA collects and publishes the numbers of completion of procedures letters issued by each university. The article in THE then goes on to explain that through making FOI requests to universities, they had found that the letters were sent only to a “handful” of students who had made unsuccessful appeals or complaints. In other words, the numbers of reported completion of procedures letters were much smaller than the numbers of complaints and appeals that had been rejected by universities. The universities concerned explained the difference. Quite rightly, and in line with OIA rules, the letters are only sent to students who exhaust all internal procedures. So if a student chooses not to appeal a decision internally (which could be for many reasons – including that they were persuaded that their case had no merit), they won’t receive such a letter.
And of course, universities haven’t tried to hide the number of complaints and appeals. The numbers were released when asked for under FOI.
What this story boils down to is that the number of completion of procedures letters is not representative of the number of complaints and appeals made to universities. That’s not exactly news, folks. That’s not to say that universities don’t get these issues wrong. But it isn’t possible to conclude that from the evidence described.
This isn’t a particularly important or high profile story, but I think it illustrates why some public employees and politicians get irritated with FOI – because too often the facts released are used in misleading ways.