Tag Archive for Higher Education

Is FOI reform a two-way street? Public funding and FOI

On Friday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, gave a speech on civil liberties which included significant proposals on reform of FOI. The Ministry of Justice simultaneously published more details on their website. One of the most widely expected, but still important, announcements concerned adding to the list of bodies currently covered by FOI.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the higher education admissions service (UCAS) and the Financial Ombudsman service had already been consulted on becoming FOIable (to coin a word), and the necessary statutory instrument will be drawn up in short order. A much longer list of public authorities will now be consulted on joining this far from select band. In addition, bodies jointly funded by public authorities will no longer be able to escape the widening bounds of the Act.

So what is the justification for bodies becoming subject to FOI? It is common for people to say that if bodies receive public funding, they should be open to public scrutiny. Many, if not all, of the bodies proposed for inclusion will fall into this category.

So should it be a two-way street? What if bodies lose public funding? Does that mean that they should be removed from FOI?

Higher education is an example. And to some, quite a persuasive one. Even before the recent cuts, some leading figures in universities were pointing out that most of their funding does not come from the Government. The Registrar of the University of Warwick, speaking on Radio 4’s You and Your’s in October 2010, pointed out that only 25% of that university’s funding came from the public purse (and this is not an unusual figure). How much greater the argument for removing universities from FOI when many will soon receive much less, especially those which do not offer science courses.

The Government would probably argue that despite a reduction in public money, higher education institutions will still receive some government funding. And they have been very careful with their language in making these latest announcements. Mr Clegg’s words on the subject were:

“if an organisation’s behaviour and decisions have clear consequences for the public good, people must be able to see right into the heart of them.”

And the MOJ announcement talks about “public bodies which perform functions of a public nature”. Given this, I think it’s highly unlikely that the Government will seriously consider removing universities and other higher education institutions from FOI.

That said, with a Government keen to move many public functions outside of the public purse and into the ‘Big Society’, I wonder if we will hear more calls for FOI reform in the other direction.

Barmy FOI requests

FOI Officers working in higher education have this week been bombarded by a series of FOI requests which looked remarkably similar but came from separate email addresses and were signed off with different names. The questions (three or four of which were in each email) were very long and rambling, but basically all related to the governance of Student Unions under the Education Act 1994.

It was clear that the requests were from one organisation, even if not the same person, and further research confirmed the likelihood of this.

In practice, whilst the requests are rather rambling, some of the information should be reasonably easy for universities to pull together. If it doesn’t prove that easy, there is enough evidence in the requests to support aggregation of the requests and refusal on grounds of cost should the cost of locating and retrieving the information requested in all four be more than £450 (requests can be aggregated if they’re from a campaign as well as if they’re from an individual).

But why send four or five requests when you can send one? Why pretend to be several people when it’s likely these were all written by one person (and why make such a rubbish pretence that you’re not the same person/organisation)? The questions could have been sent in one request (and made rather more succinct). My guess is that the requesters don’t understand the way the fees regulations work and are trying to bypass them.

In practice, all they’ve achieved is the irritation of every Higher Education FOI Officer in the country.  Perhaps they should be directed to my ten top tips for making responsible FOI requests!