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Universities are open and transparent – the FOI Act just needs updating

Nicola Dandridge

Nicola Dandridge

Former Chief Executive
Universities UK
Documentation in files

In recent discussions about the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, there have been suggestions that universities want to limit the amount of information they make available to the public.

The debate has been sparked by a recent review of the FOI Act. The Government announced a Freedom of Information Commission last year to look at how the Act impacts on government departments and public bodies. Universities were invited to feed in to this review.

Some of the media coverage has suggested that universities would like to limit the public’s right to know in order to hide “bumper cash deals for a number of university leaders”. The inference from the general commentary is that universities want to make less information about universities available to the public. This is far from the truth.

Universities are not arguing that they should make less information publicly available. On the contrary, they are absolutely committed to the overall aims of the FOI legislation: openness and transparency.

What we are calling for is for universities to continue to make information available, while allowing for appropriate and common-sense exemptions.

One of the most transparent sectors

The reality is that higher education is already one of the most transparent sectors; universities are heavily regulated already in terms of the information that they have to disclose, under requirements that are quite separate to the FOI Act.

Universities have a legal duty to disclose a range of public information via the Higher Education Statistics Agency, higher education funding councils and others. This results in there being comprehensive data available on all areas of universities’ activities.

As regulated charities, all universities also publish annual reports and financial statements providing a wealth of information about individual institutions’ activities.

Compared to our international competitors, universities in the UK are also at the forefront globally in terms of open access to research and research findings and working out ways in which that research can be shared in appropriate ways publicly.

If we consider the example of information about what university leaders earn, information on vice-chancellors’ salaries is included in a university’s annual report, freely available on their websites. This information is also pulled together in annual surveys, including by Times Higher Education.

What we are arguing is that, since the FOI Act came into force in 2005, the higher education sector has changed enormously. Following government reforms to the higher education sector in England, a much greater proportion of teaching funding is now coming to the sector on a competitive basis via tuition fees. This more competitive environment is now overseen by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), requiring universities to make available specific information to students and the public.

As part of these reforms, the government has also encouraged more alternative providers to enter the market.

Universities now also receive less public funding than they used to and attract funding from a range of independent sources. For universities in England, this proportion will continue to reduce as more students come through under the government’s new fees-based teaching funding system.

FOI chart 

While the FOI Act talks about requirements for ‘public bodies’ – including requirements on so-called ‘traditional universities’ that previously were directly funded by Government – ‘traditionally-funded’ universities are now operating alongside alternative providers of higher education that are not subject to FOI at all.

This highlights that all providers of higher education are now not subject to the same regulations and that there is not a level playing field. It shows also that the FOI Act has been overtaken and must be amended to reflect the changing nature of universities.

Universities recognise there is a continuing public investment in higher education institutions that requires appropriate levels of transparency and accountability. There is concern, however, that universities are having to spend increasing amounts of money complying with all elements of the FOI Act. Yet the Act does not take into account the changing nature of universities and the growing amount of information universities already make public.

Government’s own estimate, possibly now out of date, is that it costs the university sector £10 million a year to comply with all elements of the FOI Act. The increase in volume of FOI requests to universities – including duplicated requests and requests for information already publicly available – is now putting a serious financial and bureaucratic burden on universities.

With students now making more of a direct, personal contribution towards the cost of their higher education, they – and also, sometimes, their parents – may ask whether some of this money could be better spent on more lecturers and better facilities.

£10 million would cover the cost of employing approximately an extra 200 lecturers across the university sector (based on the average salary for higher education teaching professionals). Or it could cover bursary support to help around 6,700 disadvantaged students.

The suggestion to review the application of the FOI Act in relation to universities was included in the government’s higher education green paper published last year. It suggested that some higher education institutions could be given appropriate FOI protections “in the interest of students and the wider public”. It is good that this is now being looked at.

To sum up, what university leaders would like to see is a full review of the operation of the FOI Act as it relates to universities to ensure that the application is appropriate, but also that there is a level playing field.

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