The Imperfect University: Free Information?

Freedom of Information costs. But does anyone really benefit?

TIU

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

These are the words Tony Blair addresses to himself in his memoirs while reflecting on his government’s introduction of the Freedom of Information Act as noted in this BBC report.

Last year Times Higher Education ran a story suggesting that the average cost of FoI compliance equals £121 per request:

A study into the costs of answering Freedom of Information enquiries suggests that less than £10 million was spent across the sector last year.

When the House of Commons Justice Committee called for evidence on the effectiveness of the FoI Act, 23 universities submitted evidence, of which 18 complained about the cost burden, among other concerns.

But Jisc, the UK’s expert body on information and digital technology in higher education, tracked 36 requests in seven institutions and found that the average cost, including staff time, of answering an FoI request was £121.

According to Universities UK, higher education institutions received on average 10.1 requests a month in 2011. This equates to an average annual cost of £14,665, which across the sector’s 155 institutions adds up to £2.3 million a year.

I have to say this looks to be something of an underestimate. I asked my colleague in the University’s Governance team which deals with FoI for data for the past couple of years. The data and some examples of requests is set out below. Before we get there though you might wish to refresh your memory with a glance at the ICO guidance – it is 10 page (yes, 10 pages) definition document of what is expected to be published by universities and colleges and covers everything from staff expenses to tender procedures to CCTV locations.

logoDuring the period from 1st January 2011 to December 2012, the University of Nottingham responded to 370 Freedom of Information requests. In 24% of cases, requests resulted in non-disclosure either because the University applied an exemption successfully, defended a position of ‘over the appropriate time limit’ or the information was not held. 27% of requests received a partial disclosure of information. 49% of requests resulted in the requester being entitled to all of the information requested. Whilst we remain ‘purpose blind’ it is self-evident that the majority of requesters continue to be looking for material for journalistic purposes.

Of the 182 (49%) of requests with full responses requests were themed as follows:

Statistics  88
Supplier and contract details  35
Financial figures  25
Policies 21
Communication 2; a total of 7 emails and 1
letter were disclosed
University structure 6
Role profiles 2
Recruitment timeline 1
Research grants 1
Vice-Chancellor’s external roles 1

Supplier and contract details
We receive a large number of requests asking for details of contract agreements in place. In the main these are from competitors. Whilst these requests are an inconvenience there is no applicable exemption to this information as the ICO have made it clear that they do not consider such information commercially sensitive. The data is readily to
hand therefore significant management time is not accrued.
Financial figures
The majority of requests under this category concern library fines, IT costs, legal fees and expenses. We have received individual requests on a small number of issues including costs of artwork, car parking fees, accommodation fees and funding. This information was not considered commercially sensitive and was therefore released to the requestors.
Applied Exemptions
The most common exemption applied, particularly under partially disclosed requests, is personal data. In the main these requests concerned statistics which were so detailed and/or sensitive that disclosing the information would risk unreasonable identification of individuals.

The following exemptions have been applied, either to whole requests or partially:

Commercial interests 10
Personal Data 62
Information already published 18
Information not held 13
Legal professional privilege 1
National security 4
Intended for future publication 2
Vexatious 4

Some of those specific requests over this two year period:

  • Statistics for disciplinary actions taken against students 2010 – present
  • Statistics for Welsh domicile students
  • Student parking fines
  • University investments
  • Server Hardware Maintenance and Software Licensing Contracts
  • the number of UG Taught and PG programmes 12/13 and 11/12 that did not enrol any students
  • Number of students employed in University catering and library departments
  • Amount paid out in hardship funds over last 3 years
  • University Employee Statistics
  • FOI

  • Statistics for research staff recruitment
  • Information and statistics on student bursaries
  • Information on Microscopes Tender
  • Internet traffic
  • Statistics on parking fines issued
  • Statistics for Physics applicants
  • Information and figures relating to Common Purpose
  • Payments from the Pharmaceutical Industry
  • Statistics on changing employment patterns in the public sector
  • Information on admissions cycle for A100 Medicine Course
  • Information on English classes, student figures and fee income
  • Information on research sabbaticals
  • Information on PhD qualifications of staff
  • Information relating to the University’s parking contract
  • Statistics for students failing first year exams
  • Statistics on student housing
  • Information and statistics on student bursaries
  • Information relating to clinical trials
  • Information on Mobile Phone Contracts

Is it worth it? I am dubious. Essentially we spend a great deal of time and effort and public money responding to this stuff and I struggle to see the benefit for anyone, including the requestors. This list also doesn’t include my personal favourite of all dumb FOI requests received (it was before 2011): a request for data on reported hauntings in university buildings. Not quite as bad as the Leicester City Council zombie attack readiness request but still pretty daft. And no matter how silly or pointless such requests may be we have to treat them all equally seriously.

Back to Blair. He claims that FoI is not used, for the most part, by “the people”, but by journalists. His view is that “For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet.” It sometimes feels a bit like that in universities too.

(With thanks to Sam Potter for providing the University of Nottingham material included here.)

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10 thoughts on “The Imperfect University: Free Information?

  1. This is a thoughtful and informative response to what must be a challenging task of overseeing Nottingham’s responsibilities under the FOI legislation. Clearly the legislation has imposed new costs on universities, as on other public bodies. And inevitably, this money could have been put to other purposes. It’s probably time that the legislation was reviewed, and possibly amended if necessary. I would not, though, support any proposal from the government of the day to water this legislation down.

    I’ll declare an interest. I occasionally use the legislation to obtain information for my research. Some of this is information that should in fact have been published, but the body concerned has not yet got round to it. Some if it is information that the organisation would prefer didn’t see the light of day. Perhaps I could choose to publish on the basis of the information that is made available, and be very precise about why my data about – say – Scottish universities or local authorities is incomplete. But I would lose out if the legislation did not exist, or if it did not apply to universities, so I have a stake in ensuring that it continues.

    And I recognise that the law is open to possible abuse. My own university has fought a bitter case to defend the right of researchers to maintain confidentiality of their data, in a case where a commercial interest group tried to get hold of the original data showing how particular interventions might affect levels of smoking. For the time being, we have won the case, but of course big corporations can fund endless law cases where it suits them, and universities can not fund endless defences of their researchers.

    All the same, the case for maintaining the current law seems to me a pretty strong one. Public bodies should be held to public account, and open information is an important part of the process. I don’t mind journalists using the law to obtain information from public bodies. My gripe is against journalists who prefer opinion and hearsay to evidence, or who fail to meet their own professional standards when it comes to analysing and evaluating evidence. I’m also struck by the inequity of subjecting public bodies to high moral standards underpinned by open access to information, while applying no such standards or scrutiny to large private interests, but that is another matter.

  2. I’m intrigued, what were the national security exemptions?

    It does strike me that they are mostly for journalistic purposes, although that does seem to be one of the selling points of the act – forcing transparency – albeit I wouldn’t say Nottingham needs it!

  3. Two questions for you:

    1) 10 years on from the start of the Iraq War, do you really think it lends credibility to your argument to be quoting Tony Blair, who has clearly been exposed as selling it to the public on a false prospectus?

    2) You have said that you “struggle to see the benefit for anyone”. Is there not a single request where responding to it has led to beneficial changes or cost saving in relation to a particular university activity? As much as you might think the information is useless to the requester, if the institution doesn’t seek to benefit from the resources deployed, time spent and costs incurred in operating the Act, don’t we have to also ask why that is the case?

  4. In my professional life I have occasionally been frustrated by the odd vexatious FOI request, which have included students (mostly from other universities) submitting FOI enquiries as a method of “Research”. Yet on the whole, FOI provides an important mechanism for keeping institutions accountable, and encouraging transparent and fair decision making.

    Now I’m a student again, I am surprised that Nottingham’s FOI list doesn’t include any enquiry into grading consistency. My cohort have expressed concerns that grading is not consistent. Ask some professors how to achieve a distinction and they openly reply “Oh we don’t usually grade that high”. According to the Quality Manual, all Schools are required to have written marking criteria across the full range of marks available (0-100). However many academics set a marking cap at 75 or even lower.

    Feedback submitted through the LRFs simply results in a stone-walling response; the schools close ranks, and cite “normal distribution” ranges. With little other route of recourse, it would not be surprising if students use FOI to gain evidence to highlight such concerns, of which the senior leadership might be blissfully unaware. And such a request – if made – may ideed result in benefit to the institution and its members.

  5. Reblogged this on Registrarism and commented:

    Revisiting this earlier post In the light of the fact that the University of Nottingham has received 50 FOI requests in November and 258 so far in 2013 versus 182 for the whole of 2012. And one of those is an FOI request asking for the number of FOI requests received…

    • Did your response to the request to know the number of requests include as a datum the response itself? This gets straight into Bertrand Russell’s paradoxes about set theory, which isn’t a bad place to be. Perhaps some second-order benefits of FoI exist after all?

  6. Pingback: By not very popular demand: it’s the top Registrarism posts of 2013 | Registrarism

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