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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Freedom of Information Requests to UK Universities

A new website offers help with FOI requests

Reports are compiled by sending the same FOI request to all 125 UK universities and tabulating the responses. These are a useful way of highlighting aspects of a university which differ from the majority or examining key features of the higher education system. If you have a suggestion for a topic that you would like us to research please e-mail details…

With thanks to everyone who has told me about the AcademicFOI.Com site .

“Universities are crumbling”…

…according to a “secret database”

The Guardian claims a bit of a scoop following a Freedom of Information request on building conditions in universities:

Scores of university halls of residences and lecture theatres in the UK were judged “at serious risk of major failure or breakdown” and “unfit for purpose”, a secret database obtained after a legal battle by the Guardian reveals. Some of the most popular, high-ranking institutions, such as the London School of Economics, had 41% of their lecture theatres and classrooms deemed unsuitable for current use, while Imperial ­College London had 12% of its non-residential buildings branded “inoperable”. At City University, 41% of the student digs were judged unfit for purpose. Universities argue they have spent hundreds of millions in refurbishment since the judgments were made two years ago and use some of the buildings for storage purposes only.

Large amounts have been spent on capital improvements in the last few years but the backlog, following years of underfunding and neglect, was substantial. The position will undoubtedly have improved further since the survey referred to here but it is inevitable that there will still be poor building stock around the country. So, not clear what the shock is here.

The government agency that holds the information, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), was forced to reveal it after an information tribunal ruled in the Guardian’s favour, agreeing that it was in the public’s interest for the data to be made public.

It looks like then that the difficulty of securing release of the information became the story here rather than the data itself which, whilst disappointing, is not exactly surprising.

“Plagiarism up 700%” at University of Nottingham

Slight misinterpretation of non-comparable data

According to a shocking report in Impact, which doesn’t let facts get in the way of a sensational story, plagiarism is up 700% at the University of Nottingham:

The University of Nottingham has insisted that cheating is not skyrocketing among its students, following the emergence of figures which show a significant rise in recorded plagiarism at the institution in the last five years. According to records released under the Freedom of Information Act, 280 students were caught submitting copied work in coursework last year compared to 38 in 2004: a rise of over 700%. Another 11 were found to have cheated in exams in the 2008/09 session.

The University also reported 123 second offenders caught in the last five years. Only four of the culprits were expelled, while most were allowed to continue studying after having their marks docked.

But the real issue is that the means of detecting and recording plagiarism have significantly changed and, most importantly, new software has been introduced to detect and deter plagiarism.

Citing an investment in plagiarism detection software and a change in the system for gathering plagiarism data, a spokesman for the University argued that “There is no clear evidence that plagiarism and cheating have actually increased to this extent.”

In an official statement, the University spokesman said: “In 2006 the university invested in plagiarism detection software to assist our academics. This accounts in part for a noticeable rise in cases detected and proven.

“It is impossible to attempt to extrapolate increases or draw any conclusions from the limited and non-comparable data currently available in relation to plagiarism. Direct comparison is unreliable since the information held by schools within the University from before 2006 is incomplete.”

All absolutely correct. Several of the comments which follow the article also acknowledge the University position and offer a helpful critique of the piece which, far from being a serious piece of investigative reporting, is in fact simply an account of the results of an FOI request. A bit like the recent report in the Sun.