The UK’s elite universities have written to the Government to ask they be “exempted” from providing information under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act (2000).
Established in July, the Independent FoI Commission has been considering the balance between “transparency, accountability, and the need for sensitive information to be protected.”
The Government also added: “It [the Commission] is also looking at whether the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for government to develop and implement policy and provide frank advice to ministers.”
Now, though, after gathering around 30,000 submissions of evidence from groups and organisations from all over the country, the Russell Group of universities, along with the University of Cambridge’s 31 colleges, have highlighted why they should be excluded.
In a letter to Lord Burns, chairman of the Commission, the Russell Group’s director of policy, Dr Tim Bradshaw, said the FoI requirement has created a “competitive imbalance in the UK higher education market and increasingly burdensome reporting requirements for our universities.”
Highlighting the “cost burden,” he wrote: “The number of FoI requests submitted to our universities has more than doubled since 2010, from 3,314 to over 7,000 annually.
Read the full letter from the Russell Group (page 29):
“We have calculated the average cost to our universities to process FoI requests is £155 per request. Using this estimate, the cost of processing FoI requests to Russell Group universities has grown from £514,000 in 2010 to £1.1 million in 2014.”
Making reference to the Government’s latest green paper, universities and other publicly-supported higher education providers, he added, are “increasingly supported by private financing and are effectively not public bodies for the purposes of FoI.”
The group of Cambridge colleges also cited reasons of “excessive financial burden” as to why they wish to be exempted. In his letter to Lord Burns, Dr Matthew Russell - head of the office of intercollegiate services for the colleges - highlighted how the annual cost of responding to FoI requests sits at £450,000. He said: “In each of the previous two years, the colleges together received rather over 1,000 requests.” When broken down, this would mean Cambridge spends £450 per FoI request - triple that of the Russell Group.
Then, in a paragraph the Press Gazette has described as being “contradictory” - because “most university funding comes from government-administered and subsidised student loans” - Dr Russell continues: “The colleges receive no public funds. They receive student fees which, in the case of most undergraduates, are paid from student loans funded from the public purse. However, those fees are to pay for the education of students.”
Read the full letter from the colleges in the University of Cambridge (page 152):
Dr Russell insisted the colleges already publish “a great deal of information” on their websites, and have been encouraged to do so by the Act. However, he said they are often faced with detailed questions, such as student admissions-related ones, and said: “The answers to [these] cannot be given by reference to published material but require substantial work to derive.”
9 things we only know because of the Freedom of Information Act
9 things we only know because of the Freedom of Information Act
1/8 Hinkley B
Working for the Stop Hinkley campaign group, nuclear engineer John Large analysed papers that revealed cracks in the graphite bricks that are part of the nuclear reactor’s core.
BBC Radio 5 Live obtained figures from the Home Office Taser database which showed that more than 400 children had Tasers drawn on them in 2013 – 38 per cent higher than 2012.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
3/8 Incinerated foetuses
The Sunday Times reported that British hospitals, including Addenbrookes in Cambridge, incinerated miscarried and aborted foetuses as clinical waste.
4/8 Sir Cyril Smith
An investigation by the Manchester Evening News uncovered secret files showing how the late Liberal MP confronted police at Rochdale police station and tried to dissuade them from investigating claims that he had been sexually abusing young boys. This was one of countless examples of the local and regional press using FoI to great investigative effect.
5/8 Afghan civilian victims
A series of FoI requests by The Guardian and Channel 4 have resulted in the emergence of information that would otherwise have remained secret about British troops’ alleged involvement in the killing or wounding of around 100 Afghan civilians. Much of the information related to compensation paid by the MoD to victims’ families.
6/8 Michael Gove
A long-running battle in 2011 and 2012, between journalists and the Department for Education, culminated in the resignation of an aide to Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings, in 2013. The DfE had been criticised over the use of private email accounts for departmental business, an obstructive approach to Freedom of Information requests, and aggressive communications to journalists.
7/8 Black spider memos
A long-running legal battle, relating to claims of royal and ministerial exemption from FoI, culminated in the publication this year of correspondence in which the Prince of Wales lobbied ministers on subjects ranging from homeopathy to the Patagonian tooth fish.
8/8 MPs’ expenses
The publication by The Daily Telegraph in June and July 2009 of leaked details of MPs’ expenses was the last, spectacular act in an investigative saga that began in 2005 with two separate FoI requests by the journalists Heather Brooke and Jon Ungoed-Thomas.
He also hit out at requests the colleges receive which are “plainly commercially driven,” and seek information “likely to be sold on for commercial gain.” He added: “The colleges have received many requests from journalists seeking to have their work done for them at the expense of the college.”
In conclusion, Russell Group recommended universities be exempted from the Act to address “the market imbalance that has been created, to recognise the cost burden has grown unreasonably and, critically, to reflect universities are not public bodies.”
After suggesting a £10-per-request charge for any requests - similar to that of the Data Protection Act (1998) - the Cambridge colleges’ letter rounded-off by saying the FoI Act should be restricted to “government departments, local authorities, and similar bodies,” but then added: “The colleges, in any event, should be outside the scope of the Act, being charities not in receipt of public funds.”
Speaking with The Telegraph, however, Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden, David Davis, who supports FoI requests, described the aforementioned letters as being “a return to a pre-FoI dark ages.”
He told the site: “These people have to remember they are public servants. If you are a public servant you have to accept you are subject to public scrutiny.”